On a mission of hope

Special-needs young adults rode in jeeps on the Golan, floated in the Dead Sea, planted trees, visited the Kotel, rode donkeys and interacted with IDF soldiers like themselves.

Special-needs young adults on Birthright trip (photo credit: PR)
Special-needs young adults on Birthright trip
(photo credit: PR)
Michelle Wolf was used to hearing “no” when it came to her son, Danny, 23. Danny has limited mobility and a complicated medication regime. He needs help eating and dressing. As such, although Wolf has worked on and off as a Jewish communal professional in California for decades and sent her daughter on Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, she could not imagine Danny would be able to go to Israel with his peers. Birthright trips are known for their fast-paced, grueling schedules, including intensive physical activities and moving from hotel to hotel, and Danny would not be able to handle such an experience.
Everything changed in September, when Wolf got an email from the national Conservative-affiliated Camp Ramah Tikvah network, letting her know Birthright was running the first-ever Amazing Israel-Ramah Tikvah trip for young adults ages 18 to 29 with disabilities. Danny, who has been an overnight summer camper at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California, for nine years, was a candidate to go.
“Israel is an important part of our lives, and I wanted Danny to go on Birthright like any other Jewish young adult,” said Wolf, who immediately connected with Tikvah staff to learn more. The Tikvah program at Camp Ramah is designed for those with learning, emotional, and/or developmental disabilities.
 Special-needs young adults on Birthright trip enjoying a jeep ride.
Special-needs young adults on Birthright trip enjoying a jeep ride.
A few months later, Danny boarded the plane with a personal aide for a 10-day trip to the Holy Land, which ran from December 19 to 28. Danny was one of 21 participants with special needs to travel, along with six staff people, on the inaugural Birthright-Tikvah mission.
“I am in a state of disbelief,” said Wolf with excitement a few days into the trip. “I cannot believe it is happening.”
SINCE 1984, Ramah has organized several trips to Israel for Tikvah program participants and alumni. However, this was the first time an Israel mission was offered in collaboration with the international Birthright program, which has brought more than 600,000 young Jews to Israel since 1999, making it affordable for all. At the same time, Ramah Tikvah families could rest assured that their young-adult children would be traveling with familiar friends and staff from Ramah, and that the trip would be conducted according to the familiar Ramah Conservative framework.
“Israel is just as important to the Tikvah participants and their families on this Birthright trip as it is to all those Jews who view the Land of Israel and the State of Israel as their Jewish homeland,” said Herb Greenberg, who founded the Tikvah program with his wife, Barbara, in 1970.
When the Tikvah travelers arrived in Israel, they kicked off their experience with traditional Israeli foods – schnitzel and rogelach. The itinerary was constructed to help the young people – all with different abilities and disabilities – to experience Israel with all their senses, explained Tikvah director Howard Blas, who accompanied the mission. Participants rode in jeeps on the Golan Heights, floated in the Dead Sea, planted trees, made chocolate and touched the Western Wall.
“One girl wanted to lay tefillin and put on a tallit at the Kotel, so we helped her do it at Robinson’s Arch,” the egalitarian section at the southern end of the Western Wall, said Blas. Another participant wanted to say Shema at the Kotel. Others wanted to have their pictures taken riding donkeys. Still others wanted to snap photos in the same places where their siblings – who had traveled on mainstream Birthright missions before them – had done so.
“We are trying to listen and find out what they want, and to personalize the trip,” Blas said.
The jeep ride took the travelers through orchards and fields of avocados, pears, lemons and orange trees. They also went to the Mount Avital Nature Reserve. They made, decorated and tasted chocolate at the De Karina Boutique Chocolate Factory in Ein Zivan, and they woke up for 8 a.m. donkey rides.
“The man in charge of the donkeys was so proud of us,” said Blas with a smile. “He said how brave our group was. He sees thousands of visitors, and many are too afraid to ride.”
At Kfar Kedem, a tourist center that reconstructs everyday life in the Galilee 2,000 years ago, participants dressed in costumes from the mishnaic period and ate homemade pita and hummus.
Each morning including Shabbat, travelers participated in a traditional Camp Ramah-style prayer service, said Liz Offen, who costaffed the trip with Blas. The melodies and songs were familiar to participants, helping to unify the group, which came from a handful of Camp Ramahs across North America. The largest contingency was from Ojai.
Though not all participants were fully verbal, it was clear they knew the routine. When it was time for Shema, for example, they all put their hands over their eyes.
“We were blown away by how much each person participated,” said Blas. “There was a real sense of camp pride, with groups of participants bringing their friends up to help lead prayers. Some shared a special tune, hand motion or movement. It was beautiful to watch.”
For instance, one morning, the participants sang the “Adon Olam” hymn to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”
The Kotel was among the most important attractions. Participants wrote personal notes and then walked to the Western Wall to put them in its cracks and say personal prayers.
For Mitchell Kerbel, whose father had died of cancer just weeks before the trip, the Western Wall was especially meaningful.
“I got to say a prayer for my father,” Kerbel told In Jerusalem.
It was often the unexpected, though, that wowed the group. They oohed over 20 camels resting on the side of the road on their way into Jerusalem and were impressed by the date palm trees on their way to the Dead Sea.
