In the fall of 1997, I took my very first trip to Israel to begin a year of post-high school study at a seminary in Jerusalem. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I was overcome by feelings of awe and disbelief. After years of dreaming about our wondrous Holy Land, I had finally arrived.

As I settled into my new home away from home, I learned that my learning program placed a special emphasis on volunteering. Every Monday, students would volunteer at private homes, clinics, hospitals, and nonprofit organizations of all kinds, assisting with anything and everything that was asked of them.

Powerful feelings of love and warmth washed over me the moment I arrivedI was given the opportunity to volunteer at a place called ALEH, in Jerusalem. ALEH is a residential facility for children and young adults with severe physical and mental disabilities, who require intensive and constant care and support. Though I had never been exposed to children with disabilities before, I was more than happy to volunteer there.

My first visit to ALEH was surreal. Powerful feelings of love and warmth washed over me the moment I arrived. The corridors were abuzz with song and laughter. The atmosphere was electric. And that’s where I met Tal.

Anyone who knows Tal loves him. You can’t help but smile every time you see him. Though he can’t speak, Tal always makes an effort to connect with people, to really listen to them and make it clear that he is listening (a trait that I have long sought to emulate). From the moment I met him, I knew that Tal was someone special. But I could never have imagined how our relationship would shape my life.

A recent image of the author and her family with Tal
A recent image of the author and her family with Tal

At that time, Tal was only seven years old. Communicating with his hands and facial expressions, he asked me who I was and what I was doing at ALEH. After speaking with Tal for several minutes, I was once again ready to leave. But Tal stopped me again, motioning that he wanted to escort me out. He raced his wheelchair to the entrance, bade me goodbye, and waved until I was no longer in sight. I was touched by the experience, and decided that I would return for regular weekly visits. Soon enough we grew very close, and my visit with Tal became the highlight of my week.

The weeks and months flew by, and my year abroad came to an end. I spent the summer with my family in the U.S., but returned to Israel in the fall of 1998. Upon my return, I immediately reinstated my Monday visits with Tal.

Tal spotted me the moment I walked through the door, and waved me over for a huge “welcome back” hug. He then started tugging at my purse. Not knowing what he wanted, I handed it to him. He stuck his hand inside and felt around until he finally pulled out a photo album that had been lent to me by a friend. The album contained pictures from her son’s bar mitzvah. She wanted me to look at a few specific pictures that included an older boy from her father’s yeshivah named Yishai, whom she wanted me to meet. Tal opened the album and began leafing through the pictures. He looked at each picture and studied the faces. His face lit up, as though he had finally found what he was looking for, when he saw a picture of Yishai. He excitedly pointed to the picture of Yishai and then to me. I asked him if he was trying to tell me something. He nodded and mimicked putting a ring on my finger. I asked him if he thought that I was going to marry this boy. He nodded vigorously and smiled from ear to ear. I wasn’t sure if I was even interested in Yishai at that point. But Tal knew better.

Sure enough, once I met Yishai, I knew Tal was right. It didn’t take long to know that Yishai was the man I wanted to marry.

Soon after the wedding, Yishai and I moved out of Jerusalem, and it became difficult to visit Tal. Several more months passed, and I became pregnant with my first child. I really missed Tal, and wanted to visit him to share the exciting news. When I arrived at ALEH, Tal once again saw me first and waved me over. Before I could speak, he pointed to my stomach and then stroked his chin as though he had a beard—his way of informing me that I would have a boy. I didn’t even know the gender of the baby at that point. But Tal did.

I asked him if he thought that I was going to marry this boy. He nodded vigorously and smiled from ear to earI carried to term and gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, just as Tal predicted.

With a newborn in the house, it became almost impossible to travel to Jerusalem to visit Tal. I missed him, and kept hoping and praying for an opportunity that would bring us back to Jerusalem. As luck would have it, just such an opportunity arose a little over a year later, and we moved back to Jerusalem. I started visiting Tal again, with big gaps in between visits.

The months and years rolled on, and I was blessed with two more children. Life had become very hectic, and I simply couldn’t find the time to visit Tal.

And then, last year, we finally were able to see Tal again. Though quite a few years had passed, Tal didn’t miss a beat. He saw me first and waved me over for a huge “welcome back” hug. He asked me where my children were, and I promised him that I would bring them all to visit him soon.

As promised, I returned a few weeks later with my children and a special surprise: a photo album filled with pictures from our original Monday visits so many years ago. Tal was elated, and studied each and every picture, smiling wider and brighter every time he turned a page.

This past April, ALEH invited us to the organization’s first-ever Jerusalem march to increase public awareness of the disabled. A procession of over three hundred marchers, including ALEH’s amazing kids, their families, caregivers, and volunteers and friends from around the globe, set out from the Jerusalem facility to cross over the Jerusalem Chords Bridge. My family proudly marched with Tal. I was deeply moved by the event, and I was happy to see that my whole family thoroughly enjoyed it as well.

As we headed home, I felt a sense of completeness and deep satisfaction in knowing that I had fused the two most salient parts of my life. Tal finally got to meet my whole family (as had been his wish for many years), and my family was fortunate enough to join those lucky few who know and, thus love, Tal.

While Tal’s sixth sense is truly unique, my experience at ALEH is not unique at all. Nearly every staff member and volunteer feels enriched by the time they spend with these earthly angels, and blessed to make a connection with individuals who are so profoundly authentic, sincere and pure of spirit. As any volunteer can attest, the experience changes you from the inside out. You are forced to put down your guard, bare your soul, and strip away the layers of superficiality. Until you become someone that you can be proud of.