My nephew Yosef is a charming young man with a wide smile, who at twenty-one appears to be no older than fourteen. He is affectionate, but shy and unassuming, and up until a short while ago, could easily blend in the throngs of shoppers at the Mahane Yehudah Shuk, not far from his home in Jerusalem. In recent months, however, Yosef became a celebrity and whether he is in the Shuk or in Tel Aviv, people will stop him for selfies. Yosef is not alone in this celeb status, with him are the Shalva Band members where Yosef is the drummer, and their story has captured the attention of the State of Israel, the Jewish world, and soon probably of the whole world.
To understand the story of the Shalva Band we must go back to 1977 and to Yossi Samuels. Yossi was born as a healthy child, but lost hearing, sight, and communication abilities at the age of three because of a faulty DPT vaccination. After 7 years with no communication, Shoshana Weinstock, Yossi’s special education teacher, achieved a breakthrough by relaying sign language into the palm of his hand, teaching Yossi his first word שולחן table. Malki vowed that if Yossi could be helped, she would dedicate herself to helping other children with disabilities and their families.
Due to their challenges raising Yossi without adequate support, Malki and her husband Kalman established an afternoon playgroup for children with disabilities. Over time, the program expanded to meet the needs of a broader spectrum of disabilities, from birth through adulthood. Today, Shalva offers a constellation of therapeutic interventions, family support, inclusive educational frameworks, social and recreational programs and vocational training to individuals with disabilities. In recognition of Shalva’s accomplishments and an ongoing need to expand the availability of special needs services, the Jerusalem Municipality provided the organization with a seven-acre property adjacent to the planned Route 16 highway and the Shaarei Tzedek Medical Center in the Beit HaKerem neighborhood of Jerusalem. In September 2016, Shalva opened the Shalva National Center in Jerusalem and has since become an international leader in the field of disability care; housing some of Israel’s largest and most advanced facilities for persons with disabilities.
The Shalva Band was created by Shai Ben Shoushan, an IDF elite unit veteran, who came to work at the Shalva Center as a counselor for kids with special needs. Shai’s work was also his own rehabilitation from severe injuries he suffered during his military service. The band has now six members: Singers Anael and Deena, both blind, who migrated to Israel from France and India. Guy, who is legally blind, a graduate of Jerusalem Conservatorium, plays keyboard and flute. Tal and Yair, both with Down syndrome, play percussion, and my nephew Yosef is in the back with the drums. Yosef has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder (1:20,000), which is often called the “love” or the “anti-autism” syndrome because people with Williams, rather than isolating themselves from others, are hyper-social.
This year the Shalva Band auditioned for Israel’s HaKochav HaBa, a reality-show whose winner represents Israel in the European musical contest, the Eurovision. From the very beginning the band was everybody’s favorite and kept moving from one stage to the next. People all over Israel called and emailed to say how they felt isolated and even ashamed to speak of their child’s special needs and how the band changed it for them.
The most amazing thing Shalva did, though, was to not win. Just before the finals, when it was clear that it is going to be the winner and to represent Israel in the Eurovision which is going to take place in Jerusalem, following Neta’s Barzilai’s victory last year, the band announced that it will not compete. The reason? The Eurovision management insisted on holding the dress rehearsal on Shabbat, and despite calls from the Israeli producers, ministers, and even Israel’s president, they would not budge. Shai tried to find Halakhic solutions for performing on Shabbat, and there were even thoughts of letting only some members, who are not observant, play on Shabbat, but the final and unanimous decision of Shai and the band members was to withdraw from the Israeli contest and from the guaranteed ticket to the Eurovision.
And the Israeli society, despite the constant bickering, polarization, and alienation between religious factions which plagues it, stood with Shalva. The support and love were unbelievable, and everybody understood and respected the decision of the band to keep the values of some of its members. I say “some” because Shalva counts with Haredi, traditional, and atheist members.
Last night I sat with my brother, who came from Israel for our cousin’s wedding, to watch the final interview of the band with Assi and Rotem, the show presenters. The love and support were contagious, and it was beautiful to hear Assi Azar, who is not necessarily identified as observant, speaking of his respect for the band’s integrity and observance of Jewish value. Guy Mamman, the keyboard player, intervened to say that though he considers himself an atheist, he fully supports his friends’ decision and he would rather stay united with them then perform at the Eurovision. He added that Aryeh Deri commented on his Facebook page that Guy is מקדש שם שמיים – sanctifying God’s name, and concluded with a wide smile “if I, the atheist, am sanctifying God’s name, then I did my share.”
But the moment when my brother and I almost fell off our chairs was when Assi and Rotem faked a phone call and then told the band members that they ARE going to appear at the Eurovision, but not as contestants. The Shalva Band, who stuck to its principles and its integrity, was invited by the Eurovision management yesterday to perform at the show’s halftime.
Shalva has proven to Israel and to the world what it means to be inclusive and resilient. They have shown us that it is more important to value Shabbat and friendship over the transitory fame of the Eurovision, and eventually, they got the latter as well.