THE TRIP had all the standard visits of any Birthright experience, with some added programming specific to the group. For example, it included a meeting with soldiers with special needs, part of the “Special in Uniform” initiative powered by the Yad Layeled Hameyuhad (Lend a Hand to the Special Child) association and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund.
The young adults did their meeting at the Mahaneh Lifkin army base in Kfar Bilu, where they were greeted by program director Lt.-Col. (res.) Tiran Attia. They were ushered into a large army supply room stacked with uniforms, helmets, berets and more. After they spoke with the soldiers and told them their own stories, they got to work folding uniforms alongside their Israeli peers. Then, they got to dress up in army uniforms for a photo shoot.
“The students felt, We don’t live in Israel, but if we did, those guys are like us; we would have a place in the IDF,” Blas said.
Aya Ben-Zimra, development associate for Special in Uniform, told IJ that when Israeli young adults with special needs receive letters from the state exempting them from service, they are often sad, because they want to be a part of Israeli society, and the IDF is such an integral component of all young Israelis’ lives.
Special in Uniform collaborates with schools for young adults with special needs across the country to recruit participants up to the age of 21. Some volunteers come in every day of the week, and others only twice a week. The special-needs soldiers’ jobs range from folding uniforms – like what they did with the Tikvah participants – to serving in army kitchens, dismantling computers so the IDF can sell their parts, among other roles.
“This was very special for both the Tikvah program participants and the IDF soldiers,” Ben-Zimra said. “Many of them did not know people from abroad before with the same different abilities, and there was something about it that was very special.”
She continued, “When everyone is included, everybody wins.”
Naturally, there were additional concerns on this Birthright mission. For example, in letters home, Blas had to report on what some might consider self-evident.
“Everyone remains healthy, is eating, drinking enough, showering nightly and getting a good rest each night,” Blas wrote in one of his daily emails.
He expressed pride when participants managed to “adapt” to being assigned breakfast tables different from their usual ones or got downstairs with proper outwear and other gear.
Offen said some people needed help getting dressed or even picking out clothes, while others required reminders about using their toothbrushes, brushing their hair, or putting on deodorant.
“We have learned to board the bus quickly, as buses cannot stand for a long time in one place,” Blas wrote to parents. “And we sit for roll call.”
The staff was on higher alert than normal, constantly trying to “read the group” and modify the itinerary according to their needs. One day, they canceled a visit to the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall to return to their hotel for swimming and Jacuzzi relaxation. Another day, the staff had been considering taking participants to a grocery store to see how it compares with American stores, but again they returned to the hotel for pool time.
“It is not only the places they visit, but the social experiences and opportunities for growth,” Blas said.
Three soldiers joined the trip for five days – among them Yonatan Dainov, who said he expected a Birthright trip to mean the exhaustion of staying up until 4 a.m. In contrast, the Amazing Israel-Ramah Tikvah trip had 9 p.m. bedtimes and lots of flexible time. “I feel good inside,” said Dainov. “This trip fills you up.”
Dainov said the greatest challenge was getting to know the ins and outs of each unique participant, especially because there were those travelers who feared him simply because he was a soldier. Alix Li Katz Polowitz was one of those participants.
“I am sorry!” she said to Dainov overenthusiastically one morning at breakfast about what she quickly learned was an unfounded perception about the IDF. “It was the guns!”
BIRTHRIGHT CEO Gidi Mark said it costs a lot more to run a trip like the Amazing Israel-Ramah Tikvah trip. But he said, “We don’t see it as a loss but, rather, as an investment in a young generation for whom this might be their only opportunity in life to travel on their own and to see Israel for themselves. We have donors that financially assist specifically with special- needs trips, and we’re hoping to raise more funding to offer as many special-needs trips as needed.”
Mark said studies show that Birthright Israel has had a major impact on participants’ lives. Birthright alumni are more likely to feel a connection to Israel, have a Jewish spouse, raise Jewish children, and be engaged in Jewish life, even a decade or more after the trip.
“We believe every Jewish young adult has the right to engage in the same meaningful experience, and those with special needs are no exception,” Mark told IJ.
Tikvah founders the Greenbergs, who now live in Israel, said they anticipated that the Tikvah program would continue to evolve and hence introduced many innovations into the original program, including a vocational training program and several trips to Israel that they led themselves.
“We, of course, could not have possibly foreseen the degree of expansion of the Tikvah program in both depth and breadth nearly 50 years after its founding,” said Herbert Greenberg.
Barbara Greenberg said that, since its inception, the Tikvah program has championed many basic Jewish values, including “the most fundamental Jewish value,” that every person is created in God’s image. Others include the concepts that all Jews are responsible for one another; that people must strive to find the good in others and look upon them favorably; that the wise person is the one who learns from everyone; and that every person has a place in this world and a role to play in it.
Wolf said that Danny enjoyed the trip so much that he got out of his adult stroller more than anyone could have anticipated. During the group’s visit to Safed, Danny broke out into spontaneous dance and got everyone else in the groove.
“The message of this story is a famous quote by Theodor Herzl,” said Barbara Greenberg. “‘If you will it, it is not a dream.’ All things are possible. One should not accept the word ‘never’ as a prediction of the future.”