Hannah can’t really give us full details of her impressions. She will not elaborate on the connection she feels to the Jewish homeland nor what it means to her to have spent the last ten days on a bus with Jewish peers seeing the most meaningful places in Israel, going to the top of Massada, riding camels or floating in the Dead Sea. She may not articulate these feelings but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have them.
The strongest sense one gets from seeing Hannah and the other 23 Yachad participants with their enthusiastic, devoted staff is one of mutual affection and respect. In Yachad, the only organization designated to run all expense paid Taglit-Birthright Israel trips for Jewish individuals who have disabilities, this is what it is all about. Participants are seen by the staff for who they are; not as a group of people with disabilities but as Hannah, Rick, Lisa and Dan, Jewish youth who should get the opportunities that everyone else gets.
The goals, like those of all Taglit-Birthright Israel trips, are to strengthen the connection of Jewish young adults to the Jewish people and to their personal Jewish identity through educational peer group trips to Israel. Although the participants’ physical and cognitive limitations create unique challenges for the trip organizers, Yachad/The National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NJCD), an agency of the Orthodox Union, rises to meet them. Now in its ninth year, Taglit-Birthright Israel Yachad trip is offered twice yearly to anyone with a challenge that would prevent them from joining a mainstream Taglit-Birthright Israel group. In this particular group the majority of participants have cognitive disabilities and six use wheelchairs. Ari Klein the program coordinator says “There is no rigid learning requirement for the trip and we don’t water things down. It is about Jewish heritage, and the Jewish experience and that is what gets through”.
Benjamin who at 20 attends an independent living school in Ohio has for as long as he can remember wanted to come to Israel. He says “The country is lovely and the group great”. With a big smile he promises he’ll be back, and after the army training evening, has added to his wish list to become a volunteer soldier. Dan a tall and athletic native of Manhattan doesn’t seem to let the Asperger Syndrome, a type of Autism, stop him and shares that the group experience defined the trip for him. “I have become much more responsible, helpful and mature than ever before”. He wants to stay in Israel and has discovered a strong Jewish bond.
In all Taglit-Birthright Israel trips the social aspect is a crucial element, and for Yachad kids even more so. Breaking participants out of a small cycle of limited social exposure and for many, very routine frameworks, this trip offers experiences and memories, newfound friendships and higher reaching goals. The experience of being in a group transforms people says Ari, recalling Leslie a non communicative young woman with social and cognitive disabilities who by the last day of the trip stood up in front of the group and shared her feelings and thanks. Nothing short of miraculous, he insists that for these people it’s a life altering experience.
Chosen out of over twenty applicants the seven hand-picked all volunteer counselors are key in making things work. At any given time they can be found hanging out with the participants, because this is exactly what they try to do. Their job is a multi-faceted function of being both peers, caretakers and serving as role models. An integral aspect of the trip and a unique focus at each meal and every activity is to informally give over social skills. As Ari sees it “[Participants] are going to go out into the real world. What sets them back in life are lower social skills. You are not doing them a favor if you treat them like children.”
Accepting them for who they are but assisting them in doing better is the mantra. The religious, physical, social and cognitive diversity forces them to learn about and complement each other’s limitations. Someone who has needed living assistance all his life gets to be in a position where he is relied on to carry or fold up a wheel chair each time they get on the bus. Another, born with limited arm use, is able to explain to a mentally challenged peer how something works. It becomes a constant learning and growing experience and a lesson in giving.
Yachad follows the same basic itinerary of Taglit-Birthright Israel, visiting the Kotel, Yad Va’Shem, taking a boat ride on the Kinneret or sleeping on the floor of a Bedouin tent, however they usually take a different path and will focus on another aspect of a museum or historical sight. Moving slowly from place to place Yachad caters to the puzzle of extraordinary needs and makes sure everyone comes away with something. And from the look of things they succeed. Similar to most Taglit-Birthright Israel trips the religious and spiritual connection participants gained was especially strong; some were taken by surprise at how moved they were by their Jewish homeland.
At the farewell banquet they are a group like any other, with inside jokes, particular nuances, quirks and intuitive strengths of different members. There are the rowdy ones, the charmers and the ones that get the group moving. Although the talent show may not be up to par no one notices, and the awards ceremony has a distinct character with titles such as “The best wheel chair driver,” “The biggest helper,” “The best smile,” or “The most energy.” Sarah, a 23 year old outgoing, young woman receives the best student of Israel award. For her the excitement is pure Israel, she liked everything, had a great trip and learnt and saw a lot. For a person with developmental disabilities that’s a very special accomplishment.
When the counselors speak it is from a place of enormous respect. Summing it up Natan said “There’s nothing you guys can’t do”. Yes, it may take longer, go a bit slower and require special props. But people fell in love with the group wherever they went, giving everyone in their path a chance to appreciate this remarkable assemblage of Jewish kids connecting to being Jewish and, in turn, empowering those who encountered them on both an individual and national level.
Ari sees the changes from close up, “The transformation from Day 1 to Day 10 is huge.” He says “Too often people in this group don’t have a lot to smile about, but on this trip the smiles are the norm.” While these Taglit-Birthright Israel participants surmount physical and cognitive challenges day to day, Yachad ensures that their “Birthright” as Jews remains intact and that their connection to the Jewish people is only strengthened.
Dafna Renbaum is a freelance writer, living in Israel.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.