Local philanthropists, Ben and Bita Nehmadi of Los Angeles were honored last week for their charitable work on behalf of the Ilai Fund, an Israel based charity which funds medical equipment and therapies for hundreds of sick children with special needs. The Nehmadis have been supporters of the Ilai Fund since its creation in 2005, “and together with our other ‘Donating Angels’ are an integral part of the family,” said Albert Shaltiel, founder and director of the charity foundation.
After escaping from Iran just days before the Islamic revolution in 1979, Ben Nehmadi (Behzad) arrived in New York and used his strong work ethic, thirst for education and faith to get a strong foothold in the real estate market. “From the start, I made a commitment to help those in need. When I first arrived in New York, I saw the two diverse worlds of incredible wealth and terrible poverty and knew that I couldn’t leave this unbalance without trying to help in any way I could”. Nehmadi founded the Republic Investment Company in New York and later relocated to Los Angeles where he joined the growing Iranian Jewish community. “When I reconnected with Albert 8 years ago and heard about his work with sick children in Israel, I knew that I wanted to do what I could to help them.” The Nehmadis keep up to date with the work of the foundation during their annual visit to Israel and bar mitzvah celebrations for their two sons in the holy land.
Albert Shaltiel’s own story began similarly to that of Nehmadi and there common backgrounds is one major factor driving their philanthropic collaboration.
Born in Tehran, Iran just prior to the onset of the Iranian Revolution, Shaltiel describes his early years as peaceful and tranquil. But following the revolution, the environment became one of fear and violence. Albert escaped from Iran (his second attempt – the first ended with jail time and torture) at age 16 followed by two months of fear-filled travel through the mountains and valleys of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Eventually he made it to the freedom of Vienna and from there was able to secure safe passage to the Iranian community in Los Angeles.
Thirteen years later he realized his lifelong dream of coming home to Israel and shortly thereafter met his wife Yael.
After struggling for years with unsuccessful fertility treatments, Albert and Yael thought about adoption. “How can you choose just one child, when you know that there are so many that need you”, he recalls thinking. They decided that if they weren’t able to have children of their own they would “adopt the problems” of many and work towards making their lives better.
The couple made the effort to get acquainted with Israeli hospitals, social workers and various communal organizations that worked with children. With the generous support of donors from around the world, including the Nehmadis, they started distributing money towards medical equipment and therapies for children in need. “Since a very young age, we have tried to live our lives according to the tenet ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’,” said Albert. “In fact, the Jewish hospital where Yael and I were born in Tehran had this phrase inscribed on the entrance. We often think what if it was our child who was sick and needed help and that gives us the drive to push forward and work hard on behalf of all of these children.”
Then, in what Albert and Yael can only describe as possible merit for their work with the children, “God opened up the gates of Heaven and we found out that Yael was pregnant”.
When their son Ilai was born in 2005, the Shaltiels officially established the Ilai Fund in his name. “We wanted to be sure we always care for all the children as much as we care for our only child,” said Albert. “In naming it The Ilai Fund, we remind ourselves each and every day that these children are like our own and we experience the pain and joys together with them.”
Since then, the Fund has grown and Albert and Yael do everything in their power to avoid saying no to those in need. Together with Ilai, they meet with each child to see how their help will be most worthwhile – whether it is paying for a piece of equipment, a type of
therapy treatment, or for some, just a recreational activity to bring joy and healing. Keeping their overhead low, their dining room table serves as the base of operations where they proudly show off their stuffed black binders full of files detailing their many children, or as they refer to them, the Ilai Fund Heroes.
Most of the children helped by the Fund come from single parent homes. “My father died when I was young and my siblings and I grew up with just a mother,” says Yael. “I know how hard it can be when there is only one parent and we want to try and help those families who have to work even harder to care for a sick child even more.”
And so the Shaltiels are back in Los Angeles to honor the work of Ben and Bita Nehmadi, who have significantly contributed to support the effort.
“Albert and Yael are people who are doing God’s work but quietly and humbly and it is a true honor to be involved with their efforts,” says Mr. Nehmadi. “Given Albert’s incredible background and his ability to work so hard, I know that when I support this Fund it will definitely lead to better lives for all involved.”