Israel: Not just a start-up nation

By Kinue Tokudome

The Japanese version of this article appeared on Ronza on Nov. 13.

Israel has been called a “start-up nation” due to its advancement in many areas of technology. Over the past few years, the economic exchanges between Japan and Israel have seen rapid growth. On the diplomatic side also, the relationship has deepened since Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Netanyahu made mutual visits, and security cooperation has progressed. As the number of Israeli tourists visiting Japan is increasing, the exchange between the two countries is expanding as never before. ElAl’s direct flights between Tokyo and Tel Aviv from March next year will surely accelerate this trend.

Meanwhile, news coverage on Israel in Japan seems to have converged into only two areas, its relations with the Palestinians and its high-tech industry. As a result, Japanese people do not have an accurate picture of Israeli society. The task of rectifying this situation cannot be done overnight. But for the past two years, I have been visiting Israel and interviewing people, whose stories I believed would help such a task.

Here are two organizations I visited last September.


In May of this year, the international song contest “Eurovision” was held in Tel Aviv and the Shalva Band, made up of young people with disabilities, inspired people around the world.

Shalva Band was formed as part of the music therapy at Shalva, a facility for children with disabilities in Jerusalem. It has grown to be a popular music band that performs not only in Israel but worldwide. Shalva means “Peace of Mind” in Hebrew.

Shalva, which started with only six children with disabilities in 1990, is now the world’s largest facility offering an all-encompassing range of services to 2,000 children with disabilities from infancy to adulthood and their families.

An early intervention program for babies and their mothers also aims to give parents who struggle with raising a child with disabilities hope. Day Care and Preschools offer an enriching curriculum created by educators, social workers, and therapists that includes interaction with mainstream children. In the after-school program, children enjoy daily therapy-oriented activities like sports, drama, arts, music, and swimming. Young adults have the opportunity to receive vocational training.

Here is my interview with Rabbi Kalman Samuels, the founder of Shalva.

“Our second child, Yossi, became blind and deaf when he was 11 months old after he received a vaccination, which had a problem. Some of our friends advised us that we should put Yossi in an institution. We were determined to raise him at home. But we could not communicate with Yossi, and my wife often cried at night.

And a miracle happened when Yossi was eight years old. A special therapist finger-spelled into the palm of his hand the five symbols for the Hebrew word for table, and he suddenly understood that meant this object. Just like Hellen Keller understood water and its name.

All over sudden, his world opened up. Other teachers taught him subjects, and in two years, he was a brilliant child who can learn.

And then my wife sat me down and said, ‘It’s payback time. I promised to God if he could help Yossi, I would devote the rest of my life to helping other mothers.’

We rented an apartment and started an after-school class for six children with disabilities. Many parents of children with disabilities heard about our activities and came one after another, so we rented an apartment next door and the program expanded. Eventually, it served 400 children.

In 2005, the Israeli government came to me to consult. They said that the government will provide 7 acres (60% of the size of Tokyo Dome) of land and that they wanted us to provide our programs to more children. So, we decided to work on a new Shalva center. The government paid for some construction, but the rest of the money had to be raised.

What my wife and I were aiming for was the concept of inclusion. Shalva’s services are basically provided free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis. And there is no discrimination based on race, religion, family’s economic status. Wealthy families can voluntarily donate but their children do not receive special treatment.

Shalva now has 400 employees and is the largest of its kind in the world. Every year 50,000 visitors come from around the world.

Our son Yoshi is 43 years old and works independently at a computer-related company.”

  Mr. Yossi Samuels visiting President Bush and Mrs. Bush
(Photo courtesy: Rabbi Kalman Samuels)

The world’s Jewish community supported rabbi Samuels and his wife’s dream. Currently, there are support organizations of Shalva across the globe, making many of their activities possible.

The Shalva Center I visited was such a happy place, with sunlight coming through from the front window. It incorporated many ideas of Mrs. Samuels. I learned that there are many couples who were married while working at this Center together.


