By Rochelle Maruch Miller
An amazing young woman from Queens is making a real difference for the children of ALEH. Shayna Miodownik made aliyah just two months ago but has been in Israel since graduating from high school over two years ago. Shayna has spent the last 12 months as a volunteer at ALEH’s Negev facility, where she fulfilled a year of sheirut leumi. ALEH is Israel’s largest network of specialized facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities. There she worked with a variety of residents, from higher-functioning men to lower-functioning women. In this exclusive interview, Shayna shares her thoughts on making aliyah, giving back to the community, how her ALEH experience impacted her life, as well as her perspective on Israeli-Arab relations.
RMM: Shayna, describe your background.
SM: I lived in Queens until I was 17½ years old, and then spent a year in seminary in Midreshet Harova. I always knew I was going to make aliyah, so my parents knew that when I left to go to midrashah, I wasn’t going to be coming home again. After midrashah, I started sheirut leumi in ALEH-Negev, and when I finished last month, I went back to a different midrashah (Midreshet Lindenbaum), where I currently am learning. I have six brothers living in the United States, and my grandparents, cousins, and several aunts and uncles live there as well. Hopefully, they will come soon, too.
RMM: Who is your source of inspiration?
SM: I look up to a lot of people in my life but my grandmother is a big role model. She’s strong-willed and confident and constantly telling my brothers and me that we can do anything we want to. She is very Zionistic and I know that she has always wanted to make her way to Israel, and although she isn’t currently living here, she comes often to visit. Whenever I need great advice, or just someone to listen to me, I know that I can always pick up the phone and call her.
RMM: What spurred your decision to make aliyah?
SM: In ninth grade I applied to a high school in Israel (Naale Program). Aliyah was always a topic of conversation in the house, and my mom has some close relatives living in Israel whom we would go to and visit a lot. I always thought it was obvious that we would be making aliyah, and I felt that going to high school in Israel would make it easier for my parents to take the big step. I had to wait until I finished high school to make aliyah, but coming from a Zionistic family, it’s one of those things you don’t think twice about.
RMM: How have you acclimated to your new country?
SM: Thank goodness I have some great friends I made in midrashah who made aliyah as well. We became each other’s families, and going through the harder steps with them made it just that much easier. Learning a new language is not the easiest thing I have ever had to do, but I have amazingly patient friends who helped me acclimate in the best way possible. Being without my immediate family for the chagim, and trying to find a new and different place to go every Shabbat can be difficult sometimes, but I have gotten to know so many great and different people because of that. There are always a few bumps along the road, but I never feel alone, and knowing that my friends and close relatives are here to help me makes living here a lot easier.
RMM: How did you become involved with working for the greater good and particularly for ALEH?
SM: In midrashah, I had decided to do sheirut leumi because I felt it was important to give back to the country. I wanted something where I felt I would make a difference, and also a place where I would really integrate into Israeli society better. When I heard about ALEH-Negev and went down to see it, I was amazed to see that such a place existed. The day I went down to check ALEH, I hadn’t even met any of the residents, but the entire staff was extraordinarily warm and accepting. There was a great feeling in the place, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that.
RMM: Please describe your experience at ALEH, the challenges as well as the rewarding aspects.
SM: Working with the residents of ALEH can be frustrating or difficult at times. Most of the residents cannot talk, let alone walk or eat on their own, and most cannot do any of the things we take so much for granted. I worked with a group of 12 men on a day-to-day basis, and they have given me so much more than I have given them. Most of them do not talk, but we can communicate in ways I didn’t think were possible. One communicates with his eyes, and another with his hands. I began to learn to understand if they were sad, hungry, or if they just needed a walk around the kfar to let out some extra energy. Walking in every morning and hearing their excited shouts, seeing them jump out of their chairs to come and hug me, or just see those huge smiles across their faces, is an experience I would not have received anywhere else. At ALEH, you learn how to truly love people for who they are, and how to give without expecting anything back at all.
RMM: While volunteering at ALEH you worked under the supervision of an Arab woman. What can you tell us about this experience? Did it change your perspective of Israeli-Arab relations?
SM: Being supervised by an Arab woman was not like anything I have ever had to do before I got to ALEH. At first it was difficult for me to understand how to relate to her, and all of the other Arab women I was working with on a daily basis. It didn’t take me a long time to realize how special this woman was. I have never seen someone care so much about people with special needs. She worked in a house where the residents were very low-functioning women. Nur (the Arab woman), wouldn’t allow any of the residents to leave the house without their hair perfectly in order, with their perfume and clean clothes on. She treated all of the residents with the utmost of care and love and she taught me so much this year. She made sure that I also always had something to eat and a place to go. She chipped in with some other Arab women to buy me boots and socks in the winter when they realized that I had left mine in the States. In the winter, when there were Kassam rockets falling in the Negev, Nur was concerned for my safety and told me to stay in Jerusalem where it was safer. I came and slept in ALEH with Nur and all the others so that when there was a red alert we could get as many residents as possible into the bomb shelter in the ten seconds that we had. We respected each other and each other’s religions, even if we didn’t always agree on the same topic. I think I have gained a new and more open perspective on Israeli-Arab relations after working with Nur. Things can be tense often in Israel but places like ALEH can bring people of both religions together, bringing out the best in everyone working there.
RMM: What advice would you give to other young people who want to make a difference?
SM: Anyone can make a difference, but it doesn’t always have to be the kind that changes the world. Every small thing makes a difference in the overall “world.” I tried to make the lives of the residents easier and happier for the year that I worked with them. When I met the parents of the residents, they would let me know how much I was making a difference in their lives, knowing that people working at ALEH are sharing the responsibility of taking care of their children. Although I may not have made a difference on a large scale, I think even affecting one person can make a positive difference.
RMM: You’ve clearly touched the hearts and lives of the residents and staff at ALEH. How has the experience impacted your life?
SM: The residents in ALEH have taught me so many things that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else. They taught me about real joy, as the kfar is always full of smiles and laughter. If I was having a hard morning, I could walk into my group and just feel the happiness in there. The residents taught me determination as well. At ALEH’s tochnit kidum (advanced program), we try to find any way to advance the residents, from picking up a spoon, to learning how to walk for the first time. I have worked with many residents and have seen how they will work so hard to accomplish the task and never give up. ALEH is a special place made up of many special people from whom one can only learn.
RMM: What message would you like to convey to our readers?
SM: Although my work at ALEH could be considered a chesed, I know that the real chesed came to me in having the opportunity to work there. One more important thing I learned this year is to constantly seize opportunities to go out of your comfort zone. Just ask yourself, “What can I do next in order to grow as a person and help others?”