Aboard the Aspergerâ€™s bus, a quirky â€˜mishpochaâ€™
January 4, 2013 by Howard BlasMembers of a Birthright group talk about the joys of seeing the country with people just like themselves
More than 20,000 Birthright participants will have spent 10 days in Israel by the end of the 2012-2013
winter season, including 20 participants with Aspergerâ€™s Syndrome, now known as the â€œMishpocha,â€ or Bus No. 195.
Itâ€™s not the first time that Birthright has included an Aspergerâ€™s bus â€” this one is a project of Shorashim/KOACH, the college organization run by the Conservative Movement â€” but for many of the participants, who range in age from late teens to mid-20s, itâ€™s been a while since theyâ€™ve spent so much time with their own â€œpopulation.â€
â€œItâ€™s an interesting dynamic â€” very enlightening to connect with oneâ€™s roots,â€ said Jason Shatz, who is studying at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and had a tough time deciding whether to go on Birthright with the Aspergerâ€™s group or with the Wesleyan bus. â€œIn some ways itâ€™s quite nice to be with such a population, even though Iâ€™ve developed socially in a significant way ever since I went to college.â€
For the busâ€™s â€œotherâ€ Jason, Jason Cohen, a 21-year-old sports management major at Ithaca College, the trip felt like an opportunity to return to his â€œAspergerâ€™s roots,â€ something he hasnâ€™t done since his high school days.
Funny, smart and personable, and sometimes amusingly out of context, the Birthrighters and one of the three soldiers traveling with them sat in the lobby of their hotel on the last day of the trip last week, speaking about the â€œquirksâ€ of fellow Aspergerâ€™s sufferers, favorite highlights of the trip and what it will be like to say goodbye at the end of their journey.
â€œIt was great to be around other people I can identify with,â€ said Lauren Katz, a 19-year-old from Eureka, California, who is studying art at College of the Redwoods. â€œIâ€™ve always been the kind of person whoâ€™s never really fit in; I never interacted with people I could really communicate with on the same level.â€
Gathering together a sizable group of young people with Asperger Syndrome was one of the ideas of the trip, said group leader Howard Blas
, who has run similar Birthright trips in the past. Despite the high-functioning
level of many of the Aspergerâ€™s participants, they often feel socially bereft back in their home settings; this was one place where they could experience a particular social bond.
â€œItâ€™s not common for me to meet other people with Aspergerâ€™s or higher-functioning
special needs people in Albany,â€ said Beth Katzer, 25, who works as a teacherâ€™s assistant and part-time
administrative assistant. â€œThis trip was so important for me, to make friends I could see myself being friends with for the rest of my life. Even though we all have challenges, we could all come together.â€
The Birthright trip was much like any other, including camel rides and orange-picking, trying out Israeli snack foods, floating in the Dead Sea and jeep rides in the Golan Heights. But they also met with Israelis with Aspergerâ€™s at Shekel, an umbrella organization for Israelis with special needs. The two groups bonded over favorite television shows and the Birthrightersâ€™ first tastes of peanut-flavored
Bamba and chocolate-covered
marshmallow Krembos, and there was comfort in the ingathering of fellow Aspergerâ€™s sufferers, agreed the Birthrighters.
â€œThere are kindred spirits in this population, and we share the same zeal for sharing the things in which we have expertise and same enthusiasm,â€ said Shatz. â€œRegular life has been good to me and my experience with Aspergerâ€™s is somewhat of a moot point although I do visit it now and thenâ€¦. I struggle socially more than other people, but I think Iâ€™m getting there.â€
It was that kind of disarming honesty that charmed and humbled Tomer Daloomi, one of the three soldiers who joined Bus No. 195. Told just four days before the trip that he would be placed on a Birthright bus, he didnâ€™t know what to expect, but has unexpectedly found himself seeing Israel through a very different prism.
â€œIâ€™m usually cynical, like most Israelis, but these guys are just not sarcastic,â€ he said. â€œThey were saying how they felt with no masks on at all. Theyâ€™re just always themselves.â€