Looking for Connections

by Meredith Jacobs

Taglit-Birthright Israel’s 10-day trip to Israel has a mission to connect young Jews, ages 18 to 26, not only with Israel, but with their Jewish identity and each other. Once a year, a very special trip takes place for young adults for whom making connections is a challenge. The participants on this Birthright trip have Asperger’s Syndrome.

“With Asperger’s, the main disability is social,” said Leesa Fields, whose son Jeremy Band was a participant on the Dec. 23-Jan. 3 trip. Even though the family has traveled extensively throughout their son’s life and Band has been on a plane by himself, this was the first group trip he took by himself.

“When he expressed interest [in the Birthright trip], I jumped on it,” said Fields, who had to move quickly because at age 26, her son was about to reach the age limit of the program. “We were thrilled, but nervous. He called us every day. He made at least one new friend.”

Band, who holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in library science from the University of Maryland, is considered “high functioning.” Fields explained that while there are many programs for low functioning, she has found few options for high functioning, something, she believes that makes this particular experience unique.

According to Howard Blas, the trip leader, what presents a challenge for those with Asperger’s Syndrome is that the individuals “look typical.” This means, others “expect certain things, they don’t cut you a break. It’s different if you have Downs [Syndrome]. It can be tough for people with Asperger’s.”

Blas, who directs the Tikvah program for special needs campers at Camp Ramah in New England and runs a trip to Israel for the Tikvah campers every other year, was contacted by Rabbi Elyse Winick, director of KOACH, to help with the Birthright trip. He explained that while, in many ways, this was a regular Birthright trip, some modifications were made for the participants – there were fewer participants (20 versus 40 or 50), a greater staff to participant ratio and some large crowd events, like a concert, were eliminated from the trip. Added to this trip was a meeting with Shekel, a group of Israeli young adults with Asperger’s.

“I would have enjoyed getting to know them more,” said Band of the meeting with Shekel.

While he had been told for years to go on a Birthright trip, it was when he realized that this was his last chance to go that he signed up.

“I’ve been to Israel twice before but only with my family, never with a group of peers,” he said. “And I’m glad I did. I’ve been to many of the same places but never with native Israelis and never with kids who were like me. I got to make friends with people like me, who think the way I do and share experiences with them.”

Band, who was honored with the group’s “paper plate award” for “most brutal honesty,” stays in touch with fellow participants through a Facebook group and shared a recent Shabbat dinner with another local participant. He has plans to travel with a friend to Italy this spring with a group of retired female librarians.

The Asperger’s Taglit-Birthright Israel trip is organized by Shorashim in partnership with KOACH. KOACH, the college outreach project for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, created the Asperger’s trip in 2006. Winick said, “Everyone is focused on the notion of Birthright as a way to connect with Israel, and we all understand that the peer setting reinforces the relationship with Israel. But for this group, the ability to make those peer connections, to find those friends is almost more important than the relationship and connection to Israel. For so many of them, this is the first time they walked away from a group experience knowing what it means to belong.”

Shorashim runs more than 20 Birthright buses a season (community buses, special needs buses and special niche – like an “Israel challenge” competition bus). They partner with other organizations for specific trips. According to Naomi Shapiro, North American director of Shorashim, they are an educational organization that believes in learning about Israel through the people. “We have Israeli participants on the buses all 10 days,” Shapiro said. While the Israeli participants on the Asperger’s trip don’t have Asperger’s, they do have experience with people with special needs. “The idea is Americans get to know [the Israelis] as peers. You can’t really understand a place until you talk to its people.”

She explained that the Asperger’s trip is a “special experience for staff on the bus. Our office staff and logistical staff in Israel feel how powerful it is for the participants, and that trickles down to us.”

Blas believes that other trips may have been a challenge for his participants. “Those with Asperger’s, by definition, have social challenges. They may miss social cues like when the conversation should be over or when someone is not interested in having a conversation.” They may have been tolerated in another group, but here, he said, “they made friends.”

“For me, as someone who works so much with this population, there is such a range of everything. People often highlight the difficulty making connections but we really saw beautiful connections being made – putting their heads on the Kotel, sharing Shabbat. I would have thought more would have opted out of the group meetings, but with very few exceptions, everyone came to everything. I think the wonderful surprise was how people connected. I think what people underestimate is the desire of people with Asperger’s to connect.”

The Taglit-Birthright Israel trip with Shorashim in partnership with KOACH runs every December. Registration opens in September; however, they are collecting a list of interested participants now. For more information or to express interest, go to israelwithisraelis.com.

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