Drive-thru Country — Part 2

Who knew? That’s a question that keeps popping up, and, as I was beginning to realize, that expression of unfamiliarity could have been the theme of this article.  For example, every time we’ve gone on one of these AACI study trips, we’ve left from the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem and, shortly after, made a pit stop at Elvis, the café, gas station, and convenience store off route 1, not too far away, where one can get some coffee and use the facilities. But who knew that, nestled behind the gas station, is the moshav Neve Ilan, and, at the end of the road, a large, fancy-looking hotel, where we would be staying for the next three days while we toured the surrounding area. I’m sure some people knew, maybe lots – judging by the throng of people chowing down breakfast and dinner in their spacious dining hall – but I certainly didn’t have a clue.

An old adage worth remembering: don’t judge a book by its cover. Anyone registering at the hotel would have to be impressed by the futuristic fountain outside the lobby and the waterfall cascading down one of the exterior walls. We certainly were (Wow, this is some swanky place!), but, walking down the long hallway to room 335, we were forced to inhale the perfumy aroma of whatever they were using to clean the carpets. Good thing we’re not asthmatic, or we’d have been out of there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. The rooms themselves are in serious need of a renovation. Our shower head didn’t work properly, and the hairdryer came apart in my hands; someone else’s door was warped. You get the idea. Fortunately – because an army travels on its stomach – the food was first-rate. It would have been better if I could have obtained my usual cup of tea at dinner without having to go to the bar or back to our room, but that was a small matter. At any rate, after a rousing first day, Barbara and I were fit as a fiddle and rarin’ to go the next morning.

We began Tues. at the Hasmonean Heritage Museum in Modiin, a city I had not visited since our pilot trip in 2006. Seems to me that the city has expanded just a tad since then, looking a lot more user-friendly than I remember it. Speaking of user-friendliness, the spanking new museum fills the bill, the idea being to find a way to show the history of the area from the time of the Hashmoneans to the growth of the modern city. You want interactive, they’ve got interactive! How about sitting in an auditorium, watching a film about time travel from then to now, and the seats go back and forth and side to side to simulate the bumpy ride. What kid wouldn’t love this?

View from our hotel room

Fortunately – especially given the advanced ages of our group – the ride in our tour bus was a little smoother. We were off next to Bustan Shushan. The question of the day was what’s the difference between pardes and bushtan, neither word stemming (pardon the pun) from the local language? Both are kinds of orchards, but the first describes a place with one or a few kinds of fruits, whereas the latter is a place with lots of different vegetation.

They have their little show to put on, including a short film and some unspecified herbal fruit drink to start off with and some zaatar-laced freshly made pita at the end. In between, we got a tour of the garden led by Yair, a super-enthusiastic volunteer. If you’ve taken the trouble to open the link (above), you have some sense of what is going on in this place: hundreds and hundreds of plants from all over the world, the only qualification being their ability to grow in the middle of Israel. When I describe Yair as being ‘super-enthusiastic,’ I’m not just whistling Dixie. He would happily have shown us every single one of the hundreds of plants that are grown there. However, it was starting to turn the kind of warm it becomes in the Modiin area this time of year, and, after the first hour or so gawking at the first two hundred specimens, I was beginning to plotz. Aliza was doing her best to make Yair understand that it was time to call it a day before he brought us to ‘the maze,’ which might have proven to be the death knell for at least half of us. Fortunately, her suggestion that we call it quits finally was heeded, we had our yummy pitot, and went off in search of a square meal at the RamLod Mall.

If we consider, at least metaphorically, that the museum was the day’s appetizer and the bustan the salad, where we went that afternoon was the emotional main course. All it said on our handy-dandy itinerary was “Visit the Save a Child’s Heart Foundation in Holon & meet with patients from around the globe who are being treated free-of-charge in Israel.” May we consider that sentence an understatement, or at least a dry recital of the facts?

We were ushered into the Legacy Heritage Children’s Home by Danielle Rothenberg, who has the fancy-shmancy title of International Young Leadership Director (reachable at Most of the organization’s back story can be accessed at their website, but briefly, it’s about Dr. Ami Cohen, an American-born surgeon, who, almost serendipitously got involved in pediatric heart surgery in Korea and continued his work in Israel, founding Save a Child’s Heart in 1995. After his tragic death climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in 2001, his colleagues at Wolfson Hospital were determined to continue his work, which is what we were about to find out.

Question for anyone out there: What percentage of babies are born with some kind of heart disease? The answer (but first take a minute and try to guess) is one percent. World-wide, that’s a lot of kids to worry about each year, every year. Who knew?

I know that my mother was diagnosed with a heart murmur as a child. It never stopped her. She made it to 98, and only in her last years did it significantly affect her well-being. But some infants are not going to make it past adolescence unless their problem is taken care of, and in much of the world there’s no one to do that and no facilities to do it in.

I’m sure that, somewhere in her presentation, Danielle mentioned the number of children whose life has been saved by the program, but I don’t remember what it is. But which children are there now in the Children’s Home – either before or after treatment at Wolfson Hospital, that’s right there on the bulletin board. Also listed are the names of the doctors-in-training from around the world, all of whom will return to their country of origin prepared to work there.

Lest you think otherwise, none of this can be called simple. There are just too many people involved for that. Arranging for the children to be brought to Israel, many of whom come from countries that don’t recognize Israel and don’t even like us, is a story unto itself. Each child has to come with a parent or guardian, which is sometimes no easy matter. Then there are the doctors, because without them none of the life-saving work would happen. They all have day jobs, working at Wolfson Hospital with Israeli children with similar problems. Then, after hours, they volunteer (that means they don’t get paid) at the same hospital, performing surgery on the SACH boys and girls. That’s how it’s been possible to treat so many children. Otherwise….

When Danielle finished her presentation, it was time for us to look around. There were plenty of children on the premises, some with parents and some with a number of the volunteers, who show up to play with the youngsters and keep up their spirits.

Let me at ‘em! Oh wait; my camera is in my backpack on the bus. What I had decided to do was bring my camera along on the tiyul and take it out if I thought there might be something – anything – interesting to photograph, which usually wasn’t when we would be inside listening to someone talk. Also, I assumed that I wouldn’t be allowed to take pictures of the children. But Danielle had a different approach, something to the effect of, of course you can take pictures; we’ll take all the publicity we can get. And so I wandered about, iPhone in hand, and did what I could. As you can see, not too shabby for a day’s work!

African children with their mothers

Again, who knew? Not enough folks know about this place, where they do amazing work with not nearly enough credit in a world full of turmoil and strife. It was worth the whole four days just to be there. Nevertheless, we are only half-way done with our tiyul, with more to come. Be patient, and you too will be in the know.

A child with a volunteer

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