Original Article in The New York Jewish Week
Eight brave young adults with disabilities from across the United States traveled to Israel over winter break as part of Ramah Israel Institute’s Tikvah Ramah Israel Trip. Most of this year’s travelers are current participants in or recent graduates of the various vocational training programs at Ramah camps. They are in transition to the world of work and, in some cases, moving from their parents’ homes to other living environments. Their itinerary included many of the sites and experiences of a “standard 10-day Israel trip” and a whole lot more.
Ramah offers a Tikvah Israel trip every two years.
This year’s trip, the fifth to date, included must-see destinations such as the Kotel and Har Herzl in Jerusalem, Independence Hall and Azrieli Tower in Tel Aviv, Har Bental on the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee. Like previous trips, this trip also took into consideration the unique needs of young adults with disabilities.
In planning Tikvah Israel trips, we create opportunities to help participants gain experience
s navigating the world including self-care, independent living, group dining, food preparation, shopping and more. The unique itinerary masterfully weaves tourist attractions with opportunities to socialize with Israel friends, often in their homes, and experience Israel through all senses.
A day touring the Old City of Jerusalem, for example, was followed by the group going to various restaurants to order food and dine in small groups. For some meals, we went to (kosher!) food courts at shopping malls and made decisions about what we wanted, within our 40 shekel per person budget. Other days, we purchased an assortment of picnic ingredients and made lunch ourselves.
A trip to visit friends for dinner in their Beit Shemesh home one Thursday evening was preceded by a visit to a large supermarket, where we observed people shopping for Shabbat. We divided into committees, brainstormed foods we might serve guests at a Friday night oneg Shabbat, and went down the aisles in search of the items. We then used Israeli money and interacted with the sales clerks as wepaid.
On visits to homes of friends in Aseret and Kibbutz Alumot (overlooking the Galil), participants learned to bring a host gift, to navigate buffet lines and to have conversations around a big table. We sometimes ate outside under a grapefruit or avocado tree, and we learned that Israeli toilets have two flushers — to save water!
In Givat Zeev (Jerusalem), we serenaded our host, Avram, a longtime advisor in our vocational training program at Ramah New England, and his bride to be, Liron, with singing and dancing. (We returned to the U.S. two days before their wedding.)
While some participants took in much of what our excellent tour guide, Rabbi Ed Snitkoff, Director of Ramah Israel Seminar, shared with them through explanations, stories, songs and visuals, others connected with Israel through many handson experiences. We baked pita bread on a taboon (outdoor oven) and picked hydroponic lettuce at Kibbutz Tzuba before taking a tour of their accessible nature area.
We visited and played with guide dogs in training at the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind in Beit Oved; we picked beets as part of Leket Israel, The National Food Bank. Our hands turned purple from beet juice, we got mud on our shoes and we interacted for more than an hour with a lovely Birthright group who also came to pick beets. Some participants connected with Israel through climbing into caves at Beit Guvrin and helping excavate at the archaeological “Dig for a Day.” Others enjoyed planting a large olive tree at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, just outside the Knesset.
A highlight for some participants was spending half a day working in the zoo and farm at Kibbutz Shluchot. Some used pitchforks to bale hay; others recycled food and vegetables from the dining room to be used as feed for the farm animals. Some of us actually had the opportunity to feed monkeys; others gathered eggs. Everyone enjoyed a relaxing pre-Shabbat visit to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and a make-your-own picnic lunch on the grass overlooking the ducks and baboons.
Some meals were opportunities to enjoy delicious food while also seeing the amazing talents of people with disabilities. At Jerusalem’s Shekel Café, we enjoyed lunch prepared by workers with disabilities. We had a similar experience in the café of Beit Uri, in Givat Hamoreh in Afula. Beit Uri is home to 110 Jewish and Arab children, youth and adults with intellectual disabilities.
Going to Israel during a period of tension, uncertainty and occasional random violence can be unsettling. But participants on the Tikvah Ramah Israel Trip remained upbeat as they took in the traditional Israel trip sites, met Israeli friends in their homes, worked the land and ate delicious kosher food. These eight brave Ramahniks who happen to have disabilities are proof that people with disabilities — like all people — are capable of connecting with Israel on a very deep level.
Participant Ezra Fields-Meyer sums up his experience as follows: “The Israel trip I went on was great! It was so much fun! It was the best opportunity I have had in a lifetime! I loved going to the Biblical Zoo, Cinema City, the Kotel, the museums, the kibbutz, and much more!”
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director, observes, “These trips are so wonderful, not just because of the inspiration
it they provide s for the participants, but also as a statement that providing inclusive options for travel to Israel is not only possible but essential.” Rabbi Ed Snitkoff notes, “After guiding and teaching in Israel since 1980, I do not recall feeling as inspired as I do now, after taking part in this trip. What an amazing experience this was, to see Israel, God, Ramah, the Jewish people, and everyday life, through the eyes of incredibly special people.”
We look forward to our next Tikvah Ramah Israel Trip in two years and to a Tikvah Ramah FAMILY Trip this December. For details, please contact Howard Blas, National Ramah Tikvah Director, at email@example.com. For more information about Ramah Israel Institute’s programs for congregations, schools, and families, contact Moshe Gold, Director, firstname.lastname@example.org.