             Shalva Center                                       Rabbi Samuels and author

Shalva website

Save a Child’s Heart

Dr. Ami Cohen was a doctor with the US Army. When he was stationed in South Korea and Saudi Arabia, he performed pediatric cardiac surgeries. Dr. Cohen immigrated to Israel in 1992. He performed surgery on an Ethiopian child at the request of his Ethiopian doctor friend. Realizing that some African countries lacked advanced medical facilities and trained doctors, he established “Save a Child’s Heart” in 1995.

The Wolfson Medical Center outside Tel Aviv, where Dr. Cohen served as the director of the department of cardiology, became the receiving hospital for this program. Volunteer doctors started to provide pediatric cardiac surgeries to children of Africa, free of charge, airfare, and boarding. As their activities became widely known donations were coming in, and the program was expanding.

Dr. Ami Cohen
(photo courtesy: Save a Child’s Heart)

Dr. Cohen died of altitude sickness while climbing Kilimanjaro in 2001. Continuation of Save a Child’s Heart was in danger. But the people who had been inspired by Dr. Cohen continued the program and made it even bigger. Just recently, they achieved a record of providing cardiac surgeries to 5,000 children from 60 countries. Half of them are Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza. In addition, 120 doctors and nurses have been invited to Israel from countries such as those in Africa to receive medical training.

I visited the Wolfson Medical Center about 10 minutes south of Tel Aviv by train. Ms. Tamar Shapira, a spokesperson for Save a Child’s Heart, gave me a tour of the pediatric cardiac surgery department and introduced me to the people there.

Children who just undergone cardiac surgery spend the first two days in ICU. A child from Ethiopia, a Palestinian child, and an Israeli child who has undergone surgery as a regular patient were being taken care of by the same doctor/nurse group in the ICU. Ms. Shapira explained, “Any child from any background is taken care of in the same way.”

It was the day when the children who recovered from surgery were receiving a weekly check-up. I met a boy and his mother from an African country. We couldn’t communicate, but I was able to sense her deep appreciation for this program.

I met a female doctor from Tanzania who was checking children. She must be an elite in her home country. She spoke about Save a Child ‘s Heart in fluent English.

“What is unique about this program is that you can learn about the entire process, from pre-treatment diagnosis to post-surgery progress. I would like to bring the knowledge and skills I have gained here to Tanzania and save more children in my home country.”

Next, Ms. Shapira took me to the dormitory in the nearby residential area. Here, pre- and post-surgery children and their mothers live for a few months. Some mothers never used modern kitchen appliances in their home country, but there was a lady who is ready to help them. The courtyard is a playground, where fully recovered children are having fun. Realizing that these children might not have been saved without Save a Child’s Heart, I was deeply moved by watching these children.

 (Photo Courtesy: Save a Child’s Heart)

After visiting the hospital and the dormitory, I interviewed Mr. Simon Fisher, Executive Director of Save a Child’s Heart. When I asked what I wanted to know the most – what is the driving force behind this program, Mr. Fischer explained.

“Israel is a young country. Our pioneers worked hard to create this country over the decades. As for medical technology, until the end of the 1970s, Israeli doctors could not save children with difficult conditions such as heart disease. It was in the late 80s that Israeli doctors reached the Western countries’ level, after bringing back knowledge and experiences back from their study in those countries. Israeli doctors remember those days. In that sense, Israeli doctors are a little different from doctors in advanced countries in the West or Japan that have a long history of medical science.

I think that gives Israeli doctors a sense of responsibility to help children in countries that cannot be saved with the latest medical technology and to help medical professionals in those countries gain knowledge and experiences.”

Save a Child’s Heart received last year’s United Nations’ Population Award. Also, the International Pediatric Cardiac Center & Children’s Hospital will be opened next year in the Wolfson Medical Center. A reunion of former patients who have undergone heart surgery by this program will soon be held. It must be an inspiring gathering.

Save a Child’s Heart website

At the time of writing this article, Israel is not able to form a government after two elections. But as these organizations show, there are people in Israel, with only one-fourteenth of Japan’s population, who are doing internationally-acclaimed works following their deep convictions. I hope that the Japanese people will learn more about this aspect of the Israeli society as Japan-Israel exchange deepens.