By Rochelle Maruch Miller
Mention the word “hero” to a child and he will probably think of the superheroes of comics and movie fame. The Ilai Fund children constitute an entirely different league of heroes; these are the superheroes of life. Throughout their tender years, they have endured difficulties far beyond what most people have ever imagined. Despite the many challenges they face, these precious neshamos greet every new day with a smile. Brave and persevering against all odds, they are the true superheroes of the Ilai Fund.
One such hero is Jacob, a 10-year-old who was born with hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia (HED). The disease led to a corneal ulceration, which left Jacob blind and consequently behind in his growth and development. HED is characterized in three ways: reduced ability to sweat, sparseness of scalp and body hair, and congenital absence of teeth. Additionally, the five fingers on Jacob’s hand are equal in size and his toes are partially webbed. Due to lack of teeth and a malformed mouth, he has difficulty talking and cannot eat solid food. As a result, he must be fed through a gastro tube that has been inserted directly into his intestines. Yet despite his physical condition and the incessant challenges and obstacles he faces, Jacob possesses a wealth of self-confidence and is a charming and personable child. With such a wonderful personality, is it any wonder he is beloved by all who know him?
A gifted pianist, Jacob enjoys performing for his peers at various social events. He speaks Russian and Hebrew and, with help from the Ilai Fund, he is now learning English, too! The organization also provides Jacob with counseling sessions with a psychologist. The Ilai Fund contributed to obtaining a Braille machine for Jacob and continues to provide the necessary—and expensive—accessories he requires.
“Ilai, our healthy, happy, and beautiful son, is a gift which we received after years of praying to Hashem. And this is how it all started,” Albert Shaltiel, founder of the Ilai Fund, told the 5TJT.
Born in Tehran, Iran just prior to the onset of the Iranian Revolution, Albert Shaltiel describes his early years as peaceful and tranquil. But following the revolution, the environment became one of fear and violence. Albert escaped from Iran (his second attempt—the first ended with jail time and torture) at age 16 followed by two months of fear-filled travel through the mountains and valleys of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Eventually he made it to the freedom of Vienna and from there he was able to secure safe passage to the Iranian community of Los Angeles.
Thirteen years later, he realized his lifelong dream of coming home to Israel and shortly thereafter met his wife Yael. After struggling for years with unsuccessful fertility treatments, Albert and Yael thought about adoption. “How can you choose just one child, when you know that there are so many that need you?” he recalls thinking. They decided that if they were unable to have children of their own, they would “adopt the problems” of many and work towards making their lives better.
The couple reached out to Israeli hospitals, social workers, and various communal organizations that worked with children. With the generous support of donors from all over the world, they began distributing money towards medical equipment and therapies for children in need. “Since a very young age, we have tried to live our lives according to the tenet ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” said Albert. “The Jewish hospital where Yael and I were born in Tehran had this phrase inscribed on the entrance. We often think—what if it was our child who was sick and needed help? And that gives us the drive to push forward and work hard on behalf of all these children.”
Then, in what Albert and Yael can only describe as possible merit for their work with the children, “Hashem opened up the gates of Heaven and we learned that Yael was pregnant!”
When their son Ilai was born in 2005, the Shaltiels officially established the Ilai Fund in his name. “We wanted to be sure we always care for all the children as much as we care for our only child,” said Albert. “By naming it the Ilai Fund, we remind ourselves every day that these children are like our own and we experience the pain and joys together with them.”
Since then, the fund has grown and Albert and Yael do everything within their power to avoid saying no to those in need. Together with Ilai, they meet with each child to determine how their help will be most worthwhile—whether it is paying for a piece of equipment, a type of therapy treatment, or for some, just a recreational activity to bring joy and healing. Keeping their overhead low, their dining-room table serves as the base of operations where they proudly display their black binders filled with files detailing their many children, or, as they refer to them, the Ilai Fund heroes.
“Our children are those who suffer from physical, emotional, or mental disabilities; children who have been afflicted with various syndromes, such as Down syndrome, autism, polio, deafness, blindness, and others, handicaps, cancer patients, orphans, and children who have been wounded in accidents, wars, or acts of terrorism,” Albert told the 5TJT. “Our goal is to reach out to those whose families’ financial situations prevent them from having the opportunity to receive the proper care for their needs. We do everything we can to help these unfortunate, precious children and their families—most of whom are children of single parents and occasionally orphans.”
He adds, “We are always available for our children and their families—24 hours a day, every day, and we are dedicated to making their lives easier whenever possible and as quickly as possible.”
Every case is handled with the highest level of sensitivity and confidentiality. “Our organization is approached by welfare councils of such hospitals as Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel. In an organized fashion, they provide us with the necessary documents which enable us to understand each case in depth, taking into account the family’s financial situation, the medical condition of the child, and the necessary treatment. Once this is completed, we schedule an initial meeting with the child and initiate the process. We are accessible to our families at any time of day, ensuring that they receive whatever help they require with alacrity. Our children and families know that we are always there for them.”
That most of the children come from single-parent homes is a factor that Yael can easily relate to. “My father died when I was young and my siblings and I grew up with just a mother,” says Yael. “I know how hard it can be when there is only one parent, and we want to try and help those families who have to work even harder to care for a sick child even more.”
“Albert and Yael are doing G‑d’s work quietly and humbly and it is a true honor to be involved with their efforts,” says Ben Nehmadi, founder of the Republic Investment Company in New York, a philanthropist who, together with his wife Bita, was recently honored for their charitable work on behalf of the Ilai Fund. “Given Albert’s incredible background and his ability to work so hard, I know that when I support this fund, it will definitely lead to better lives for all involved.”
For Albert and Yael, every tear turned into a smile is the greatest reward. “Our sages talk about the highest gate of prayer as the ‘Gate of Tears’ and I must say that I discovered the gate of a child’s tears transformed into a radiant smile,” Albert says. In Israel and throughout the world, there are many nonprofit organizations that were founded by parents in the name of their children. Some of these organizations were named to perpetuate the memory of a child who tragically passed away; others have been founded as a z’chut for a child in need of a refuah sheleimah. Each of these organizations is, in its own right, a bastion of chesed, established by parents for the purpose of helping their own child, together with other children. The Ilai Fund was founded to give thanks to Hashem following the birth of a healthy child.
“We wish to do good in our time of great happiness and give thanks to the Ribbono shel Olam for giving us the greatest gift of all,” says Albert.
“Please ask yourself what you would want the community to do for you if it were your child. Beyond the heartbreak and the expense involved due to the disability, our children have never experienced the privilege and joy of calling a father ‘Abba’—of loving, being loved by, protected, and held close by Abba. Unlike other boys their age, they have never gone to shul with Abba, nor will they be the subject of their father’s pride and joy upon becoming a bar mitzvah. I made a commitment to love and care for every child like I do for my own. That is how we intend to thank Hashem for Ilai. That is why all of our children are called Ilai children.”
Today, several hospitals are familiar with the fund, and through them the Shaltiels meet a new child almost every day. All this is done with the help of the generous donors without whose support they would never have accomplished as much.
Ilai Fund is a nonprofit organization registered in the state of Israel, an authorized foundation by the Israeli tax department for tax-deductible donations (seif 46). If you would like to partner with this exemplary organization, please call Albert Shaltiel at 213-500-9906 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. So many precious children are waiting. v