Fulfilling Dreams They Never Dreamed:
The Story of Kalman and Malki Samuels’ Journey
This is a story about a man and his journey through life. It’s a story about his wife and her determination to give to others. It’s a story about a sweet boy facing and overcoming immense challenges. It’s a story about hundreds of children with disabilities whose lives are brightened each day.
It’s a story of hope. A story of pain and perseverance. A story of challenges and courage. A story about dreams dreamed and dreams fulfilled.
Kalman and Malki Samuels, living in Israel, were the proud parents of two children in October 1977. Malki was expecting their third child when she took their youngest, Yossi, for a vaccination at the baby clinic. Yossi was just shy of his first birthday when he received the DPT shot. What should have been a routine doctor’s visit abruptly changed the family’s course forever.
It was mere hours after Yossi received the shot that Malki noticed that something was wrong with her infant. His eyes appeared glassy; he didn’t look well. Malki’s concern prompted her to call the doctor, who waved away her worries and then suggested they give Yossi medication to clear his nasal passages.
A mother’s intuition is not to be ignored. Kalman and Malki knew that their infant was experiencing something abnormal. Aside from his glassy eyes and stuffed nose, Yossi’s movements became jerky.
It wasn’t until a few days later that an astute physician made the connection between Yossi’s behavior and the shot he received. “Did this child recently receive a DPT vaccination?” she asked.
It took many more doctors’ visits and persistent advocating by Kalman and Malki for them to finally get a diagnosis. The vaccination that Yossi had received was faulty. After six months of administering that vaccine in Israel, the government halted the serum. But the damage was done. A few children who had received the vaccination were irreparably damaged and put into a vegetative state. Others had died.
Yossi, unfortunately, became blind. His optic nerve became bleached. He would never fully see again.
Eventually, Kalman and Malki noticed other abnormalities with their son. Yossi became deaf. He developed encephalitis of the brain and suffered from convulsions. His gait was uncertain, and he was constantly moving and breaking things.
Despite his challenges, though, Yossi instinctively knew how to connect with others. He made many friends and developed a sense of humor. And he was also the impetus for his parents to reach out and create a magnificent program for those who face similar challenges.
Kalman’s story begins way before Yossi’s birth.
Kenny Alfred Samuels was born in Vancouver to a traditional family. He loved sports and attended Hebrew school in the afternoons after public school. His family would attend synagogue services on Saturday but would park the car a few blocks away out of respect.
A trip to Israel during university sidetracked Kenny’s trajectory. During the weeks he spent there – and he went to the Holy Land only because of his mother’s urging – Kenny visited the Kotel. He had never heard of the Temple or the Western Wall, despite years of Hebrew school. Spending Shabbos in Bnei Brak made him cancel his next leg of his journey to France. Spending time in Kfar Chabad tickled something inside of him, and he took the next year off from university to explore that feeling of thirst.
“The burden of trying to figure this out intellectually and spiritually was extremely heavy,” Kalman recalls of his searching at that time. “But I felt that I had to do it for the pinpoint of light I see in the future, that maybe my future generations will be able to enjoy this.”
Kalman’s journey led him to luminaries like the Gerrer Rebbe, Reb Noach Weinberg, Rabbi Chaim Brovender, and Rabbi Yitzchok Shlomo Ungar.
After intense learning and months of introspection, a world-traveling college kid had become a chassidic-looking, Yiddish-speaking baal teshuva.
When Kalman and Malki married, they began their new life together in Israel.
Yossi’s diagnosis threw the young family into a tailspin. Desperate for answers, information, and the right services for Yossi, the family eventually moved to New York. During this time, the Samuelses endeavored to force the Israeli government to admit that the vaccination that was administered was faulty. This was, of course, before email and the internet, and the government was extremely reluctant – even obstructive – to admit any wrongdoing. (It took nine years of legal wrangling for the government to finally admit to what went wrong.)
After a few years of living in New York, the family moved back to Israel, settling in Har Nof.
Finding a school for Yossi was a challenge. He was both blind and deaf and extremely bright. Eventually, a special class was created for Yossi in a school for deaf children. At that point, Yossi was not able to communicate but a special education teacher – who was deaf herself – poured herself into the task of teaching Yossi sign language by signing letters into the palm of his hand and tapping vowels into his wrist.
The teacher spent hours tapping into Yossi’s palm until Yossi finally understood what she was doing. The joy she and the family and Yossi himself experienced at that breakthrough moment was unparalleled.
“I remember when she ran out to tell us that he finally understood. It was an unbelievable experience. I remember when he had 10 words and 40 words,” Kalman recalls, “when he had 100 words. It was huge milestones.”
Once Yossi mastered signing, he was ready for the next challenge.
Another teacher taught Yossi how to speak Hebrew. Initially, she needed to put her fingers into his mouth to teach him how to move his mouth and tongue. He would use his hands to feel her face and neck to feel the vibrations of the sound. It took two painstaking years, but eventually Yossi emerged victorious – he could speak!
“He speaks a thousand languages,” Malki would say. And indeed, he did. This young boy instinctively knew how to communicate with all the people met, connecting with them and joking with them.
Yossi became famous, meeting Chaim Herzog, the president of Israel. In the media, they referred to Yossi as the “Helen Keller of Israel.”
Although Yossi was making strides, Malki wasn’t content with basking in her nachas.
Years before, in New York, Malki had made a “deal” with G-d: If You help my Yossi, I will dedicate my life to helping other mothers of children with disabilities.
Now, she said, it was “payback time.”
Malki’s vision was borne of compassion and concern for fellow mothers. She would “break down and cry” when she saw the disabled children in her neighborhood or their mothers struggling with them.
She also understood – from experience – that a family with a child with challenges has specific needs that weren’t being addressed at the time.
First and foremost, caring for a special needs child is a full-time job. But many families have other children at home, and they need to divide their attention amongst all the children whom they love. As such, Malki envisioned a center that would provide after-school programs and therapy for challenged individuals. This way, parents can focus on their typical children during that time, and the special needs child would be enjoying his or her time at a program designed specifically for him or her.
Additionally, this center would give the family time to lead a more “normal” life. Taking care of a challenged child is all-encompassing. During the time that the challenged child would be at the center, his or her family would be able to spend time doing things that other families do – going to the movies together, eating out at a restaurant, even taking leisurely walks at night.
When Kalman heard of Malki’s dream, he understood that there was a need to get a program like this off the ground. But, he told her, it would be impossible for him to raise the funds while working full-time and caring for his family. Malki, though, was adamant. This project was something that needed to happen.
On Sunday, June 10, 1990, Shalva opened its doors for the first time. It was housed in an apartment in Har Nof and provided an after-school program for six children.
It was a labor of love. Malki would pick up the children from their homes, care for them, and feed them dinner before dropping them back off at their homes.
Life, of course, was hectic for the Samuels family. But Malki told Kalman to keep his eye on the ball. She gave him a photo of a herd of horses galloping – pointing out that he’s the lead horse and the other horses, the Shalva children, are the ones racing behind him.
“You must understand that whenever you speak to someone about Shalva, you are not alone,” she said. “The Shalva children are always there with you.”
Kalman kept that image in mind when he fundraised for the organization.
The Samuels children would spend their afternoons at Shalva helping with the children. Nechama, their oldest daughter, would read to a paralyzed girl while embracing her. Their son, Avi, would sing and play his guitar for the children. Neighborhood children would drop in to volunteer.
Shalva was a happy place – a fun place for children and volunteers alike. But Malki wasn’t content with what she was offering.
When summer came, Malki envisioned a sleepaway camp for the children, and so they set off to a kibbutz for a week, to enjoy the outdoors and to give their families an added respite.
As word spread about the magic of Shalva, school buses would drop the children off after school. And the programs kept expanding.
Malki started an overnight program for the children in which different groups of children would stay overnight one night a week. This way, the children would gain social skills and their families would have respite for two days and one night.
Word of Shalva and the work they were doing spread. Eventually, Shalva needed to move into a larger space. In Shalva-Beit Nachshon – named after Nachshon Wachsman, Hy”d, whose brother, Raphael, went to Shalva – Malki worked to ensure that the center remained a “home” and not an institution for the children. Bright colors and warmth enveloped the children each day. There was laughter and games, therapy and fun. But something was bothering Malki. The center wasn’t being used in the mornings, and she suggested that they invite mothers who recently gave birth to children with cognitive disabilities to meet other mothers and receive five different therapies for their babies in the mornings.
Loneliness for those who give birth to children with challenges is the most devastating feeling, Malki maintained. She envisioned a program for mothers to see that they’re not alone and to connect with others in their same situation. They’re also taught via therapy how to best help their children.
One mother with a son with challenges wrote that the Me and My Mommy program helped her to love her new baby.
“I was completely shattered when my son was born. He was my first child, and it was so unexpected. I couldn’t hold him. I couldn’t even look at him….
“I remember the moment when everything changed. I was with him in the hydrotherapy pool for the first time, and I suddenly had a rush of feeling toward the baby I was coddling in the water. I understood: you are my son and I love you.”
Since 2017, Shalva has been located in its newest location with a full-size gymnasium, two pools, and a three-story atrium. A thousand children are taken care of each day at the 220,000-square-foot center. Light fills the hallways, and murals and mosaics dot the walls of its 12 floors. Café Shalva is open to the public; young people with disabilities help to run the restaurant. Shalva children and young adults prepare Shalva Teas, a gift box of special teas sold throughout the country. At the grand opening of the new center, the Shalva Band entertained the entourage.
There are programs at Shalva around the clock, starting with the Me and My Mommy in the mornings. Shalva, says Kalman, “is all about the family.”
It’s a family comprised of people from all walks of life – from the ultra-Orthodox to the secular. One woman flew in from Eilat each week for her Me and My Mommy session last year. When asked why she spent the past few months flying back and forth, she told Kalman, “You don’t understand. This is not a burden to me. This is my oxygen.”
Children ages one to three attend a six-day a week early childhood program. Once they graduate from there, they’re ready for Shalva’s four-to-six-year-old preschool. The preschool program has parallel classes for children who do not have disabilities, a model of inclusion for the children that is “working wonders.”
Kalman quips that Shalva is one of the biggest supporters of Torah because many of Shalva’s students come from religious families.
“Many of them are people sitting and learning, whether it be in this yeshiva or that yeshiva or in the Kollel,” Kalman says. “They’re rabbanim, dayanim. And many of them have said, ‘We’re only able to do what we do because of the fact that our child is cared for until 6:30 at night. Otherwise, I would never be able to sit and learn.’”
It’s not just the parents that are tended to by Shalva. The center has programs for children whose siblings are disabled. For many families, when a child is born with disabilities, the mother is no longer able to give her full attention to the other children. One teenager in a session told the therapist, “We used to be family of six. When Mommy gave birth to a baby with disabilities, we become a family of one. All of a sudden, no one else counted.”
The pain and the loneliness, the questions and the shame – all these thoughts swirling around youngsters’ heads are addressed.
The programs at Shalva no longer end at age 21. Now, Shalva offers group apartments for those with disabilities who are older. There is vocational training, too, for those who want to learn a trade.
Perhaps the most famous of Shalva’s programs is the Shalva Band. Comprised of Shalva members and two singers who are blind, the Shalva Band made headlines during the Eurovision, when they refused to play on Shabbos despite their popularity.
Asked about how they had the strength to walk away from the fame and fortune that could have come from winning at Eurovision, Anael, one of the singers, said, “Look, we saw bright lights. It could have been confusing,” asserting, “We did not allow ourselves to get confused.”
Another band member noted, “We came into this as a family. We are leaving as a family.”
Before coronavirus, the band played professionally a few times a week. When they performed on Rising Star, Israel’s version of America’s Got Talent, they received a resounding 91 on the show’s thermometer. Yair, one of the band members, spontaneously walked off the stage to give a hug to the judges. The crowd and the judges broke down emotionally at the beauty and purity of their music.
The night before their performance, Kalman sat down with the Shalva members at the Shalva Café.
“Whatever happens tomorrow,” he told them, “you’ve already won. You’re on a national stage – people with disabilities on a national stage. Whether you actually win tomorrow night or you don’t, it’s irrelevant. You’ve already won.”
Earlier this year, Kalman’s book, Dreams Never Dreamed, was published. In it, he pens his journey and thoughts and brings the reader along with him on his voyage through life.
Living in Vancouver, eating cheeseburgers and playing sports, little Kenny would never have dreamed that he would be bringing up a vibrant, religious family in the Holy Land.
He and Malki would never have dreamed that their young son would be forced to endure and persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
And little could they have known that Malki’s vision of providing succor and solace to those with disabilities would evolve into a small, vibrant city in the center of Jerusalem where thousands of children grow, laugh, and play each day.