Yachad Israel Free Spirit Trip: Illuminating Hearts by the Light of Israel

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Trip participants with staff member Alexandra Levy, roasting marshmallows over a fire following a great evening at the Bedouin hospitality tents.
10 Jul 2012

“So, Ally, this trip you’re about to go on,” people would challenge. “Do you really think the participants will be able to appreciate it?” That question would be directed toward me as I described my excitement about staffing an upcoming Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. The program was a unique one for adults with cognitive, physical, and developmental disabilities in partnership with Yachad, the OU’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities and Israel Free Spirit (IFS) – the OU’s Birthright Israel program.

Trip participant with staff member at the Mount Bental Observatory in the Golan Heights and former Israeli bunker.

Over the last several years, I have devoted my free time to working and volunteering with the special needs population in a variety of settings. I was a counselor in summer camps, a volunteer on various travel trips and Shabbatonim (weekend programs), and serve as a weekend counselor in a group home for young adult women with disabilities. My experiences have molded my outlook on the power of the human capability to change the life of another person just by simply welcoming them. It taught me that we do not have to be a rocket scientist or billionaire to the change the world, but that we can change one person’s world through the power of our everyday actions.

However, I have also become used to fielding questions along the lines of, “Why do you bother?”  Questioners may assume that having a disability makes you incapable of thinking, feeling, or appreciating. They may assume that opportunities such as connecting to the Jewish land is suddenly less important for those who some deem “less important.” In response, I usually keep my answers brief. All of us were created in the image of G-d, Who created each person exactly the way they should be. It is never up to another human to determine the limitations of another. Accordingly, each of His creations deserves a fair chance. For some, this chance needs to be tailored a bit more – and that is what Yachad is for.

When Birthright trips tour Israel, there is a common theme among the groups–unity. Jewish young men and women are able to experience their Jewish birthright. They can unite and rejoice in their land; they can bond with a new group. IFS Yachad also experiences these special connections. But unlike other groups, Yachad staff works with special enthusiasm to ensure that this connection was brought to levels each participant could connect to.

A trip participant with two of the three Israeli “Mifgashim” soldiers that accompanied the group.

The OU’s Israel Free Spirit staff greeted our group of men and women aged 18-26, as we gathered from across the country at JFK to embark on a journey together. Participants came with a wide range of disabilities, including autism, Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy. They came from different levels of observance ranging from Hasidic to unaffiliated; each came bearing unique personal challenges, but all had a single goal in mind.  We met as 32 anxious strangers, and we left as a family, united B’yachad, as one.

We helped one another learn new lessons about the land and Jewish history. We held hands to help each other cross the slippery Jerusalem stone. We proudly donned our Birthright T-shirts and filled the Kotel (Western Wall) with our personal prayers. And after a long day or particularly meaningful activity, we would come together as a group to reflect and share our thoughts. For likely one of the few times in each of their lives, the entire room was focused on and genuinely interested in their opinions. Instead of being looked at for what others deemed them incapable of, they were encouraged to stand up before the group and express themselves.

We focused on what we can do, we rejoiced in our abilities.

Before our eyes, we watched participants from across the country bond over a common love for Israel, share common struggles–such as physical challenges with walking, difficulties with social interaction in big groups, making new friends, fear of leaving home or flying–and use them to form new connections. Even the most introverted participants

The group singing Israeli songs to the beat of drums and music on a Kinneret boat ride.

began to shine, their hearts illuminated by the light of Israel, new friendships, and fresh experiences. They blossomed with the extra effort Yachad put in to help them feel connected to their roots. Finally, our group experienced it for themselves, connecting to the Jewish land their own way, not through secondhand accounts. We traced the steps of our forefathers as we danced and sang in the streets.

We felt proud.

After visiting the Kotel for the first time, one participant shared, “I feel like being able to go on this trip, I won the lottery. I finally sense a direct connection to G-d.” As we shared more thoughts and stories, there were tears and laughs and hugs all around. “Being here makes me think of my grandparents and relatives who passed away,” said another. “It makes me want to keep our family traditions alive.”

The land of Israel was given by G-d to the Jewish people to love and protect through every generation. IFS and Yachad reminded us that our Judaism is a shared, holy gift that we all deserve to rejoice in. Through this trip, Yachad taught us that all of us have a neshama, a Jewish soul. Accordingly, every neshama longs to connect to its roots, each in its own way. It taught us about our collective responsibility toward each other and the effort we must each contribute to ensure this. It showed us how to look at others as an equal member of the Jewish nation, each seeking to live a meaningful life.

Trip participants with staff member Alexandra Levy, roasting marshmallows over a fire following a great evening at the Bedouin hospitality tents.

During times of hatred and intolerance throughout the world, our trip served as a beacon of light setting an example for people of all backgrounds. Walking the streets of Israel, our group was stopped countless times. “Who were we? Where were we from?” they all wanted to know. Some onlookers even went so far as to stand up out of respect for the beautiful and contagious unity before them.

You ask, will they appreciate the trip and the Land of Israel? On the contrary, they taught me how to appreciate it! For this, I forever stand up for you, Yachad.

Yachad reminds us to open our hearts and minds, to see the light in each Jew and welcome them into our communities. Most importantly, you need not go on a ten-day trip across the world to make this happen. If we take a few moments of each day to look beyond ourselves, we will see small opportunities to help another, to break down the walls of judgment and to foster Inclusion.

With our collective efforts, each neshama, each soul, will be able to stand united B’yachad, as one.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.