Vancouver special needs group makes ‘inclusion journey’ to Israel

Participants enjoy connecting to their Jewish heritage

THE GROUP from British Columbia visits Yad Vashem. (photo credit: SHARI ROBINS)
THE GROUP from British Columbia visits Yad Vashem.
(photo credit: SHARI ROBINS)
A group of 10 Canadian adults with a range of mental health, learning and physical challenges concluded a 10-day visit to Israel on Wednesday, having taking part in a unique program catered to their diverse needs.
The trip, titled the “Inclusion Journey to Israel,” was organized by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Vancouver for its “Bagel Club” – a social club for adults with diverse needs that focuses on social and recreational activities while promoting Jewish heritage and education.
“I can’t believe I am here, it is a dream come true,” said Alissa Polsky, in blog post featuring participants’ reflections, compiled by Cohen on the second day of the trip. That day, the group visited Independence Hall, explored Nahalat Binyamin’s arts and crafts market – both in Tel Aviv – and took part in a dig at Beit Guvrin National Park.
“I am crying already. I am home, I am comfortable here,” said Polsky. “I am with my friends, I am with Kathleen and Leamore, they are fabulous, Shari and Meir are tov, tov, tov, tov. I love them all. At Independence Hall I got goose bumps because that is where the State of Israel began. The market was fun and our lunch was fantastic.”
“I always dreamed of going to Israel,” remarked Frederick Dexall. “I have been through a lot so I was really looking forward to this trip. It is a trip of a lifetime.”
While touring the usual sites of interest to Jewish visitors, the program also sought to empower participants by “presenting a Jewish culture inclusive of each individual and yet supportive of individual differences.”
“For Jewish people, traveling to Israel means going home. As Jewish people, we all connect to Israel on some emotional, historical or spiritual level. The sense of belonging, connection and history bring most of us to Eretz Israel at some point for simchas [festive occasions] or simply to exercise our birthright to visit the Jewish homeland,” said Leamore Cohen, trip leader and inclusion services coordinator. “Unfortunately, this is not true for all members of our community in Vancouver and across North America.”
To make the trip possible for those members who cannot partake in the more mainstream trips to Israel, the JCC partnered with Access Israel, whose main mission is to promote accessibility and improve the quality of life of the disabled population.
Access Israel’s Motek Shel Teatron inclusion theater group teamed up with the Bagel Club for some joint programming, which included a meeting at the Knesset with MK Ilan Gilon, chairman of the Knesset Caucus for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and a theater workshop in Tel Hai in the Galilee Panhandle.
Participant David Berger said he was inspired by the meeting with Gilon and put his faith in Israel’s democracy, though he also noted a lack of priority placed on the disabled community.
“People with disabilities should have the same rights and receive the same benefits and have enough money to get through the month,” Berger said. “People with disabilities are not high on the agenda it seems.”
“I asked if he [Gilon] could email [British Columbia Premier] Christy Clark, because in Canada I feel that we don’t have anybody and that we are alone; we don’t have anybody that really supports people with diverse needs,” Polsky said of the same meeting. “And the amazing thing was that our Israeli friends were saying the same things; we have the same struggles, we have the same needs. And we are not there yet.”
Upon returning to Canada on Thursday, Cohen described the experience as a “one in a lifetime trip” for all those involved. “I have been to Israel many times before but never like this, this trip was transformative,” she said. “I can honestly say that everyone who was part of the mission was impacted profoundly about the importance of sharing Israel, to make travel accessible and available to all members of our community.”
The trip was made possible by a number of groups and individuals including the Gesher Chai Committee, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, community members, the Jewish Community Center Association, tour guide Shari Robins and the participants.
“The programming was powerful and life-changing,” said Cohen. “It really allowed us to understand some of the issues and challenges facing similar populations as ours.
This programming, focused on disability advocacy and relationship building, was the result of months of collaboration and planning.”