Taglit-Birthright Israel seeks to provide every young Jewish adult with a first-time trip to Israel, and some organizers have taken it upon themselves recently to ensure that this mission extends to all populations. Several groups have sprung up that create trips around themes from political or religious association to hiking and economics. The programs are customized to help specific audiences connect to the sites of Israel. Late last March, the Taglit-Birthright Israel organizer Mayanot brought a group of developmentally disabled participants, ranging in age from late teens to early 20s, to the country on a trip that was carefully tailored to meet the needs of these young travelers.
“From the first day, we realized that landscapes and places meant little to this group if we didn’t point things out to them and ground them,” said Daniel Sack, director of Israel operations at Taglit-Birthright Israel: Mayanot. “So we tried to be flexible in the schedule to make things more interactive.”
The needs of the participants — who have a range of disabilities, from those on the autistic spectrum to more composite learning and developmental issues — taught both the travelers and facilitators a great deal about links between the sensory and educational natures of a trip to Israel. One of the most exciting activities — a visit to the interactive outdoor Clore Garden of Science at the Weizmann Institute of Science — was added to the itinerary once the trip was already in full swing.
In bringing together this particular group, Mayanot worked closely with The Friendship Circle, an American group affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. The Friendship Circle provides assistance and support to children and families with special needs. Recruitment for the trip began among a group of families involved in the Friendship Circle in Georgia, but word spread quickly to communities in New York, Boston and other locations.
Sack and registered nurse Ita Levine prepared programming and infrastructure for the trip months before the participants arrived in Israel. The duo worked with four other staff members, two trip doctors, two tour guides and one parent volunteer. The group interviewed participants and their
parents, preparing an itinerary that would accommodate the travelers while showing them all that Israel has to offer.
“We’ve taken the frenzy down a notch,” Levine said. “While other providers have brought disabled groups on Birthright before, they’ve all been for a profoundly physically disabled population, and here we worked hard to create a space for this particular group of participants.”
The specificity and flexibility of the trip extended to all areas of the program, including social, medical and pedagogical. Levine, who has worked on Taglit-Birthright Israel: Mayanot trips in the past, said, “On our typical trips, there are often individuals on the learning disability and autism spectrum, and while I’m happy that they can come on those, so much of the trip experience is social… it’s a shame that they’ve been willing to go out of their comfort zone to have this experience and then miss out because they don’t have the social peers able to respond effectively to their needs.”
Throughout the trip, staff worked to facilitate hands-on situations that intimately connected participants to Israel. Popular activities included jeep-riding in the Golan and hiking Masada.
“I’ve always heard about Israel and wanted to come here, especially to Masada, and I have a lot of admiration for the Israeli people,” said participant Jake Wasserman, 18. “If anything went wrong in America, I would catch the first plane back here.” Wasserman noted that upon his return home, he would look for other ways to go back to Israel.
Noach Pawlinger, a staff member of the trip and program director of The Friendship Circle of Atlanta, emphasized that after floating the idea to a few local families, he found a huge national demand for this kind of trip. Pawlinger echoed other staff in his enthusiasm in watching the delight and growing interest of the participants. “It is incredible to be able to take these kids somewhere where their soul can really flourish in the fullest way,” he said.
There are no definite plans for a similar trip in the future, but Sacks said that Mayanot is motivated to continue and expand the program.
“We certainly hope to do this again soon, but we’d need a funder to do it again,” he said, noting that the flexibility, resources and staff ratio needed for the trip require more funding per participant that the Taglit-Birthright Israel stipend provides. Activities like camel riding require hands-on support and attention that are not expected from staff of all Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.
From the point of view of these young adults, who are often shut out from a range of experiences, the trip opened their eyes to a country where they felt especially welcome. “I love, love Israel,” said Stephanie Cerep, 22, “I am so excited I am here… I love this country. I should come here by myself, even. I can learn Hebrew, and I think, even live here.”
Leora S. Fridman is a Dorot Fellow living in Tel Aviv.