In my 1999 Wexner Graduate Fellowship application, I shared my dream to “open a group home and multi-service agency for Jews with developmental disabilities that would provide therapies, as well as social, religious, educational and recreational programming, vocational training and job placements.” 15 years ago, I could not have known that my quest would ultimately lead me to a community that was enabled by a Wexner Heritage alumnus with a similar passion.
Today, I work for Kishorit, a kibbutz in Israel’s Western Galilee for 160 adults with special needs. Kishorit draws much of its therapeutic philosophy from the kibbutz movement, most significantly, the ability of every member to contribute to the community and the value of hard work. Like my essay envisioned, Kishorit offers members a full life including employment and leisure activities, opportunities for integration into the broader community, private and dignified living quarters, medical supervision and nursing care for senior citizens.
Some of Kishorit’s members work in the general community while most work in one of Kishorit’s ten businesses, including the largest organic goat dairy in Israel, a dog kennel where champion schnauzers are bred, the Kishor boutique winery, and the free range egg farm that sells 500,000 eggs annually. After work hours, members can swim in the pool, travel to the nearby city of Carmiel, sing in the choir, join the modern dance troupe, play team sports, or enjoy a wide range of social activities. Kishorit is a community based on unconditional love, acceptance and respect for the other and has just been featured in a German book about 16 utopian places around the world.
As is the case with many dreams, the path to fulfillment was sometimes rocky and Kishorit’s establishment was not always a given. The original Kibbutz Kishor had been settled unsuccessfully by the Shomer Hatza’ir movement. The site lay vacant until Kishorit co-founders, Shuki Levinger and Yael Shilo, sought a place to establish their unique kibbutz. The minute they laid eyes on the Galilean hilltop, they knew they had found a home for their dream. However, not everyone agreed with them. They faced tremendous opposition from the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) whose professional leaders refused to give them the kibbutz, arguing that people with special needs couldn’t settle the Land. Undeterred, the visionaries sent letters to various members of the Jewish Agency’s board in 1996. Tom Falik, a Wexner Heritage alumnus from the original Houston class, a JAFI Board member and father of two daughters with special needs, answered the call. Swinging into action, Tom began working with the JAFI lay and professional leadership, and convinced the proper people to sit down with Shuki and Yael and negotiate the transfer of the abandoned kibbutz to establish Kishorit.
Tom, with true “Wexner” grit, remained committed to Kishorit’s mission as the kibbutz grew from 4 members to 160. When it came time for the organization to develop an American Friends board, Tom was the natural choice for chairman, and he continues to serve in that capacity.
In my professional role as Kishorit’s Director of Development, I have the joy and privilege of working with Tom to form relationships with passionate people who care about Israel and tikkun olam. I believe that our relationship – a female, Orthodox professional leader working together with a male, liberal Jewish lay leader – represents the best of the Wexner paradigm. Our parallel Wexner leadership programs give us a common language, common experiences, and a shared virtual community.
Thanks in large part to Tom, the dream articulated in my Wexner essay from so long ago is unfolding. In the years ahead, I hope that Wexner alumni will continue to team up to tackle our generation’s great challenges and I encourage the Foundation to find new and innovative ways to integrate the three silos of Heritage, Graduate, and Israel fellows for the betterment of our world.
Shira Reifman, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumna (Class 12), is the Director of PR and Development for Kishorit, a kibbutz for adults with special needs located in the Western Galilee. Shira has an MA in Social Work and an MA in Business, both from Columbia University. She made aliyah in 2007 and lives in Yad Binyamin with her husband and five daughters. Shira can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.