CAESAREA, Israel, Jan. 16 (JTA) — The group made its way across the rocky beaches and archaeological ruins of Caesarea, searching for ancient pottery shards and drinking in every word of the city’s fabled history along the way. These 17 young American Jews were not typical birthright israel participants. They were the first-ever group with Asperger’s syndrome — a neurobiological disorder that is considered the highest functioning type of autism.
“I feel so connected here, not so much to the religion, but to the history and people,” said Martin Barken, 26, of San Diego, adding that his condition prevented him from attending Hebrew school.
The trip taught Barken about more than Israel.
“I really feel like I have learned a lot about myself and how to interact with people better,” he said, speaking of the new friendships he forged on the trip and his delight that he could make it through such a long plane journey.
People with Asperger’s may have trouble relating to others and picking up on basic social cues. They can have obsessive behaviors and fear changes in routine. The condition sometimes is characterized by above-average intelligence often coupled with focused passions for subjects such as map reading or collecting.
“Things can springboard for us, so you need to have counselors that understand us,” Barken said. “Ours were patient and so nice.”
Birthright provides free 10-day trips for Jews between the ages of 18 to 26 who have never visited Israel on an organized tour. Its groups usually have two staff members for every 40 participants, but the Asperger’s group of 17 traveled with five staffers. Most of the counselors had backgrounds in special education and helped the participants with otherwise seemingly basic tasks of packing suitcases and getting to breakfast on time.
Bringing the group to Israel was a massive logistical and planning challenge, said Rose Sharon, a special education teacher from Chicago who spearheaded the project.
For several summers Sharon has worked with campers with Asperger’s syndrome at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin as part of a special education group. Several former and current campers were on this trip to Israel, which was organized through birthright in conjunction with Koach, the Conservative movement’s college outreach program.
“We started asking, ‘how do we get these kids to Israel?’ ” Sharon recounted.
Participants were selected based on lengthy interviews with them and their parents. Once the group was set, their special needs had to be filled, beginning with the flight to Israel. The organizers had family members fly with the participants to Kennedy Airport in New York, where the counselors escorted them onto the flight.
Sharon designed the schedule to ensure it would be both inspiring and suit the participants’ needs for routine. For example, the outings began at the same time every day. Also, participants were handed copies of the daily schedule so they knew what to expect.
Sharon also knew what to avoid, such as events like the “Mega-event” where 3,000 birthright participants gathered in Jerusalem for a mass rally of sorts with political speakers and rock bands. She knew the noise and stimulation would be too much for those with Asperger’s.
She also knew the participants would see things differently and need extra time at some of the sites to absorb the new knowledge.
After touring Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Sharon found space for the group to decompress and express their feelings in words, pictures or symbols.
One participant, Brad Leifer, 21, a student from Bethesda, Md., drew a chart of impressions in a mix of sentences and pictures of lightning bolts and physical barriers.
“Opposing forces (single mindedness) leads to stalemate and/or everybody loses and/or both are destroyed,” he wrote in a page that became included in a group journal.
The group journal was a tool Sharon came up with to help the group keep track of its time on the trip, which ended last Saturday.
Mitch Paschen, 19, a student from Baraboo, Wis., said he had long wanted to visit Israel and see “what all the fuss was about.”
He was relieved to hear a group of Asperger’s syndrome participants was being organized.
“It’s easier to be yourself,” Paschen explained. “You don’t have to worry about doing something wrong.”
Tour guide Dror Kidron had the group assemble in the remains of a Roman-era amphitheater in Caesarea where, dressed in a toga and crown of leaves, he introduced them to the city in character as King Herod.
“I have found lots of warmth and love in them,” he said. “It was a very powerful feeling when I realized that as soon as I reached out to them I found lots of openness. It’s not easy work. You have no down time. But I love every moment of their feedback, interest and knowledge.”
On the beach Kidron helped lead the group in singing “Eli, Eli.” The group learned about the poem’s author, Hannah Senesh, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who lived on a kibbutz next to Caesarea. At the age of 22 in 1944, she returned to Europe and parachuted behind enemy lines in hopes of saving Jews, but she was arrested, tortured and eventually killed by a firing squad.
The participants held sheets of the words and sang out loudly and clearly.
Leifer, who said he recently became interested in poetry, read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Daybreak” to the other participants as they sat on the shoreline.
They listened quietly as he read words that seemed to resonate:
“A wind came up out of the sea, And said, O mists, make room for me.”