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Motherhood is a position given with on-the-job training. Drawing on one’s in-born talents, nascent intuition and heartfelt tefillos, a mother slowly gains confidence in her role, growing and changing along with her children.
Nothing throws that confidence for a loop, though, like the birth of a special needs child. Finding oneself living in a foreign country, far away from family and friends as well as facing medical jargon that is hard enough to follow in English, let alone in a foreign tongue, will cause even the most experienced mother to feel incompetent.
“That,” says Rabbi Paysach Freedman, CEO of Chaim V’Chessed, “ is what my wife and I went through, 14 years ago. We had thought that we knew how to navigate the Israeli system. Then our daughter with special needs was born. ”
Several years later, Rabbi Freedman co-founded Chaim V’Chessed, created to help English-speakers get past the language barrier and cultural differences while living in Israel.
To ensure that Anglos can navigate the system as well as their Israeli neighbors.
Questions about the medical system, insurance, citizenship, passports – Chaim V’Chessed is there to answer, advise, and advocate. Their department for guidance on special needs children is incredibly robust, with support and advice, both general and personal. They understand that for these parents, they’re dealing with decisions, choices, and just trying to manage, 24/7, 365 days a year, with no one there to say, “ I know what you’re going through.” And it can be lonely.
That’s why last month, for the first time ever, Chaim V’Chessed took things above and beyond. They created a retreat for English-speaking dedicated mothers of children with special needs living in Israel, far from home and dealing with so much on their own. The two day retreat was aptly coined Special MOMents.
An incredible itinerary was developed by Mrs. Faigie Gugenheim and Rabbi Yossie Friedman, and orchestrated to perfection by Rabbi Paysach Freedman. The program was partially funded by a grant from the Jewish Agency, arranged by R’ Nechemia Malinowitz of Eretz HaKodesh,
Rabbi Yossie Friedman shares: “We hosted a group of women with similar life circumstances, but from diverse backgrounds, from all over Israel. I think one of the most powerful parts of this retreat was the team building exercises. We went to the Shamir Park in Maale Adumim, and the women partook in a rotating activity that really called for trust and bonding. And, of course, the highlight of the trip for many was Wednesday night in Masada where, in middle of the desert, far away from regular life and civilization, a DJ performed; the mothers danced and kumzitzed and everyone was able to just let go for a little while.”
One mother shared, “Chaim V’Chessed’s retreat for special needs moms was a surreal experience. I left feeling like a princess. The staff planned everything, and I mean everything, to perfection! From water bottles at every stop, to constant snacks and iced coffee, to pizza sent to everyone’s family and toys for the kids – they thought of everything! And that’s without even beginning to talk about the incredible program, with the perfect blend of depth and lightness… When I got home I couldn’t believe I had left home only the day before; I felt so much lighter.”
The whole retreat in general was the perfect mix of learning coping techniques and gleaning chizuk, while being pampered and treated like royalty at the very same time.
The women stayed at the Leonardo Hotel at the Dead Sea, making liberal use of the pool and spa. Rav Yossi Cohen spoke about emunah, and then they were off to experience Chaveirei Masada like never before. The next morning had optional exercise and water aerobics classes, then there were professional presentations, followed by check out. A lavish luncheon and presentation took place at picturesque Mitzpe Yericho. Lastly, the women were presented with leather Tehillims before boarding buses to Kever Rachel, where the program concluded.
Presentations from Riva Pomerantz and Chava Kodesh provided food for the soul, but the wraps and muffins, the gorgeous lunch and brunch at the hotel, ice cream cones and cold water bottles, the candy platters to take home for Shabbos:, those were the crowning touches. Not to mention the pizzas sent to the families back home and the toys sent back with the moms. Chaim V’Chessed thought of everything, and that’s really their modus operandi: there to answer the big things, but also there to fill in the small cracks, the things that seem less important and fall by the wayside.
Many of the participants pointed out that it did not feel like a first-time endeavor.
One mother wrote in after, “ I have never, ever seen a program that runs this smoothly and on time! You managed to have us going everywhere promptly (even if you thought it was taking us ladies time ;-)) from one thing to the next, so that everything was on time — and perhaps more importantly — ending on time, so that everything was predictable and smooth and never with that stretched-out feeling that long programs often involve.
In general, the sense was of someone who’s been doing this for many many years and knows all the pitfalls to avoid, all the ways to make a program 100% — something I literally never saw elsewhere.”
The program was just so seamless, so smooth, it felt like an annual thing. “Oh, and it will be,” Rabbi Yossie Friedman says. “Mark my words, this fills a niche that these moms need, and it’s going to become a yearly thing.”
Mrs. Faigie Gugenheim, coordinator of the retreat, explains how the idea came about a year ago at a staff meeting. “We are in touch on a regular basis with so many of these mothers of children with special needs; it was evident that something like this was necessary for the Anglo community. Once funding was secured, we swung into action. Our goal was very clear: to give the mothers an amazing time away to relax, rejuvenate, and connect with mothers in similar circumstances, gaining support from each other. Now that it’s over, I can say that, with Hashem’s help, we achieved our goal. The feedback we’ve received in the days since we got back was unanimous: this retreat was incredible. And it was far more necessary than many of us realized.”
The group was diverse, Mrs. Gugenheim explains, from all ranges of Anglo society, and also with children of all ranges of disabilities. “I said to them at our first stop in the Shamir Park, ‘You are all traveling on your own journey. But today we have come together as a group.’
“I think the most incredible thing,” Mrs. Gugenheim continues, “ was that every mother there took home with her exactly what she’d needed, be it a new friend, chizuk, or just time away from the daily grind. And that is a mission accomplished.