Today I’m happy to share with you a fascinating description of Israel through the eyes of a group of young adults with Asperger Syndrome. Howard Blas, architect of Ramah New England’s highly respected inclusion program, accompanied this group on their Birthright trip and reports below on their experiences.
I hope you enjoy this sensitive and thoughtful piece as much as I did.
Fresh Perspectives on Israel
By Howard Blas, Director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah New England
A recent Taglit-Birthright Israel trip sponsored by Shorashim and KOACH was both a typical Birthright trip and a “uniquely Asperger Syndrome” experience rolled into one. The 21 young adults, ages 18-26 and from all corners of the US, spent ten days over Winter Break taking in many of the important sites and experiences of Israel: Jerusalem, Masada, the Dead Sea, camel riding in the Negev, jeep riding in the Golan, Rabin Square, Shabbat, and time interacting with our three participating Israeli soldiers. The highlights (beautiful scenery, good food, fun!) and complaints (too structured, strict rules against drinking) mirrored those of any other Birthright trip.
This depth of knowledge is expected from a group with AS. The desire to connect with people and place, the ability to articulate what it means to have AS, and the willingness to support peers are generally not. And yet, the group experienced all of these as well.What made this trip different were the extraordinary contributions of the participants. Some of these were to be expected from a group of young people with Asperger Syndrome (AS): vast knowledge about the Bible, archaeology, World War II battles, sci-fi books, and video gaming systems. One participant recited verbatim, from memory, and in Hebrew, the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence as we heard the recording of Ben Gurion reading it in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. A few offered corrections to our amazingly knowledgeable tour guide.
The trip included daily prayer in a variety of locations, and conversations about the weekly Torah reading and about Jewish perspectives on ability and disability. Over Shabbat, nine participants read from the Torah scroll we borrowed from the Fuchsberg Center for Conservative Judaism in Jerusalem. One young woman celebrated a first bat mitzvah while another marked a second. “No friends came to my bat mitzvah. Here, I am among friends.” After our visit to the Kotel, a few participants reported hearing God speaking to them from the stones of the wall. One participant felt “a surge of pride in being Jewish.” Another shared, “My spirituality has been heightened.” Several enjoyed reading from the Torah scroll we traveled with—and celebrating bat mitzvah among friends.
One young man found it rewarding helping and being helped by fellow participants as they walked down the steep, slippery, rock-filled path down to the Dead Sea. A young woman thanked the group for the patience and kindness they showed her as she made the difficult walk up the Roman Ramp at Masada.
At the “Invitation to Silence” exhibit at the Children’s Museum in Holon, the participants relished the challenge of communicating non-verbally with deaf guides and with each other, which is difficult for some people with AS.
Several commented on the powerful experience of meeting with Israeli peers with AS at the Shekel program in Jerusalem. “I didn’t know there were people in Israel with Asperger Syndrome.”
In our group processing meetings some spoke of making a first friend, or of being in a group where people understood them—especially when people at their jobsites and degree programs (Associates, Bachelors, and Masters alike) do not. Some spoke of returning to Israel—to live. “I can see myself at Shekel when I move to Israel.” One shared the power of being in a group of people like him, “who should feel more comfortable socializing—but don’t—even after having been told and shown how hundreds of times!”
Ultimately the AS group, like all Taglit-Birthright Israel groups, came to share in the experience of being Jews in their homeland. For ten days they experienced living as a community of Jews, despite sometimes feeling marginalized by Jewish communities back home. And, beyond the tzedakah they donated and the oranges they picked at Leket Israel, they left a deep impact on the Holy Land—the idea that people with disabilities have much to contribute.