Quadriplegic LOTEM program participant becomes official Israeli tour guide

Raz Rutman is not your average Israeli tour guide.

Jewish National Fund-USA and lay leaders Roni and Alan Wolk (4th and 5th from left) with Raz Rutman (center) (photo credit: COURTESY/JNF-USA)
Jewish National Fund-USA and lay leaders Roni and Alan Wolk (4th and 5th from left) with Raz Rutman (center)
(photo credit: COURTESY/JNF-USA)

With its impressive hills and historic valleys, Israel can be challenging to explore for even able-bodied people. That is why the story of Raz Rutman is so impressive.

As a child, Rutman loved to hike. Paralyzed in a car accident at the age of eight, he spent two years at the Alyn Rehabilitation Center for Children and Youth in Jerusalem. 

Eager to return to the nature that he loved, Raz quickly found the support he needed at Jewish National Fund-USA affiliate, LOTEM, the Israeli organization that strives to make all of the Jewish state accessible for people of all abilities. 

“The national service [team at] LOTEM came and helped…with everything from cooking to laundry to…social activities,” Rutman recalls. “Basically, LOTEM adopted me and my family!”

When he turned 18, Rutman decided to do his national service with LOTEM as a means of giving back and supporting others. As Rutman had taught himself impressively fluent English, someone at LOTEM suggested he start guiding tours on an accessible hiking trail. After serving as an official (and much sought-after) guide for JNF and others, Rutman decided to take the next step.

“I like to go out and meet people and I like to learn and to teach,” he reasons, “so…I decided to go to the Ministry of Tourism and somehow I convinced them that, if they gave me a recommendation to undertake a tour guide study program, I would accomplish it…. And I did!” 

Participating in multicultural and multi-ethnic sessions that sometimes lasted over 12 hours, Rutman (who also recently led LOTEM’s delegation in part of the Jerusalem Marathon) learned more about the history and cultures of Israel than most professors or government officials.

“He is a professional,” assures LOTEM’s liaison to JNF Gaylee Schif, noting that Rutman is still in high demand even when all tours have been stopped because ofCOVID-19 and that he is developing virtual tours while he waits to get back outside. “Israel is important to many nations and religions and you need to know all of that. So his knowledge is very highly respected!”

While the tour guide program is not yet recognized as an official course of study in Israel, if Rutman has anything to say about it, that too may change soon!

In the meantime, Rutman continues to encourage others to pursue the license and whatever other dreams they may have.

Among the many who have toured with and been inspired by Rutman is Atlanta’s Roni Wolk – Chair of the LOTEM Committee for Jewish National Fund-USA’s Task Force on Disabilities, who was recently named Assistant VP for the organization’s Women for Israel.

As the wife of the chair of Jewish National Fund-USA’s Special in Uniform program, Wolk has strong family ties to the organization. As her husband’s brother had special needs, she is also well aware of the challenges such people face. 

Even so, the proud grandmother maintains that it was seeing young children at LOTEM while on a mission to Israel that connected her to the organization and its cause. “I thought these could be my grandkids,” she recalls, praising LOTEM for its ability to “let kids be kids” no matter what their abilities are.

In addition to working with over 51,000 individuals annually through their famed nature programs, LOTEM also trains about 7,000 each year to support people with different abilities through programs that make myriad sites more accessible both physically and cognitively. As such, Wolk sees Rutman’s story as just another feather in LOTEM’s impressive cap.

“This is another step in showing how LOTEM enables people of all abilities to enjoy the same benefits,” she says.

Jewish National Fund-USA’s Sharon Joy pictured with Raz Rutman (Courtesy: JNF-USA)
Jewish National Fund-USA’s Sharon Joy pictured with Raz Rutman (Courtesy: JNF-USA)

Considering life with and without a disability, Rutman maintains that “not only is it important to have ways to get outside when you have a disability, it is vital!”

And as even many able-bodied people do not have the opportunity to explore all the richness Israel has to offer, Rutman hopes to inspire others to get outside as well (as soon as it is safe to do so).

“Nature does not judge you,” he observes. “You can be whoever you are and whatever you want. That is why LOTEM is so important!”

For more information on Jewish National Fund-USA’s work to support people with disabilities visit jnf.org/disabilities.

This article was written in coopertion with JNF-USA.