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Melting the Barriers

We live in a very practical world. People are cynical. They act, for the most part, out of self-interest, either hidden or blatantly obvious. We’ve all come to accept this and to feel that this is reality, the norm of life. And so, when faced with generosity and selflessness on a grand scale, we can only stand in awe, with tears in our eyes and a feeling of revelation in our hearts.

Life, it turns out, doesn’t always have to be lived in the small, mean way that self-interest dictates. Sometimes, it can be stupendously impractical, shocking us with its unexpected and unimagined beauty.

There was a dark time in Israel, not so long ago, when a mentally-challenged child was something to be whispered about, or shunted off quietly to some institution. Some parents, encouraged by social workers and medical personnel, never even bothered to take such children home from the hospital, abandoning them at birth. Be practical. Do you really need such a burden? they were often told.

For the past 18 years, Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra’anana, has brought all the powers of knowledge and all the forces of love to battle this terrible situation. Founded in 1981 in memory of the wonderful man who spent his life helping such children, Beit Issie Shapiro runs day care programs, clinics, and professional training programs which both nurture these children, and encourage their families and communities to embrace them.

This weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to join “Mission for a Lifetime,” a group of good-hearted and highly successful Americans who are spending some time in Israel learning about what else can be done to melt away those barriers standing between such children and a good, happy, productive life within their own communities. The group was organized and underwritten by Stephanie and Jules Trump of Williams Island in Florida (who are against any publicity, and don’t want their names mentioned, but I can’t help it, because I love them. So forgive me, will you?)

Beit Issie Shapiro, whose executive director is Naomi Stuchiner, the late Mr. Shapiro’s daughter, is truly a labor of love.

It was fitting, therefore, that on Shabbat afternoon all of us walked over to the Old City to see another labor of love, the transformation of the Tower of David by the spectacular beauty of world-renown glass artist Dale Chihuly’s sculptures.

Rising over the stark white Jerusalem stones like bubbles or sea creatures, the shimmering glass in brilliant colors are indescribably wondrous. But most wondrous of all is the animating spirit of the artist, Mr. Chihuly, widely hailed as one of the great glass artists of the twentieth century. The installation at The Tower of David cost the artist half a million dollars out of his own pocket over and above the support given by the municipality and the Clore and Jerusalem Foundations. It was worth every penny, he said, to see a quarter of a million people from all over Israel flooding through Jaffa Gate once again, a place most Israelis have avoided since the Intifada began. It is his homage to Jerusalem on the eve of the millennium, to bring “pleasure and happiness to people in one of the most historic, exotic and beautiful cities of the world.”

The crowning finale of the Chihuly exhibit was the sixty-four tons of special blue ice shipped from Alaska and sculpted into a symbolic wall where Jewish and Arab Jerusalem meet. Even the guards keeping the public back were rubbing their eyes at the sight. A mirage. Ice in the desert. Destined to melt in only a few days.

“We want it to melt. It’s supposed to melt,” Dale Chihuly told us. Barriers between Jew and Arab, divisions, conflicts. Like blue Alaskan ice in the summer sun.

The ice wall evoked all kinds of reactions: There was outright contempt in the words of the municipal worker beside me; a gleam of amusement in the eyes of police guards; shock and excitement rippling through a passing platoon of soldiers, who broke ranks and scurried over to touch the massive cold blocks. And for the rest of us, who just stared at it, mesmerized, an experience of awe, and a strange, secret joy in seeing so lovely and unexpected a thing happening before our eyes.

Bless you, Mr. Issie Shapiro, your wife, your kind children and grandchildren; the Trumps, and all the other wonderful people who stand shoulder to shoulder with your vision, helping to melt away all those barriers preventing children with disabilities from showing us who they are, what they can be, with a little help from their friends.

And bless you, Dale Chihuly, for your immense generosity – both spiritual and material – for your humility, and for sharing the madness and spectacular beauty of your unique artistic vision.

Bless you all, for helping the rest of us to see and feel a different kind of reality. For insisting we see not just the cynicism of what is, but the revelation of what can be.

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