Feb 25, 2022  By Jacob Milstein  Category: Special Needs,

How becoming disabled deepened my sense of purpose

This story for Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAAIM) focuses on Jacob, a LOTEM-Making Israel Accessible team member who instantly transformed from someone supporting individuals with disabilities to one in need of disability assistance.

My name is Jacob Milstein. I’m 58 years old and a fifth-generation farmer from Kibbutz Merhavia in northern Israel. After my army service as a fighter in combat engineering, I set out searching for meaning, reconnected with my Jewish roots, and became religious. I knew my wife, also a ba’al teshuva, from Moshav Nahalal, and we have three children.

I was a farmer for many years, with a large sheep pen and fields that I worked. Eventually, while looking for work outside the farm, I saw an ad looking for a maintenance manager at LOTEM’s Emek HaShalom farm. For those who don’t know, LOTEM is a Jewish National Fund-USA affiliate that works to make nature accessible to Israelis of all abilities. I loved the rehabilitative and caring side of the organization, it's a part of who I am. I wanted to work in an open place, accessible to all, close to nature, and with a connection to the therapeutic field. I enjoyed this job, welcoming the groups, seeing how the children enjoyed the special experience of the farm, and watching them feel included and accepted.

Last year, Tu BiShvat, JNF-USA’s unofficial high holiday, fell in February, which JNF-USA recognizes as Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAAIM). It was a long day full of visitors at the Emek HaShalom farm and I came home happy from another fulfilling day at work and ready to sit on the terrace with a cup of coffee and enjoy the beautiful sunset. When I entered the house, I suddenly noticed something strange: I wanted to go straight, but my body went to the right side, which I immediately alerted my wife to. I also began to feel restless, as if I was uncomfortable anywhere I turned.

My wife called the hospital hotline and described the situation, and they called an ambulance for me while asking my wife to stay with me. I was uncomfortable when the ambulance arrived -- after all, I was completely healthy, and there are people out there who really need an ambulance. I got in the ambulance myself, fastened a belt, and felt completely relaxed as we drove to the hospital. When we got there, I felt very tired. I was put in for a CT scan and the doctor came out right away and said to me, “Mr. Milstein, you are having a stroke.”

“A stroke? Me?” I was in shock. I did not feel like I was in the middle of a stroke. I did not notice that my hand and leg were already paralyzed, but when I tried to get out of bed I fell to the floor. There was a commotion around me, and I remember looking at the doctors, the nurses, and my wife, and not understanding why they were so upset. I did not feel pain, I did not feel paralyzed, I looked at what was happening from the outside, detached.

'I suddenly lost who I was'

In the first days after the stroke, I was in a very bad place mentally. I realized I was paralyzed in half a body. My whole life was built on my physical strength. In agriculture, in manual labor. I suddenly lost who I was and did not know where I was going or what future awaited me. The gap between my uninjured mental strength and physical ability caused me to enter a state of depression.

One day at the hospital, Amos Ziv, CEO of LOTEM, came to visit. We had a polite conversation, nothing special. He was with me for about 10 minutes and when he got up to go, he said to me, "Jacob, your job with us is reserved for you and when you recover, you will come back to us and together we will find the place for you."

Amos' humanity was the seed of my rehabilitation. As soon as I heard those words, I felt a hand go into the pit I was in and lift me up. When Amos says something, he means it. I began to believe I had a chance to recover.

From the hospital, I was transferred to a rehabilitation institution. When I was brought there, I was in shock, still unable to connect myself to my situation. I was hospitalized in the head injury ward. I noticed when I arrived that the nurse only addressed my wife. I sat in a wheelchair, both physically and mentally lowered, facing her over my head and not addressing my existence at all. My wife told the nurse, "He's OK cognitively, hears and talks," and the nurse responded, "Oh, wonderful." She turned to me, patted me on the shoulder and said, "Don't worry, it's OK," and continued to talk and refer only to my wife.

