a Very Special Chanukah Celebration
by Petra van der Zande
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The Biblical Ein Kerem is the place where John the Baptist was born.
Only a few miles from Jerusalem, this small town has many interesting sites that are regularly visited by tourists from all over the world.
But hidden behind Mary’s well, a narrow road leads to a place not mentioned in travel brochures.
“Maon” (residence, home) Saint Vincent resides in a building dating from 1880, and is run by the “Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul”.
In 1954, a foundling on their doorstep marked the beginning of this “Ministry of Mercy.”
Today, they look after 70 children from Jewish, Arab and Christian background, suffering from severe physical and mental disabilities.
The permanent staff also comprises of Jews and Arabs, who all work together for the well-being of these needy children. They are helped by international volunteers who spend a few months in Israel, just for this purpose.
The love and care these very needy children receive is based on the Sister’s creed: “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to Me.”
Locals call it "haMinzar", the monastery, and associate it with hopeless cases.
I’m looking forward to celebrating Chanukah with them.
The Jewish festival of Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus in 165 B.C., and is usually celebrated around Christmas.
For eight days a Chanukiah (candelabra with 8 branches, plus a “servant” candle) is lit. Beginning with one candle on the first day, each following day an additional candle is lit. The Chanukiah is then put in front of the window – spreading its light for all to see.
The always present guard at the building's entrance waves at me as I maneuver the car in the courtyard.
On the flat roof of the old building, surrounded by palm trees and cypresses, colorful sheets and towels are drying in the balmy December sun.
Shouts coming from the kitchen - situated under the building’s main entrance - tells me Angela is bossing her co-workers again.
I climb the stairs and zigzag through the labyrinth of corridors towards the main hall on the second floor.
A cacophony of sounds greets me as I enter the packed room.
“O, great you could make it, welcome!”
Several people hug me.
Devoted staff and wheelchair-bound children, their faces bright with anticipation, line the walls of the usually somber room, now decorated with colorful banners, streamers and lights.
Na’il, our severely disabled foster son, seems confused – am I taking him away from the fun?
In Hebrew sign-language I explain that we’re not going to see the doctor, but I’m here to film the party.
The music teacher strikes up a song, the adults join in and the party is on.
Many of these children can’t speak, but they understand the language of rhythm and music. Swaying in their wheelchairs, some clumsily clapping their hands, they are delighted.
Each class represents a Chanukah theme; cardboard drawings, taped on the back of their chairs, picture a Dreidle (spinning top), a candle, a torch, or a jug.
“They have been working on it for weeks on end,” Jackie, the school’s headmistress, says in a stage-whisper.
While we sing and clap for them, the children are wheeled around - one class at a time - contentment showing on their faces.
I’m not sure who is enjoying the party most, the staff or the children.
“Isn’t it fantastic?” beams Sister Susan as she passes, trying to capture as much as possible on film.
Na’il’s latest hobby is spitting out candles – a smart solution for his inability to blow.
Someone released him from his chair, and he is on his way to show off his skill on the eight burning candles, each one secured in a sand-filled box.
I force myself to stay put and leave him to Ora, his teacher.
“Not yet, mister!” She scoops up the boy - tiny and light for his eight years - and brings him back to the children of his group, all patiently waiting in their chairs.
Na’il keeps the staff on their toes with his exploits.
They love it.
His class - the jugs - parades while we sing the song “kad katan”, little jug. Na'il can't care less what they're singing, he just loves the action - finally.
Eliyahu, Na’il’s favorite music teacher, then treats him to a ride on his shoulders, and jigs him around.
While Na’il roars with laughter - the wilder the better- I hold my breath till he’s safely back on his feet again.
“No, you can’t run around now, “savlanut”, have patience!” Ora says and secures him in his chair.
Enters Yuval, the clown.
His balloon tricks and funny antics cause the children’s excitement to rise even more.
Na’il is intrigued by the rubber chicken jumping out of a hat, and Ora gives him permission to follow Yuval around.
“You want to dance?” the clown notices Na’il’s rhythmic movements – he can feel the vibrations of the loud music. Carefully, Yuval takes the little, claw-like hands and together they begin to shuffle.
He couldn’t have given the boy a bigger present.
“What is this?” the clown asks another child, while holding a monkey puppet aloft.
“Abba! Daddy!” yells the exuberant boy. He beats a roll on the wheelchair’s secured table, and bobs his head up and down.
Suddenly the electric lights dim.
As each class lights their Chanukiah, the numerous candles brighten up the dark hall.
Na’il can’t wait, this is his specialty.
“No, not yet, there’s more to come.”
Rina, the teacher’s aide, keeps him secure on her lap - at a safe distance from the burning candles - while around them sparklers appear. The children’s faces glow from wonder; each time it’s a new and thrilling experience.
The candles make a sizzling sound when Rina finally permits Na’il to spit them out. His gaze follows the smoldering stubs upwards.
When a boy tries to eat a jelly-filled Sufganiyah by himself, Jackie tenderly wipes some of the donut’s filling off his cheek.
“Did you enjoy the party, my dear?”
“Aaaaahhh!” he answers with a widespread grin, flaps his hands wildly and sends his treat flying.
I help bring the children back to their class and hug and kiss my precious Na’il.
I still have two hours before he returns home, so I can begin to work on the video.
Outside again, I savor the fresh air, the birdsong and peaceful quiet surrounding this place.
Without encountering another car ascending the same steep, narrow, and winding road, I reach Mary’s well.
A group of tourists blocks my way, in no hurry to disperse.
While waiting for the tour guide to assemble his flock, I muse on the privilege of living in Jerusalem; the interaction with these special people that we have. All because of our special needs children.
And I'm touched by the contagious joy from these so-called hopeless cases - that's what I take home with me.
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