Meet the woman behind Israel’s ‘communities of kindness’

Why We Wrote This

How do you help people feel like they belong? Sometimes it’s as simple as creating opportunities to bring them together. Adi Altschuler has been doing just that since she was a teen.

Heidi Levine/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Adi Altschuler poses at Tel Aviv’s Bikurim school, an inclusive school where typical and disabled children study together, July 13, 2020. The school is part of a network inspired by her Krembo Wings youth movement.

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Adi Altschuler was just 16 years old when she first dabbled in social entrepreneurship. Today her organization, Krembo Wings, matches nondisabled children with children with disabilities.

Peer-led youth movements, where teenagers are given the responsibility of leading younger children, are a central part of Israeli culture. And participating in them is something of a rite of passage, but was previously unattainable for kids with disabilities.

Today, two decades later, Krembo boasts 76 chapters in Israel that serve 7,000 children and youth, and Ms. Altschuler is still leading grand initiatives. Her Memories in the Living Room project is revolutionizing how Israelis memorialize the Holocaust. What started as an informal gathering with friends to hear one survivor’s story has evolved into a program spread across 55 different countries.

Her most recent undertaking expands on the formative experience of creating Krembo Wings. “Inclu” is a network of the country’s first inclusive public schools, in which nondisabled pupils and students with a range of physical or intellectual impairments study together.

“For me the biggest mission is to create communities of kindness,” says Ms. Altschuler. “The idea is that everyone belongs.”

When Adi Altschuler was a girl of 12, she volunteered to work with an organization for disabled youth. She was assigned to work with a 3-year-old with a bright smile and face sprinkled with freckles.

Kfir Kobi could neither walk nor speak, she says, but he understood everything going on around him. She describes their introduction as “love at first sight.”

Their meetings went from once weekly to several times a week. They were still close four years later when she took part in a leadership initiative for teenagers. Participants were asked to think of something that bothered them about society that they thought needed to be fixed.

Thinking of Kfir and his social isolation, unable to just walk out the door to see friends, she decided to scale the kind of relationship they had by forming a local group bringing children with disabilities together with nondisabled children and teenagers.

“Children with disabilities” is a phrase Ms. Altschuler prefers today not to use, because, she says, it connotes that they have disabilities while “typical children” do not. When really, she says, all people function with disabilities; it’s just that some are more visible than others.

The local group she formed soon grew into a youth movement across Israel with the help of Kfir’s mother, Claudia Kobi. It was named Krembo Wings, after a marshmallow-and-chocolate cookie popular with Israeli children.

Courtesy of Krembo Wings
Youth goof around at a meeting of the Krembo Wings youth movement, which brings together special needs and more typically developing children in Israel.

Peer-led youth movements, where teenagers are given the responsibility of leading younger children, are a central part of Israeli culture. And participating in them is something of a rite of passage, but was previously unattainable for children with disabilities.

Krembo is the first and only youth movement of its kind in the world. In Israel 76 chapters serve 7,000 youth. In 2018 the United Nations recognized it for its leadership in inclusion and designated it as a “special adviser” for other countries looking to integrate youth with disabilities into the broader social fold.  

“For the past several years the youth who are involved have been leading a quiet social revolution to make a better, more open and more accepting society – one that says, ‘There is a place for everyone,’” says Sigal Dekel, the movement’s communication manager. 

“It’s the most respectful place I’ve ever been,” says Tamar Sommer, 15, who says she is looking forward to becoming a counselor in the fall. “These kids ... are so often dealing with doctors and therapists. But they also need friends, a chance to connect with other youth,” she says. “You don’t need special training to connect with another person and be nice.” 

For Ms. Altschuler, Krembo was just her first foray into social entrepreneurship. She has two more grand initiatives to her credit. Her long list of awards and recognitions, in Israel and abroad, includes being named in 2016 by Time magazine as one of six leaders of the future.

Danna Sender-Mulla met Ms. Altschuler 11 years ago through a gathering at the World Economic Forum for leaders under 30. They became friends and eventually collaborators.

“I think Adi has a great way of pitching amazing ideas and being able to harness people’s attention and their desire to move things forward,” says Ms. Sender-Mulla. “Adi has the ability to get anyone excited about what she is excited about.”

A need to fix things

Recalling her childhood outside Tel Aviv, Ms. Altschuler says she remembers herself always creating – drawing, writing, making things. If there was a recurring theme in her creations, it was this: They looked different from anything in the world around her.

“I looked at things differently. And then I tried to reduce the gap between what I saw and what I imagined,” she says. 

“When I grew up, I think the space for thinking of ideas only grew, and I would try to produce whatever that idea was. I could not let things remain at the idea stage,” she says. “I could not rest till they were done.”

Ms. Altschuler says she is driven less by a passion for a certain group or subject, than by a need to, as she puts it, “fix things.”

“Everyone has their gift, and that’s something I’m good at – starting things. I am not capable of closing my eyes when I see something that needs addressing,” she says.

She also insists that all of her endeavors are based on teamwork.

“I always meet people along the way that inspire me; these are not just my creations, but ultimately, the product of many people,” says Ms. Altschuler.

She says she’s not a good manager but does excel at finding people to collaborate with who can help push through a vision. “I’m an expert at finding experts,” she says with a laugh.

New approach on the Holocaust

The second social movement Ms. Altschuler initiated, Zikaron B’Salon, or Memories in the Living Room, is revolutionizing how Israelis memorialize the Holocaust. In the project she has worked on with Ms. Sender-Mulla, small groups gather to share memories of the Holocaust in the intimate settings of people’s homes.

It started when Ms. Altschuler, disappointed by the formulaic nature of Israeli ceremonies on Holocaust Remembrance Day, with what to her felt like a rote collection of songs, poems, and dry speeches, decided in 2010 to try something more personal.

She invited a survivor to her parents’ home and emailed friends to come hear the survivor’s story. Those friends told others, and suddenly there were 40 people in the living room – most of them strangers.

The program has grown. In 2019, 1.5 million people attended events across 55 countries. This year, some 2 million people participated via Zoom in Israel and abroad.

Her third and current undertaking expands on the formative experience of creating Krembo Wings.

“Inclu” is a network of the country’s first inclusive public schools, in which nondisabled pupils and students with a range of physical or intellectual impairments study together.

“I always thought: What would Krembo Wings look like in a school– a school infused with its values?” she says.

“For me the biggest mission is to create communities of kindness – where people understand that diversity is a blessing and it’s an opportunity to see a range of human experiences out there,” says Ms. Altschuler. “The idea is that everyone belongs – I think this revolution of inclusion can really change people’s outlook.”

Israel has been touted for innovation in high-tech, but it has also become a greenhouse for social startups. Ms. Sender-Mulla says Ms. Altschuler has tapped into something in Israel’s younger generation.

“We don’t want to passively accept things as they are, but engage and create,” she says.

Ms. Altschuler says her drive to start movements began early.

“I always felt the world was my responsibility,” she says. “At home and at school I always felt I needed to take the world on my shoulders.” 

Editor's note: This story has be updated to reflect the latest guidance from the National Center on Disability and Journalism.

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