Living Together When the Shadows Grow Long
I was a young department director at ALYN Hospital Pediatric Rehabilitation Center a decade ago when I first learned of the concept of “cultural sensitivity in health.” We can take better care of our patients, I learned, if we understood better their cultural concepts of sickness and healing, their faith and their folklore. Together with the Jerusalem Inter-Cultural Center we developed a curriculum which helped us make ALYN more geared towards our patients’ families. This might be a well-established concept in North America, but it was pretty novel in Israel. It was a huge undertaking, the crux of which was to convince the hospital management that a problem of which they were not aware was now worthy of attention and budgeting. We needed to change. We participated in workshops and simulations, translated forms, and created opportunities for learning about the different cultures. We improved the Shabbat conditions for the halachic-observers among our patients. We added foods to suit the palate of Russian families and Ethiopian immigrants. Many of the professionals learned Arabic, and medical translators were added to the staff. We made sure that all the signs and notice boards throughout the hospital carried messages in three languages and that the patients’ daily therapy schedules be printed automatically in their mother tongue. We became one of the first hospitals to add a prayer space for Muslims, and we renovated our synagogue. We changed the seasonal office toasts for New Year and Pesach to alcohol-free events, so as not to exclude our Muslim personnel. Eventually, our hospital protocols became the basis for a directive issued by the Ministry of Health to all hospitals in Israel, and contributed to the implementation of these concepts throughout the Israeli health system. It became one of ALYN’s signature programs, and it is still evolving. For me, not only is this project dear to my heart, it was also my entry ticket into the Wexner program, and propelled me towards my current position as General Director. I am honored and humbled to hold this position, and very proud of our staff.
ALYN provides cutting edge rehabilitation for injured children or those with congenital or degenerative conditions. Almost half of our patients are non-Jews, and our staff reflects Israeli society: unabashed uncovered heads like mine working together with wearers of kippas and hijabs.
So when the three teenagers — Naftali, Gil-Ad and Eyal were abducted, we had to address moments of tension between some of the Jewish workers who did not feel that there was “enough empathy” from their Arab colleagues. The news of the boys’ cold-blooded murder worsened the stress. The heat rose when Mohamad Abu Khdeir was brutally murdered in retaliation. The fact that Naftali was one of our doctor’s cousins and that Mohammad was the cousin of another worker, made it all even more personal.
While many people in Israel, including the families of the murdered teenagers themselves, tried desperately to calm the situation, gangs of right-wing vigilantes attacked people on the streets of Jerusalem for speaking Arabic or wearing a hijab. At the same time, the shelling from Gaza began, and within days ALYN Hospital, like everyone in Israel, became a place where emergency protocols, air-raid shelters, drills, sirens and explosions are part of the work-day. Our patients are as safe as they can be. Jewish and Arab children, children from Gaza and Gush Etzion, dream similar dreams at night and go through their therapy sessions during the day.
For us adults, however, things are more complicated.
The atmosphere in the hospital reflects every nuance. As the casualties mount in Gaza, and as our young soldiers fall and their families pay the ultimate price, our nerves are getting very raw. Squabbling between co-workers has been reported. Inappropriate or insensitive reactions of some family members to TV news anger other parents. Slur sentences on our Facebook pages (equally from Israel bashers and anti-Arab hate-spewers) aim to inflame and provoke. The therapists and doctors are nagged by the constant need to react carefully to edgy and snappy people. It is as if we are all wearing our skins very thin. Every word out of place, every inkling of disrespect for another’s feelings, threatens to blow up the bubble of cooperation and co-habitation.
The conflicts surrounding us are huge and make our problems seem trivial in comparison but we stand firm that if we succeed in keeping ALYN a safe place, it can once again be an example and a beacon to other parts of society.
What we have created inside ALYN is an ecosystem which is amazingly vibrant and promising, but it is young and vulnerable as well. Our bubble of tolerance and normalcy is threatened by the ongoing strife.
Anyone who knows Israelis can attest that we are quite hopeless in recognizing boundaries – no political pun intended. We tend to share our private lives with our co-workers, and we do bring our work home. We wear the same clothes for work and for play, and we use the same language in and out of the office. This means that we have difficulty in putting aside our personal identities and donning professional uniforms or attitudes at work. Cultural differences jar and stand out unabashedly in ALYN. In order to succeed in making ALYN a “culturally sensitive environment,” the staff has to be trained continuously. It isn’t easy. Every new worker or group of young volunteers bringing their own agenda into our space, can rock the boat.
I am optimistic that we can hold the fort, and keep ALYN a haven of tolerance and diversity. My senior team needs to invest considerable effort in this balancing act. This isn’t easy, but we will overcome. I hope the leadership of both people realizes the need for healing and tolerance, and pray for the day when ALYN will not be unique in its striving for coexistence.
Maurit Beeri, M.D., a Wexner Israel Fellowship alumna (Class 20) serves as Director General of the ALYN Pediatric and Adolescent Rehabilitation Center in Jerusalem. On the clinical side, she heads the Multidisciplinary Clinic for Infants and Children with Feeding Disorders. She is also involved in various health and social initiatives to promote the care and rights of children with special needs, including the Early Intervention Coalition, which represents over 60 organizations and associations for children with special needs. Dr. Beeri is married to Ronen and is the mother of three boys. She can be reached at email@example.com.