disabilities

Original Article in the Jerusalem Post

As the bus rolls up to the army base, A., one of the participants on the first ever Amazing Israel: Ramah Tikvah trip, begins to cry.

“No, there are soldiers here and they’ll have guns,” she moans. “No, no, no, no.”

Staff member Liz Offen speaks quietly and calmly.

“I know this is difficult for you,” she tells A. “We’re here for you. I know you can do this.”

A., holding hands with a friend, cautiously gets off the bus. At first she won’t even enter the large warehouse where special needs Israeli soldiers are folding army uniforms. She sits down outside, her friend with her, but she has stopped crying.

The participants on this Birthright trip, most of whom have attended the Tikvah program at different Ramah camps in the US, have a wide range of disabilities, both physical and emotional. They have come to the Bilu army base in Rehovot, outside Tel Aviv, to meet Israeli soldiers who also have disabilities and who are part of the Special in Uniform project.

The project takes more than 300 young Israelis with significant disabilities and trains them to do simple jobs in the army. It starts when the participants are still in school, which they attend until age 21. They can then volunteer for the army, and, if found suitable, can be inducted. 

The Bilu army base is a logistical base for the Paratroopers Brigade. Today, the students are folding army uniforms and tying them together in stacks of five. They come one day a week as part of their school program.

“The goal is to integrate them into Israeli society,” said Tiran Attia, a retired lieutenant-colonel, who runs the program. “It is good for them, but it is also good for the regular soldiers. It teaches them to become more compassionate.

The army runs a separate program called Ro’im Rahok (Seeing Far), which integrates young high-functioning adults with autism in Israeli intelligence units.

The young uniform folders carry tables outside so that the Birthright participants can help with the folding. A few participate, but most just watch.

The Birthright participants enjoy putting on Israeli army uniform shirts and hats. One young man proudly says that his father served in the army and he is happy to be visiting an army base.

This is the first time that Birthright Israel has partnered with Tikvah of Camp Ramah. Tikvah is a program for campers with special needs at each of the Ramah camps. The Camp Ramah spirit infuses this trip, which includes daily tefillot, or morning prayers, as well as a spirited version of “Rise and Shine” complete with hand gestures.

Howard Blas, the director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network, and one of the organizers of the special needs trip, says they made some changes to the traditional Birthright itinerary, while still hitting up the major sites in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, Masada and the Dead Sea.

For example, the group did visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, but kept to a few of the smaller exhibits, rather than the main museum, which can take several hours to go through and is difficult to exit once you begin.

“We did a lot of things that are very multi-sensory like chocolate making, a jeep ride in the Golan and tree planting,” he said. “We also tried to do as many things as possible with animals because they love animals.”

Birthright has so far brought 600,000 Jews on free 10-day trips to Israel, including 2,000 adults with special needs.

Birthright CEO Gidi Marks says it is committed to bringing every young Jew who wants to visit Israel on a trip.

“OFFERING SPECIAL needs trips fits in with our broad mission of enabling each and every young Jew around the world, regardless of their circumstances, to take part in a once in a lifetime trip to Israel and connect with their Jewish heritage and identity,” he said. “These trips include all the hallmarks of the usual Birthright Israel experience: heritage sites, Israeli peers and countless special moments allowing them to connect with Israel and the Jewish heritage. Additional staffing and educational content customizations are made when and where necessary.”

For the parents of these young adults, it was a chance for their kids to be just like their neuro-typical siblings.

“I don’t think he would get an opportunity like this any other way,” Aron Wolf, whose son Danny has cerebral palsy and limited verbal ability, said. “I was skeptical that it would come through but it did. As far as I know, this is the first time that somebody with Danny’s disabilities has been included in any Birthright trip.”

Birthright Israel funded a caretaker for Danny, as well. His parents, like the parents of all the young adults on the trip, were thrilled to see the photos posted on Facebook each day. They also checked in with the caretaker frequently by phone.

“It sounds corny but he has the same birthright as any other young adult who is Jewish to experience Israel independently without his parents,” Danny’s mother, Michelle Wolf, said.

This is the first time that Danny has been so far from home. While he attends Camp Ramah in California, Michelle says that she is just a short flight away. She says she was concerned about sending Danny so far away alone.

“The idea of him being so far away from me was difficult,” she said. “I would have never even considered it if he hadn’t spent all of those summers at Camp Ramah.”