Nuances of having a disability

It was a difficult experience of dismissal, humiliation, and frustration. It was the first time I experienced reluctance, avoidance, unintentional contempt, and belittling as an injured person in front of healthy people. I asked myself, is this the life experience of people with special needs? It enlightened me to a new view. I discovered how seemingly imperceptible nuances become meaningful for the disabled person.

My rehabilitation process took many months, during which time we entered a period of closure following COVID. It was a challenging time, being in a quarantine, in a nursing home, in a home that was not wheelchair accessible. I had a very hard time being needy and dependent. I felt humiliated and helpless. I had moments where I broke down and asked God to take me out of here. I did not want to live such a life. As someone who craves freedom and independence, the fact that I was not alone for a moment, always surrounded by caregivers, was difficult to bear.

As I progressed with physical therapy, I felt I was on the road to recovery. Step by step, slowly but surely. From the wheelchair I moved to the treadmill and from there to the walking stick. That is when I first came to visit Emek HaShalom. It took me 10 minutes to get out of the car and to my shed two meters away, but I felt like I was coming back home.

After months in indoor rehab facilities, Emek Hashalom felt like the embrace of a warm hug. The nature, the trees, the air, the scenery of the valley, and the wonderful people of LOTEM, who received me in a way that no one knew how until that time. They approached me with ordinary things, we talked about the work, about the maintenance of the place, they asked my advice, listened to me. I felt needed, wanted, that my existence had meaning. In my house I was cared for and in need, in LOTEM they just told me, come back, we want you.

Gratitude for where I am 

In the period since the stroke, Tal, my good friend, who was my assistant, became LOTEM's maintenance manager. I tried to get back to my job, but it was beyond my powers. I started looking for my renewed place in LOTEM. It was Tal who told me, "Jacob, you have always been an excellent lecturer, you have always known how to tell great stories, why not try this direction?" I remembered that it was indeed something I enjoyed very much, but I did not know if I had the talent to lecture to groups professionally.

Encouraged by the staff, I went into the deep water and found that I was having a great time. I started lecturing voluntarily. For all the months since the stroke, Amos has continued to transfer my monthly salary to me. I was grateful for this support, which allowed us at least peace in one aspect of life and I wanted to volunteer at LOTEM. But after awhile, the director of the accessibility center took me for a talk and said to me, "Jacob, it's time to make a decision, do you want to continue here as a staff member like everyone else?" I think it was one of the most moving sentences I have ever heard in my life.

A month and a half ago I went back to work, now as an instructor at LOTEM, something I still appreciate every day. I feel alive, I learn other and new things. I am full of gratitude for where I am.

While my stroke greatly diminished my physical ability, it also vastly improved my emotional and mental capacity. With all the love I had for people with special needs and my willingness to help them, at the end of the day I would leave LOTEM, drive home, and disconnect from all the experiences of that day. Today, this experience is part of me at all times. 

Discovering myself anew

Even as I’ve improved my physical condition, increased mobility, and regained driving privileges, I still consider my life experience today of a person with special needs. Even when I forget about it, life reminds me. I know what people with special needs go through, in relation to and meeting healthy people. I'm more aware of when they need help, I see them.

I feel today that my purpose is here. That my mission is here. Improving accessibility for people with disabilities to the typical public is my mission. Illuminating these objectives, helping people understand the importance of accepting people with special needs, is my mission.

As a formerly able-bodied person, what I thought I was good at once taken from me. Now I have discovered something new that I am good at, which is an amazing feeling. With all my difficulty in accepting my disability, I am in the process of acceptance and self-fulfillment. Thanks to LOTEM, this amazing place, this special team, the people of JNF-USA who support LOTEM and allow this special miracle to exist in the world and illuminate the world in a better light. Thank you. 

To donate to Jewish National Fund-USA to support our work for people with special needs, visit jnf.org/jdaaim

All gifts made through Feb. 28, 2022 will be matched, up to $1 million, in honor of Jewish Disability, Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion month.