Special to the JTA from Israel, with Joy

Their voices were joyful, their footsteps confident, their smiles heartwarming — as a troupe of 13 mentally-handicapped Israeli young people, brought to the U.S. by Aikim, the Israeli Association for the Rehabilitation of the Mentally Handicapped, last night performed a program of songs and dances at a dinner reception at the home of Joel and Randi Meisel in Potomac, Md., a Washington, D.C. suburb.

Their performance in colorful folk costumes was entitled, “Hearts and Flowers,” a musical tribute to the widely different songs, dances and traditions embodied in present day Israeli culture. It was a preview of their performance to be given on Friday in the 1984 national very special arts festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, held May 23-26, under the leadership of chairperson Jean Kennedy Smith.

This festival has been hailed as “a celebration of disabled and non-disabled children and youth, who will unite to share their accomplishments in the arts.”

A FIRST FOR THE ISRAEL GROUP

This is the first time the Israeli group will take part in the festival which has attracted participants from all parts of the U.S., Puerto Rico, Scotland, Spain, New Zealand, and Japan. Many distinguished artists and educators will also take part in the four days of workshops, performances, demonstrations and art exhibits. The young Israeli artists will also perform another special preview for the international press conference in Washington today.

The dinner reception at the home of the Meisels was under the patronage of Israeli Ambassador Meir Rosenne and his wife Vera Rosenne and was sponsored by the Friends of Akim-USA which was established in 1983 to assist Akim-Israel, established in 1946, in financing its work with the mentally-handicapped in Israel. Akim-USA now has chapters in a number of large cities across the U.S.

After their beautiful performance, Ambassador Rosenne praised the young performers in Hebrew and called them “the best ambassadors that Israel could send, and we are really proud of them.”

Yair Gilboa, executive director of Akim, and Paul Zuckerman, president of Friends of Akim-USA, Inc., and other friends of Akim leaders from many parts of the U.S. flew to Washington to encourage their young proteges before their first international performance.

‘STRONG WILL TO LIVE A DECENT LIFE’

Yitzhak Genigar, chairman of Akim, told the gathering: “They represent many thousands of youngsters, adults, and old people who have a very strong will to live a decent life, and we are here to do everything to make it possible for them … We are trying to build a bridge between the past with all those inadequate services to a future with adequate services for the mentally handicapped and for all the other people who are not like everybody.”

Genigar stated that these young people “are determined to show everyone that they can participate, be active, can and want to do as everyone does to give his share to society.” He added:

“They are the the bridge itself and they have done the utmost possible to show you what mentally handicapped can achieve. Only several years ago there was a general misconception: they cannot study, learn, work, live together with others in the community. They have succeeded in showing you they can.”

With the help of Akim, the 13 young people now in the U.S. work at full-time jobs, most in the open market. Two are carpenters, one a cook at a kibbutz, one works in a publishing firm, one in a sheltered workshop. Some live in residential homes, but many live at home with their families.

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