Tour guide Doron Kornbluth specially requested to guide this Birthright group. While most Israeli tour guides compete to stuff in as many sites and as much content as possible, Kornbluth said he had to take the participants’ disabilities into account.

“YOUR EXPECTATIONS have to be completely different,” he said. “A tour guide who is really invested wants to start early, end late, pack in a lot of information, teach a lot of history and that’s just not doable for this group. You cannot do as much at all.”

Another challenge is the range of disabilities of the participants. While all of them, except Danny, are able to walk, and most are able to speak clearly, a few are higher functioning.

Rachel Tracosas, 22, from Madison, Wisconsin, has high-functioning autism.

“It’s been an amazing experience to connect with my roots here in Israel,” she said. “I loved going donkey riding and going to the Kotel, which is what my brother did when he did Birthright last summer.”

The participants seemed to connect deeply with each other. Tracosas fed Danny at a lunch stop when the participants were given a budget and could choose what they wanted from a kosher food court in a local mall. Even that small independent step was exciting for them. They looked at all possible choices and discussed them before making their final decision.

Michelle Wolf said Danny’s caretaker told her that he is popular and that the participants all wanted to push his stroller. During lunch, several of the girls gathered around him, feeding him and smoothing his hair.

And every morning, when Danny managed to pull himself onto the bus by himself, his new friends gave him a spontaneous round of applause

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Original Article in The New York Jewish Week

t the farewell dinner in Tel Aviv on the last night of our ten day Birthright Israel Amazing Israel Ramah Tikvah trip, we went around the table sharing memories and trip highlights. The 21 participants with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the six staff members, representing five Ramah Tikvah Programs and twelve states—from Wisconsin to Alabama—spoke enthusiastically about the jeep ride on the Golan Heights, the de Karina chocolate making workshop at Kibbutz EIn Zivan, the Night Spectacular Sound and Light show at the Tower of David in Jerusalem, the Biblical Zoo, the view of Syria from Golan, Masada, the Dead Sea, the Kotel, and shwarma! The participants then asked for my highlight. It didn’t take long for me to share my answer, though my highlight was so much more than a place. “Tefillot and your knowledge of Israel and Judaism,” I replied, as the group asked for clarification.

Tefillah is Israel. Courtesy of Howard Blas

Each day, our group met for morning prayers, in such places as hotel bomb shelters, banquet rooms, outdoor tents, and the bus. We used a special Tikvah siddur from Ramah camps, we faced east, and south—depending on our location. Some participants wore kippot, tallis and tefillin. And we sang such “classics” as Modeh Ani, Mah Tovu, Halleluya and Shema, and such Tikvah Ramah favorites as the Baruch SheaMARCH, Thank You, God, and The Rise and Shine Amidah Song. (The group had no problem MARCHING to the Baruch SheaMARCH prayer when we were praying in the hotel; they weren’t sure how we could safely march on the bus ride to Masada. We decided it was safer to sit!)

The participants got up early to sing and dance and share this meaningful experience with camp friends—all before eating a sumptuous hotel or kibbutz guest house breakfast. Alexa sat in the back of the room, or at the front of the group, using Hebrew sign language to sign each acrostic prayer—Ashrei, El Baruch and El Adon. She was happy to teach her friends Hebrew the sign language she learned at Camp Ramah in New England.

The California Ramah group recruited their friends to come up and lead the Shema and VeAhavta—making sure all eight members of the camp in Ojai, California were there.

Sam wanted to make sure we left time each morning for Adon Olam–and wondered, “Who will say the Shema with us each night before bed?”

Maddy, a female participant from Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, wanted to make sure she would have an opportunity to put on family heirloom tefillin—at the Kotel. We excused ourselves from the group’s tour of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park-Davidson Center, found a special spot, and had a few moments of special prayer, wrapped in tefillin.

The participants from the various Ramah Tikvah Programs felt a sense of connection to their fellow campers.  They enjoyed the predictability of the daily prayer ritual. And they looked forward to thanking God each day for the many gifts they have received. Isn’t that what prayer is all about?

Maddy asked me before the trip if she could lead birkat hamazone on Shabbat and we had a few takers for kiddush and hamotzi as well.

Ramah Tikvah participants in Israel. Courtesy of Howard Blas

Our tour educator, Doron, an observant Jew himself, was blown away, observing that this knowledge of and enthusiasm for prayer was not typical of most Birthright trips, or any Israel trip for that matter. He was also impressed with their level of knowledge about Israel and Judaism in general.

