The Shalva band is a popular Israeli pop group with an inspiring twist - all the musicians are disabled. Both of the band’s lead singers - an immigrant from India and an immigrant from France - are blind. Two members have Down syndrome, one has Williams syndrome, one is visually impaired, and one is a disabled war veteran.

This unique musical act is the house band of the Shalva National Center in Jerusalem. Shalva, the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, is Israel’s premier facility for adults and children with special needs.

Shalva was founded in 1990 by Rabbi Kalman and Malki Samuels and inspired by their second son Yossi. When Yossi was eleven months old, a faulty vaccine left him blind, deaf, and severely hyperactive. His parents threw themselves into their new role as Yossi’s loving caretakers, but they were frustrated about how little support was available for disabled children and their families.

For years after Yossi’s injury, his family tried to communicate with him, but they were unable to penetrate his dark, silent world. Malki prayed desperately and pledged to God that if He helped her connect with her son, she would devote herself to helping other struggling families with disabled children. 

Finally, at age eight, Yossi had his miraculous “Helen Keller breakthrough.” Working with deaf therapist Shoshana Weinstock, Yossi suddenly understood her signing into the palm of his hand. Yossi learned his first word, “shulchan,” which means table. 

True to her word, Malki founded Shalva, which originally started as a playgroup for eight children in a modest Jerusalem apartment. With every year, the organization grew and grew and now operates a world-class center providing a wide array of services for people of all ages with serious disabilities. Programs include state of the art therapies, recreation and sport, job training, independent living skills, and respite and family support.

The musicians of the Shalva band are all graduates of Shalva’s rehabilitative programs. Their talents were developed through the music therapy program. Band director Shai Ben-Shushan, a disabled war veteran, has directed the band for 13 years.

Last year they won Israel’s top TV talent show - Rising Star - putting them in the quarter-final round of the Eurovision song contest. They were competing to determine who would represent Israel in the worldwide competition. However, they would have to violate Shabbat by filming a rehearsal, which was not an option for the three musicians who are religious. The group bowed out of the competition rather than split up.

Although they won’t be in competition at Eurovision, they are scheduled to perform. The group is wildly popular in Israel, and they regularly perform with Israeli celebrities. They also travel and perform around the world, touching hearts wherever they go.

Meanwhile, Yossi Samuels continues to defy expectations. He has traveled the world, met with political dignitaries, and made friends from all over. He is a horseback rider and a wine connoisseur with a keen interest in international politics. Yossi’s dream is to get married soon.

For demonstrating the resilience of the human spirit, and staying true to their religious beliefs, we honor the Shalva Band and the Samuels family as this week’s Thursday Heroes.

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Photo credit: KESHET