For the disabled, Birthright trips are extra special

Staff and participants on a Birthright Israel trip for people with Asperger's syndrome socializing at Jerusalem's Beit Ekstein. (Bruce Sharon)

Staff and participants on a Birthright Israel trip for people with Asperger’s syndrome socializing at Jerusalem’s Beit Ekstein. (Bruce Sharon)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Pamela Saeks thought her daughter Karly, who has Asperger’s syndrome, would never be able to go on Birthright Israel, the program that offers Diaspora Jews free trips to Israel.

“For years she has been so frustrated that she can’t be like other kids and go on an organized trip to Israel,” Saeks said.

But in December, Karly will embark on a 10-day Birthright trip tailored for individuals with Asperger’s, a form of high-functioning autism. The trip will take her from the shores of the Dead Sea to the verdant plateau of the Golan Heights.

The trip is organized in partnership with Shorashim, an organization aimed at strengthening ties between the Diaspora and Israel, and Koach, the college outreach group of the Conservative movement, and has been led by special needs educator Rose Sharon.

It will be the fourth Birthright trip suited to meet the needs of people with Asperger’s.

The Asperger’s trip is one of a number of specially tailored Birthright programs for those with disabilities. Birthright, which has brought some 220,000 Jews aged 18 to 26 to Israel since its inception in 2000, also runs trips for the hearing impaired, the developmentally disabled and wheelchair users, and has had one trip for blind participants.

By the end of 2009, at least 28 groups of people with special needs will have traveled to Israel on Birthright since 2003, according to Birthright.

The Birthright trips for the disabled visit all the major sites of a typical Birthright trip, but changes are made to suit the participants’ unique needs.

At Masada, they do not ascend to the ancient citadel via the rigorous serpentine trail. Instead, they tour the Roman ramparts at the bottom of the hill and take the cable car to the top.

At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, organizers highlight the persecution by the Nazis of people with disabilities. And Asperger’s trips hold discussions about the Nazis’ persecution of Eastern European Jewry in classrooms located next to the museum to provide a better environment for participants to absorb the information.

Despite their popularity, the frequency of Birthright trips for the disabled is limited due to budgetary constraints.

“It’s an expensive trip to run, and we can’t do it again,” Hillel’s director of immersion, Andrea Hoffman, said of a trip for the mobile impaired. "People have asked us if we could get private funding and we have a lot of requests."

The costs of the trips for the disabled are higher for several reasons. Each group has a higher staff-to-participant ratio — one to three on the Asperger’s trip, for example, compared with one to 20 for regular Birthright trips.

In addition, some groups need specific and sometimes expensive facilities. Mobile-impaired groups need special buses that can accommodate more than 20 people in wheelchairs, and organizers have to scout every destination to make sure they are wheelchair accessible.

Laura Siegel, who went on a trip for the hearing impaired two summers ago, said the experience was transformative.

"I feel that this trip would leave a long-lasting impression for every deaf Jewish young adult out there in the United States, as it did for me," Siegel wrote JTA in an e-mail.

"We started out as strangers and ended up almost feeling like a family, and all it took was 10 days up close and personal sharing this amazing journey."

Lior Baruch, an Israeli special-needs teacher who has escorted three Asperger’s trips and will take part in the one in December, said one moment during his last trip sticks out in his mind.

“A few hours after the group landed in Israel, they stood on the Armon Hanatziv promenade overlooking this view of Jerusalem,” Baruch recalled. “You could see the excitement in their eyes. Some took nonstop pictures. Others called their parents. It was a touching moment.”

Rabbi Elsye Winick, associate director of Koach and one of the organizers of the Asperger’s trip, said that one of the most powerful moments on past trips came when her group met Israelis with Asperger’s.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” Winick said. “It was an experience to realize that on the other side of the world there were people just like them.”

Jeffery Odols, who is deaf and took part in a Birthright trip for the hearing impaired, raves about the experience. He said it included many memorable moments such as visiting the Bedouin in the Negev Desert and savoring the "wonderful shwarma and falafel."

But the 22-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., said the trip’s highlight was the friendships he forged with other deaf and hearing-impaired participants.

"We learned so much from each other — our backgrounds, our struggles, our identities and our aspirations," Odols wrote. "It was interesting observing personalities blend in together."

After returning from the trip, Odols was inspired to enroll in a course in Middle Eastern studies. He said he hopes one day to help Israel improve its ties with its neighbors.

"Going on the Birthright trip actually opened my eyes," he said.

 

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