When Henry offered a scholarly explanation at Tel Dan in the north to a question about Israel’s water issues, Doron calmly removed his tour guide license from around his neck and placed it on Henry. “You are our tour guide now!” Henry was so excited, sharing his YouTube video acquired knowledge about drip irrigation and desalinization. Doron used this “trick” on several occasions, rewarding participants particularly knowledgeable about the Old City of Jerusalem, Masada and more with the tour guide’s license.

In the Israel Museum, participants found many objects and exhibits to be familiar—including tefillin, chuppah, matzah baking, Chanukah menorahs and the three fully reconstructed synagogues.

In the north, at the Mishnaic village of Kfar Kedem, the lovely guide thought he would be introducing the group to pita making on a taboon (outdoor oven)—like he has done for years with so many tour groups. For this group, pita making was nothing new. Our Ramah camps each bring 40 or 50 shlichim (Israeli emissaries) to camp each summer. Our campers have been making pitot and eating fresh chumous for years!

Touring in Israel. Courtesy of Howard Blas

Our ten day Israel trip was fun and educational for the participants. I too, learned a valuable lesson which we in the Jewish community should take to heart—and fund accordingly: people with disabilities are very capable of connecting in a meaningful way with Jewish ritual, practice, and knowledge, and with Israel. When our summer camps, synagogues, youth groups, schools, communities and Israel trips open their doors to include everyone, the payoff is as clear as the beautiful sky we saw from Jaffa on the last night of our trip of a lifetime.

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Original Article in The New York Jewish Week

At Camp Ramah, Israel is central. Dozens of Israeli shlichim (emissaries) “bring” Israel to our nine overnight camps and four day camps in North America each summer. And, for decades, campers have been participating in a variety of programs through Ramah Israel including Ramah Israel Seminar, Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY), Ramah Israel Institute, and Ramah Jerusalem Day Camp.

Campers with disabilities in our inclusive camping programs have many opportunities to form meaningful relationships each summer with the shlichim, who serve as bunk counselors and teach swimming, sports, arts and crafts, dance, and more.

Through the generosity of the UJA-Federation of New York and an incubator project of The Jewish Education Project, and with the expertise of an inclusion specialist and specially trained counselors, Ramah Seminar, a six-week Israel travel and study program, has successfully included and accommodated several participants in recent years with physical and developmental disabilities. (Read “LOTEM – Making Nature Accessible.”)

Every two years during December break, Ramah Israel Institute runs the Tikvah Ramah Israel Trip, a ten-day multi-sensory Israel experience, for participants in our various Tikvah programs across North America. Participants with developmental and intellectual disabilities travel to Israel with specially trained staff and visit sites such as Masada, the Dead Sea, and the Kotel, while also planting trees, participating in an archaeological dig, and picking fruits and vegetables for Israel’s needy. Participants also visit the homes of their Israeli mishlachat friends. (Read more: “North Americans with Disabilities Meet Israelis ‘Just Like Them,’ and It’s Profound” and “The Typical Israel Experience And A Whole Lot More.”)

This year, Ramah is offering its first-ever Tikvah Family Israel Trip.From December 20-29, 2016, parents and children will enjoy hands-on activities as we explore Israel. The trip will provide families with a child with a disability to explore Israel as a family unit. A carefully prepared itinerary and expert guide will assure that all family members experience Israel in a unique way. Highlights include playing with guide dogs for the blind, touring the Kotel Tunnels and visiting animals at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, floating in the Dead Sea, experiencing Tel Aviv’s vibrant day and night life, and taking in breathtaking views of the Ramon Crater in the Negev desert. If the experiences of families participating in Ramah’s family camps and retreats for families with children with disabilities are a predictor, the Israel trip will afford families the opportunity to form deep and lasting friendships.

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director, writes, “Ramah Israel has been running family trips for many years and the participants are overwhelmingly appreciative. Running similar trips for families with children with disabilities is exactly what Ramah stands for—excellence in Jewish education and inspiration, and totally inclusive.”

Families interested learning more about the Tikvah Family Israel Trip may contact Howard Blas, Director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network, at howard@campramah.org.

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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 experiences 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 Israeli 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 provides 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 howard@campramah.org. For more information about Ramah Israel Institute’s programs for congregations, schools, and families, contact Moshe Gold, Director, atmoshe@ramah.co.il.

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