In the charming Jerusalem neighborhood called the German Colony, where I stayed for July, it is very common to see old men and women out for a walk. Often accompanied by a “mitapelet” (a personal aide), some using walkers or holding an arm or being pushed in a wheelchair, or just slowly walking alone, very feeble old people take their place on the walkways of the neighborhood. It was particularly striking to me since I don’t generally see the weak and aged out for walks in our suburban neighborhoods in New Jersey. On my early morning Jerusalem walks I sped by many a bent-over, slowly ambulating person. I felt a heightened sense of connection to them as we shared the same streets.

I developed an awareness of the connection of the generations in community that was different than any I have had before. I learned to not always rush as I walk — not easy for a person like me; I like to walk fast. When you have to share narrow walkways with the weak and elderly, you owe a certain respect, with care and caution.

American culture does not create and foster community between the young and the old. Weak and infirm elderly often live in their own communities or institutions that “take care” of them. We do the same for disabled adults as well — they are invisible to most of our society.

So it was also very moving to spend an evening in a place called “Na Laga’at” in the Jaffa Port, south of Tel Aviv. “Na Laga’at” means “please touch”. It is a center created to teach about the lives and challenges of the disabled while also providing opportunities for work and dignity for Israelis who are blind, deaf, or both. The center has three sections: a theatre that shows an acclaimed show where all of the actors are severely hearing and sight impaired. The second section is a cafe where all of the waiters are deaf. The third section is the “Black Out” restaurant that is completely dark inside — there is absolutely no difference between keeping your eyes open or closed. The waiters are all blind or severely visually impaired. But since the waiters have learned to navigate their world, they are at a distinct advantage in the blacked-out setting.

When the waiter escorts you from the darkened anteroom into the restaurant, you have to hold onto one another. You have to feel everything carefully on the table. The waiter told us to pour water from the pitcher into our glasses by putting our fingers into the top of the glasses to feel for the water. He joked — if you feel it on your legs, you poured too much. When our meals arrived he encouraged us to use our fingers as much as we wanted, and we quickly learned how the utensils and social mores of “civilized” dining are so linked to and limited by the ability to see. We ate more slowly and deliberately and savored flavors differently.

We chatted with our waiter after the meal. He told us that foundation funding supports the center for about 30% of their budget. I asked him if they advertise across Israel. His reply was a pleasant surprise: “Oh, no, we are famous across Israel” he told us. The place is crowded –you need a reservation many days in advance. Israelis say their tiny little country is just a big community, so it makes sense that news travels fast. But my American ears heard something else in his comment — the integrated community of young and old, able-bodied and otherly-abled people are a more natural part of the landscape of their society. They still have many challenges in attitudes and quality of life for people with disabilities — otherwise Na Laga’at wouldn’t need to be an education center. But it also seemed to me that there is a more organic community structure in Israel. “Please touch” reminds everyone: “please include me.”

Public buses in Israel have prominent signs in the front sections that say “mipnei seivah takum” מפני שיבה תקום meaning, “get up for the elderly”. We are supposed to do that in America also. But I have been moved to see how quickly and thoughtfully people of all ages and backgrounds cede their seats on empty and crowded buses alike in Israel. People pay attention to this need.

Please touch, Please notice me, Please help, Please include me…all are an invitation to an inclusive and caring society. It’s a lesson in Jewish values worth noticing.

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