Sitting down to coffee in downtown Jerusalem on Wednesday, Rabbi Elyse Winick kept a watchful eye out for the 25 Taglit-Birthright participants in her charge.
To add to the usual difficulty of shepherding dozens of young people around Israel on a tight schedule, all two dozen participants who were on Shorashim Bus 230 present with autistic-spectrum or related disorders.
“I worry about him,” she said, spotting one participant who she said presented more difficulties than most. “But I see he encountered a staff member, had a conversation and kept going.”
The romp up and down Ben-Yehuda Street, the capital’s central tourist artery, is a staple for the thousands of young Jews who take part in the allexpense- paid, 10-day trip. But on this trip, during which leaders put special emphasis on keeping the group together, it offered a rare moment for the young adults to disperse, albeit within the confines of the short street.
So Winick was keeping alert.
For 10 years, the rabbi has been staffing Birthright trips catering to individuals with autism and related disorders; she shuns the term “special needs” to describe them.
The differences between these trips and ones that Winick described as “neurotypical” are subtle, she said, and generally manifest as small modifications to the 10-day itinerary.
For instance, the trip to the capital’s crowded Mahaneh Yehuda market is scheduled to avoid the weekend rush.
“Most groups go on Friday to get the feel for Shabbat,” she said. “We go on Wednesday, so we don’t get the feeling for Shabbat.”
This cadre skips Birthright’s “Mega-Event” – a raucous bonanza with dozens of groups – and favors more contained and quiet locations such as museums.
But above all, the trip requires sensitivity to the many and varied needs of the participants, Winick said.
“Each of them has their own way of interacting with the world,” she said. “For some of them, it’s a Venn diagram [of disorders], and for others it’s not.”
Sitting across from her at the street’s inlet was Graham, a participant from Long Island.
He said he had a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety, but “Asperger’s not so much.”
Trip organizers asked that the last names of participants be withheld.
Graham noted that he was having many of the same experiences as his brother, who went on a neurotypical Birthright trip.
“He climbed Masada, he visited Mount Herzl – everything we did, it’s just at a slower pace,” he said.
He added that he was considering moving to Israel.
Winick said the trip aimed to show that these participants were as capable of making the move to Israel as anyone else.
One of the items on the itinerary is a visit to Shekel, an organization that arranges housing for people with autism and other disabilities.
Indeed, this group has its advantages: According to Winick, participants tend to be more punctual than the average Birthright traveler.
They are also, in many ways, better at expressing their emotions, she said.
Seated between Graham and Winick, Julia, a participant from Boston, said she suspected that the trip entailed a higher-than-average amount of “sniping” among participants.
But even on that point, Winick disagreed.
“Everyone finds it hard to get along with a new group and be under-slept and over-stimulated,” she said.
Winick, who is the Jewish chaplain for Brandeis University, had no training or background in dealing with autism or related disorders before beginning her decade’s worth of Birthright trips. She joined in the program’s first year and learned on the job.
Now, the hotels to which they return on a near-annual basis know the staff and the needs of the participants.
“It’s like that sabra story – you have to get past the prickly layer, and all of a sudden they want to be accommodating,” Winick said.
The program seeks to enroll high-functioning individuals – though Winick admitted that some were not, as the trip organizers hesitated to turn people away.
She noted that some popular theories of dealing with autism advocated assimilating individuals into mainstream environments.
But the American Jewish community – not to mention society at large – is sometimes less than inclusive, she said.
As such, engineering a trip especially for individuals with autistic-spectrum and related disorders is a way to offer those people a sojourn that plays a prominent role in many young Jewish circles in the Diaspora.
“When the world changes and there’s more mainstreaming, we won’t need a separate group,” she said.
Trip leaders are required to have some experience working with autism or other developmental disorders (Winick is an exception because she acts in a rabbinical capacity).
They also shun the widespread practice of visiting with friends and family in Israel, so as to keep a closer eye on the participants.
The trip’s staffers seem willing to put in the effort.
“While this [trip] might have been a little different because of the level of support needed by the participants, it is the same type of encounter for them, and we are pleased they were able to take part in this life-changing experience that every young Jewish adult has been experiencing until now,” Taglit-Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark said in an email.
Added Winick, “We had to come up with a way for everyone to take advantage of the gift Birthright gives.”