Some people like to spend their vacations relaxing on the beach, while others prefer touring historic sites.
But for one New Brunswick woman, no vacation is complete without spending time helping others.
When Phyllis Pollak and her husband, Bill, planned a trip to Israel this year, the special education teacher took to the Internet to find a place to volunteer.
She found ALEH Negev Rehabilitation Village, a “cutting-edge” residential facility for the severely disabled.
Pollak, 65, spent five days, June 16-20, assigned to a quadrant housing six men. She helped at mealtimes, assisted the residents with activities, and exercised with them in the pool.
“It is important for me to include gemilut hasadim” — acts of loving-kindness — “in my vacations and especially when going to my beloved Israel,” said Pollak in a phone interview after her return.
“I don’t go on vacation to sightsee. Of course, we went to the Kotel, the Golan Heights, but it was important to include work with these individuals. In, fact I missed being there the rest of my vacation.”
Pollak volunteered each day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“Breakfast was brought in on little plates,” she recalled. “Some of the men were not able to swallow water so they made it into a little gelatin. I found it challenging to feed someone who couldn’t say, ‘I would like some water,’ or ‘I would like to eat my meat first.’ It was difficult knowing they were not able to answer or understand. It required a lot of thought and kindness.”
She particularly enjoyed hydro-therapy sessions and took particular interest in one young man, Shai Kowen, who suffers from a seizure disorder.
“He enjoyed moving around in the water,” said Pollak. “On land he couldn’t move, but in the water he was free.”
She also assisted in art and physical therapy and worked alongside several young women who were at the facility performing national service in lieu of the IDF. Pollak met Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, who founded ALEH Negev on behalf of his son, Eran, who suffered from severe autism and lived there until his death in 2007 at age 23. Gen. Almog, former chief of the IDF’s Southern Command, played key roles in the rescue at Entebbe in 1976 and in Ethiopia during Operation Moses in 1984.
“He’s someone who could have afforded to build a sanctuary for his son, but chose to create a place where all people with disabilities could live with dignity and respect,” said Pollak. “He really made the desert bloom. ALEH Negev is a true example of gemilut hasadim.”
A graduate of Douglass College, Pollak worked for many years as a researcher at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School before deciding on a career change. For 12 years she was a sewing and daily living teacher at New Road School in Parlin, a private school for children with multiple disabilities. She also teaches religious school at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick and is longtime coordinator during the weeks the synagogue hosts homeless men as part of an interfaith network in the New Brunswick area.
Pollak, who has three children and six granddaughters, said she couldn’t wait to return to ALEH Negev on a future vacation.
“I was just so impressed at the dignity and respect displayed by everyone there, from the caregivers to the teachers,” said Pollak. “I enjoyed every minute I was there. In fact, I wanted to go back at night. I just wish I could have stayed there longer. To me it was the most meaningful part of the time I spent in Israel.”