She was in her 90’s at the time, living alone, suffering from Alzheimer’s, prone to falling, and increasingly unable to take care of herself. While neighbors and responders thought it might be best for her to be living in a seniors’ home, she refused.
It turns out that she was an escapee from Nazi Germany and spent some of the war years hiding and protected in Christian churches. The thought of facilities or institutions evoked troubling, even terrifying memories, and she said she preferred to die before ever leaving her home.
Through a combination of legal, social, and medical and therapeutic assistance, the elderly woman was allowed to remain in her house with an assigned, fulltime caretaker – her dignity, sensitivities, and needs respected and met.
It didn’t have to end this well, and it often doesn’t. But in this case, a network of expertise and support began surrounding her, one inclined to find and establish new norms for such cases of distress, and eschew practices that very often result in even greater suffering.
“The reality is that people meet crisis, and it can be anyone and at anytime,” said Dr. Mickey Schindler. “We would like to think things only happen on the other side of the fence. But suddenly, things break down. Some outcomes are better and more desirable than others.”
Dr. Schindler is one of the founding visionaries – and now director – of MARVA – Law, Welfare and Empowerment, a Jerusalem-based non-profit organization established by a group of Israeli attorneys and social welfare experts. The acronym itself mirrors the Hebrew words for law, welfare and empowerment, the three legs supporting MARVA’s mission and approach.
The organization, a Good People Fund grantee, assists and uplifts vulnerable populations – from elderly at risk, to individuals with mental disabilities – facing difficulties caring for their own well-being and protecting their own rights.
How it does so is a departure from the standard, which is so often siloed and one-dimensional, applying a this-or-that approach that is less than optimal. Instead, MARVA embodies and models a holistic approach combining legal aid and advocacy for full legal rights while also facilitating and integrating social welfare and therapeutic support.
It’s a multi-disciplinary design making it possible to provide comprehensive solutions to issues affecting the lives and independence of at-risk individuals and families across the spectrum of need, challenge, and crisis.
“So often, legal or social welfare or therapeutic approaches are not enough or sufficient on their own,” said Dr. Schindler, an attorney specializing in elder and disabilities law who has training in social work. “Each can be effective in some way, but not in a whole way, and not give a complete sort of intervention and solution.”
Since its founding in 2015, MARVA has ingrained itself into Israel’s legal and social welfare ecosystem, offering protections and guidance to – for example – older adults undergoing or at risk of abuse or neglect, people with dementia and Alzheimer’s and their families, Holocaust survivors, and young adults with mental or abuse challenges.
A small part of its casework – but one that is expected to grow – is in the realm of “supported decision making,” an alternative to guardianship that assists older people or those with mental or cognitive disabilities to preserve their independence, liberties and autonomy. In fact, MARVA is in a two-year project with two other organizations – JDC-Israel Unlimited and Mosaica – to deploy and utilize the practice more nationally throughout Israel.
The organization has built relationships with nearly 50 municipalities throughout the country, working with and enhancing the services of social welfare agencies and stepping into cases. Last year alone, MARVA reached over 2,100 people through personal assistance and casework, and more than 4,000 people through public lecture, advocacy, and education programs.
Its reach continues to expand, sensitive to the fact that Israel’s peripheral regions have less access to services, even though there may be greater need due to lower socio-economic profiles. With Good People Fund support, MARVA recently opened a center in Safed – in the Galilee region of northern Israel – and plans to open another one in the far south.
Six years since its establishment, MARVA has put into practice what was mere theory, formalizing networks of support and activating connections to serve the most vulnerable.
“We didn’t invent this, but we weren’t willing to leave it in the books either,” Dr. Schindler said, adding that marva is also the Hebrew word for Salvia, a healing plant. “Ideas can be beautiful, but it’s more important to implement them in the real world.
“People meet crisis and as much as we can help and empower them with sensitivity and give them all they need so they can continue living their lives with dignity and agency, that is our goal. Life can be complicated and people need help and assistance and that’s simply what we try to do.”
By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz