Can young adults with disabilities truly appreciate the Israel experience? Having returned from leading a Tikvah Ramah Israel trip for twelve adults ages 18 to 40 with autism, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy and a range of intellectual disabilities, the answer is unequivocally YES! And there should be more opportunities for Israel trips–for all populations, following a range of models from inclusive, to family trips and more.
For people with disabilities—as for all Jews—Israel comes to life when experienced first-hand, through all of the senses. Over the course of the five Israel trips I have led for people with disabilities, we have touched, smelled, seen, heard and tasted Israel. As soon as we get off the plane, we traditionally head straight to LEKET to pick peppers or oranges or other produce for people in need, or to plant trees. This year, our first stop was Neot Keduim where we saw, touched and smelled many of the plants mentioned in the Bible—on our way to plant our very own saplings. When our guide tells familiar stories from the Bible—right where they happened—Israel comes alive!
We activate our senses through archaeological digs (at Dig for A Day in Beit Guvrin), though baking “surprise bread” at Kibbutz Naharayim, and through making chocolate at Galita at Kibbutz Degania Bet. Of course we also enjoyed touching and putting notes in the Western Wall, floating in the Dead Sea (and covering ourselves with Dead Sea mud!), eating falafel and shwarma, and “experiencing” all of Jerusalem getting ready for the Sabbath by battling the crowds in the Machane Yehuda market—buying challah, dried fruits and nuts, and of course, marzipan!
In Israel, we go in to supermarkets and see how the products are different and similar to the ones we are used to back home. We eat in restaurants and notice that so many are kosher. We observe very few Christmas decorations or trees—even though we are in Jerusalem on December 25th. And we notice that New Year’s Eve in Israel is no big deal.
We traveled Israel through various types of transportation. We drove to the North and South by bus. We went up to Masada and down to Rosh Hanikra by cable car. And we, of course “went up” to Jerusalem (and down to the Western Wall Tunnels) on foot, like pilgrims. .
This year, we hiked the inclusive nature trial of JNF/Lotem at Nachal HaShofet and even entered an accessible cave. One of our participants, Jeremy, was taken by the word “inclusive” in the sign at the entrance and commented, “Israel has come a very long way toward inclusion since my last visit ten years ago!”
A highlight of the trip was visiting the Bar Lev/MAZI army base and meeting with the base commander, Yitzchak Akrish, and ten soldiers with disabilities who work in the kitchen, the office, store room, print shop and with the Military Police. The base commander is changing attitudes for the 1,000 soldiers on his base through his inclusive approach. One of our participants, Eric, was pleased to see that people “like us” are serving in the army.
Of course a major highlight for our group was seeing and going to the homes of so many of their Israeli friends from camp; our camp, like many others, bring many shlichim/emissaries to teach and bring a taste of Israel each summer.
I suspect there is one thing our group may have missed—an awareness of their impact on those around them—from the shlichim we met, to hotel guests and workers, to 50 teenagers from Brazil, to random people on the streets. Our participants do not realize that it is not the norm for people with disabilities to travel freely and confidently to and around Israel. Kol Hakavod (well done!) to their brave, visionary parents for their trust in us—and for recognizing the importance of Israel for all Jews. I pray for the day when all people with disabilities will have the opportunity to experience the Holy Land—and to bring holiness to Israel.
Howard Blas is the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England and is a consultant on disabilities camping programs to the National Ramah Commission. He also teaches Jewish Studies and bnai mitzvah preparation to students with a wide range of disabilities. Howard is a 2013 recipient of the prestigious Covenant Award.” Connect with Howard on Twitter!