On Gaza's border, an unexpected haven for mentally-handicapped Israelis

A factory in Sderot provides mentally-disabled people in Israel with work and a social environment where they can feel accepted.

Christa Case Bryant/TCSM
Adults with various intellectual disabilities come to work in small factories such as this one in Sderot, where several workers were stuffing envelopes with advertising magnets on a recent day.

Since moving to Israel, I have periodically found mysterious green envelopes in my mailbox. They include nothing but a flimsy magnet, advertising some business that I had never heard of.

Now I have solved the mystery, and gained a new appreciation for the folks behind this marketing front.

While reporting on Sderot’s resilience in the face of persistent rocket fire from nearby Gaza, I discovered a very different example of resilience: a factory full of adults diagnosed with various intellectual disabilities, working steadily away on various projects. One of them was stuffing those now-familiar green envelopes with flimsy magnets.

Even this, the simplest of jobs, appeared to require some serious concentration from a petite woman working that day. I gained a new appreciation for the periodic presents in my mailbox.

These individuals are paid only a nominal amount for showing up here, since they already receive considerable government stipends – even though they are doing work for corporations, not the government. In that light, the companies that contract with this factory could perhaps be seen as taking advantage of cheap labor from a disadvantaged population.

But on the other hand, it’s a haven from a society that, according to advocates for individuals labeled mentally-disabled, is uncomfortable with these individuals

“I used to think it was just a sweatshop,” says Miriam Fouks, a young social worker who had heard about such factories before coming to work here. “But they love being here, it gives them a social life.”

For some, the social life is the only reason they come. One man in particular can never be bothered to repackage Made-in-China menorah candles into Israeli boxes, or help with any of the other projects the 60 or so folks here are involved in.

So Ms. Fouks has just come up with a new job for him: current affairs guy. He loves reading the news, so she assigned him the task of getting up to speed every day and then sharing the highlights with his fellow workers.

Maybe he will enjoy reading about himself and his colleagues in an American newspaper.

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