Making Israel’s history and heritage accessible for all

Heritage sites throughout Israel are now more accessible than ever before for people with disabilities, thanks to Jewish National Fund-USA.

Visitors marvel at a restored C46 airplane that was used to secretly bring Jews from Iraq to Israel in the 1940s (photo credit: JNF-USA)
Visitors marvel at a restored C46 airplane that was used to secretly bring Jews from Iraq to Israel in the 1940s
(photo credit: JNF-USA)

When the Reuveni family wants to take a day trip with their three children to one of Israel’s many scenic locations, they can’t just jump in their car and head off. Because one of their daughters has a cognitive disability, the Reuvenis must research, plan, and coordinate where they will go and how they will gain access to their destination. In particular, heading to one of Israel’s iconic museums or heritage sites would usually have been off the table. Until now.

“It has always been a challenge to find somewhere we can all visit,” admits Sarah Reuveni. “The question is always ‘where can we go without having to constantly think about our child’s disability?’”

With many families such as the Reuvenis experiencing similar challenges, organizations like Jewish National Fund-USA have made significant philanthropic investments to make Israel more accessible than ever before.

Through Jewish National Fund-USA’s affiliate, LOTEM – Making Israel Accessible, people with disabilities are gaining greater inclusion and access to sites throughout the Jewish homeland.

Because LOTEM is Israel’s largest organization for outdoor accessibility for people with disabilities, the organization uses its scope to make the country’s parks, heritage sites and museums accessible to all members of the public.   

LOTEM’s specialty is cognitive access; making sure that the information and experiences at as many locations as possible are accessible for people with disabilities, including the visual and hearing impaired and people with mental disabilities. 

Thanks to a new elevator donated by Ronnit and Michael Kessler and family, people with physical disabilities can now access the below ground clandestine bullet factory at the “Ayalon Institute". (Credit: JNF-USA)Thanks to a new elevator donated by Ronnit and Michael Kessler and family, people with physical disabilities can now access the below ground clandestine bullet factory at the “Ayalon Institute". (Credit: JNF-USA)

Collaboration brings accessibility for all

Over the years, LOTEM’s team has brought their expertise to major Israeli sites such as Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, Atlit “Illegal” Immigration Detention Camp, and the Ayalon Bullet Factory, helping people with cognitive challenges process the information and be part of the experience at these sites.

LOTEM has been working with Jewish National Fund-USA for over a decade, ever since they collaborated to make Nahal HaShofet Stream the first accessible national park in Israel. 

“LOTEM and its farm at Emek Hashalom have always been dear to the hearts of our family,” said Jewish National Fund-USA Vice President of Campaign and partner (donor) Ben Gutmann. “Several years ago, we made a significant donation to LOTEM to help make a hillside pathway accessible to those that might not otherwise have had access to a forest trail.”

For over 25 years, Jewish National Fund-USA has also been working closely with the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites (SPIHS), and in more recent years, the organizations have increased their efforts to make SPIHS sites more accessible for people with disabilities. 

“Our collaboration began as a pilot project at ten of Israel’s most popular heritage sites, including Ha’Reut Museum in the Galilee and the Kinneret Courtyard, with the objective to branch out to all 200 sites under the SPIHS umbrella,” said SPIHS Executive Vice-Chairman, Noa Gefen. 

To support SPIHS’ decades-long efforts to make its sites more accessible for people with disabilities, LOTEM has been working closely with its team to provide expert advice. Through the collaboration, LOTEM works with SPIHS to identify and broaden how people with disabilities access and engage with the organization’s popular heritage sites across the country.

According to Vered Sabag, Head of LOTEM’s in-service training center, 18% of the population has some form of disability – from those with sensory and physical disabilities to those with cognitive disabilities (including learning and behavioral issues, ADHD, mental health issues, and those on the autism spectrum).

Important changes made

Change is made to the educational content and adapted to the needs of those with disabilities. For the visually impaired, models of the heritage sites are built, unique audio tours are created describing the exhibitions in detail, and voice-over explanations of all the scenes in the films screened are created. 

At the Herodian, for example, an audio-tour was created with simplified language for the cognitively impaired. While the original content is still available, the simplified version has proven to be so successful that it’s now used by most visitors.

At the HaReut Museum, where manager Ido Kahat has embraced the accessibility project with great enthusiasm, many changes were introduced. Guides at the site carry ‘prop bags’ containing replicas of items used during the period, and visitors are encouraged to touch them. 

“What was created at HaReut actually benefits everyone,” says Sabag. “Whatever is accessible is good.”

Training provided by those with disabilities

Vered Sabag heads a team of which around half is made up of people with disabilities. Some of them accompany her to training days at the various heritage sites, where the madrichim (guides) are taught how to interact with those with special needs and adapt the experience for them. Meeting people with disabilities helps break down barriers and allows staff to better understand their needs. 

Avihai Turgeman, a young man with cognitive disabilities, has been part of Vered’s team for some time and regularly participates in training days. He gives heritage site employees his “no-barriers” feedback on how they perform and suggests ways to improve. 

“I get immense satisfaction from this work,” said Avihai. “I give them my perspective, and they really listen to me. I feel that the needs of the disabled public are seriously being considered.”

Another woman who forms part of LOTEM’s advisory team is Lily Goldwine, who suffers from a degenerative eye disease. Lily’s love for art, history, and culture inspired her to push for accessibility at museums and heritage sites, and she has been involved in many of the successful projects through the SPIHS collaboration.

Her favorite is Ben Gurion’s Hut at Kibbutz Sde Boker. “We’ve created a tour where everything is described down to the smallest detail. The visually impaired are invited to touch and feel items. There are incredible audio exhibits with authentic recordings,” she said. “It’s a truly fascinating place.”

Vered added: “We can’t teach inclusivity without connecting teams to their target audience. I learn so much from them. They know their needs so much better than I do.”

The importance of inclusivity

Stressing the importance of inclusivity is Gaylee Schif, LOTEM’s liaison with Jewish National Fund-USA. 

“The idea is not only to serve people with disabilities but also the family unit,” she said. “When they have the opportunity to go out and experience things together, their quality of life improves.”

She also explained that when the typical population meets people with a disability, this contributes to the broader goal of inclusion and acceptance.

Vered added: “To see a person with special needs in a museum shouldn’t be something unusual. That’s just the way it should be. That’s the reality we’re working to achieve.”

She points out that accessibility projects done well are those that aren’t even noticed, since they’ve become part of the regular landscape. 

“You shouldn’t need signage to point out accessible features,” she says. “People with disabilities shouldn’t be separated. That’s a low level of accessibility. We aim for inclusion in accessibility: a place that’s good for everyone, where everyone enjoys the same experience.”

From LOTEM’s perspective, their ultimate objective is not to create separation, but rather to find things that bring people together to experience the rich tapestry that makes up Israel’s culture and history.

To support people with disabilities, visit jnf.org/disabilities. For more information about SPIHS, visit my.jnf.org/spihs. During Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month, every gift will be matched, up to $1 million, through Feb. 28, 2022. Click here to donate.