Educational Director, Yael Tamari, reflects on a Yachad Birthright Trip done in partnership with Israel Free Spirit and Taglit Birthright Israel. Yachad | NJCD (National Jewish Council for Disabilities) is dedicated to enhancing the life opportunities of individuals with disabilities, ensuring their participation in the full spectrum of Jewish life.
Coming to visit the Yachad group during the tour was both inspiring and emotional. Still, I caught myself wondering more than once: what is the significance of the trip taking place in Israel, on birthright, for a very large group of participants who are physically as well as developmentally challenged? I also questioned myself regarding the wisdom of having allowed ‘Yachad’ to bring a group of participants with such varying intellectual capabilities, wondering if the trip met all participants’ social and intellectual needs.
We even invited Machon Szold (Hadassah’s Child and Youth Welfare Organization) to come and observe closely: to assist us in getting a clear picture and upfront knowledge as to where the efforts and resources were going in this regard. Then I came to the summary session.
I was shocked to hear the participants talk, as I can’t explain how many have severe communication difficulties, whether they are on a higher or lower functioning scale. So many of the participants expressed how this trip was a dream come true for them and over and over again wished to thank birthright and everyone involved in the trip, that I feel it is a duty to convey their thanks.
Below you will find an excerpt of what just a few of them had to say:
Rachel (Rachel is deaf and wheel chair bound. She is an excellent lip reader and throughout the trip had the guides stand in front of her face so she could see them. The incredible thing she took upon herself was that she simultaneously translated whatever was being said to sign language for the participant Nathanial Page, who is both deaf and severely ADHD, and cannot read lips. Sometimes a fellow participant would be talking and since many of them do not speak clearly, Rachel was unable to read their lips. In those instances a staff member would repeat what the participant would be saying so everyone could understand, while a different staff member, often the tour guide, would sit in front of Rachel, quietly mouthing every single word that was being said, and Rachel in turn would sign language the words to Nathanial. After witnessing an entire summary session encounter being handled in this manner, my life will not be the same again).
Rachel chose to say the following things at the summary session:
I want to say a few words to express my words and feelings with all of this. First I want to thank all of you for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime. I want to thank all of you for being so patient with me and taking the time to communicate with me and…sometimes it can be so frustrating, but you were all so motivated, it really meant so much to me.
Also I wanted you all to know that I really enjoyed teaching you sign language! It’s nice to see how you all want to learn. Being in Israel felt so amazing, I heard so many great things about Israel before I came on this trip. And now that I am here I can really know and see what everyone says, make my own opinions for myself. I saw so many amazing places, the one thing that stood was when we went to Jerusalem.
What I loved about it was that I was able to see and learn and feel how powerful the place is. I also loved camping, riding the donkeys, the boat ride and so much more.The experiences here are so unique and so wonderful.
One final thought: I want to say how much I love birthright Yachad for giving us an amazing experience to hold onto the rest of our lives. It’s incredible that regardless of our disabilities, whether it’s deafness, blindness or so on, you allowed us to take part in this trip. So I want to thank all the staff and all of BIRTHRIGHT for making this dream a reality and so unforgettable. I mean all this from my heart, I love you all.
Yakov (Yakov is one of several autistic participants who participated in the trip):
My favorite part was getting to meet new people, but really the kinneret riding, the jeep rides and especially the kotel. I am going to bring back with me the memory of how much I loved staff, loved Israel, and even if I have to go through pain it is worth it. There is a lot of love.
No matter what it doesn’t matter, as long as you are with people you love. We all come from different places but we can all learn and grow together about Israel and other things. I want to thank the staff and birthright for allowing me to be on this trip. People asked me what I am going to do after the trip- I am going to try and make Aliya as soon as possible
Nathaniel (deaf, ADHD):
Just to see how amazing Israel was, learning about the history of the Jews and of Israel
My favorite part was being in Israel for the first time, going to the kotel for the first time, meeting people I haven’t seen in many years. I learned that when you think you can’t do something, you need to try it out first. What I am bringing back home is the experience and the hope to come back again in the future and with friends. It was fantastic meeting all of you guys, and realizing I have a cousin on the trip!! I’ve seen pictures of Jerusalem and have always wanted to come, but there’s a big difference usually between a dream and things that come true. I never thought I would get to see Israel . I am so happy that this dream came true for me
Hillary (the program’s medical physician, first time in Israel):
I’ve listened to all the many things you’ve said. I even made a list of top things I loved and am going to take back. I learned that snaps, and loves and hugs make everything better. I learned that falafel is tastier here in Israel. I learned that camels are mean and that the camel behind you wants to bite you.
You never know how strong you are until you walk up cobble stoned streets and dirt paths with crutches and wheel chairs; with history behind you in a place called Masada or the future in front of you in a city called Jerusalem.
I leaned that everyone’s stomach hurts in this country; I learned that Israeli rest stops are much cooler than American rest stops; I learned that inside of everyone there is a little bit of an Israeli soldier.
I learned that a Holocaust museum, which is a very sad place, can also be inspiring. It’s been an honor to be your doctor. I can’t think of anyone else I would rather be with in this country or in this moment with or on this trip with.
Chayim (Staff member):
I have been to plenty of these kinds of meetings before, but have never said something, never had the ability…I have learned so much from so many of you and there is no way I can thank you all for the things you did. There was always an assistant behind someone or an assistant in front of someone, helping out without being asked or recognized, it’s what made this trip possible. The lesson that I will take away is that two people working together can do anything…
Lauren (a very high functioning participant with multiple medical conditions that are not always apparent. Lauren can walk a little but wears braces):
I feel like I can be myself around here in terms of my disabilities, no secrets. I feel closer to all of you here than to people I’ve been with my whole life. I loved going into the Kinneret, it was like a relaxing dream. The last few days of the trip were the first time I’ve ever shown my braces. Thank you. When I go home I’ll feel more comfortable doing that.
I went to a Jewish school and everyone around me had been to Israel except for me. Now I have my own idea and sense of what Israel is, it is not some abstract for me and I feel so wonderful about it and connected, thank you.
To find out more about Yachad programs, events, etc…, please visit: Yachad|NJCD (National Jewish Council for Disabilities or Taglit-Birthright Israel : Yachad – National Jewish Council for the Disabled
To find out more about the OU’s Birthright opportunities, please visit: Israel Free Spirit
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.