Israel

Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

The 32-year-old catcher played for Team Israel during its run through World Baseball Classic qualifiers and tournament in 2017

Ryan Lavarnway is one of the lucky ones – if you consider switching jobs every few months on average “lucky” – though he doesn’t take his success for granted.

The 32-year-old catcher, who played for Team Israel during its stellar run through the World Baseball Classic qualifiers and tournament in 2017, has bounced around Major League Baseball, but mostly in the minors – with 10 teams in 10 years. Still, Lavarnway represents the roughly 10 percent of minor league baseball players who ever see action in the majors.

The California-born Colorado resident has been blessed with memorable moments with several major league teams, and has faced often unexpected, last-minute call-ups and cross-country moves – including three in the past month alone.

“It has been crazy!” exclaimed Lavarnway to The Jerusalem Post during a phone interview from his hotel room in Louisville, Kentucky following a Sunday game in which he went 1-for-3 for the AAA Louisville Bats in a 12-0 loss to the Toledo Mud Hens.

“One day you are in Triple-A in Scranton, Pennsylvania [for the New York Yankees]. The next day, you are in the big leagues.”

In July, Lavarnway was released by the Yankees and immediately signed with the Cincinnati Reds, where he hit two home runs and had six RBIs in his Reds’ debut on July 19, becoming the first Reds catcher to tally three hits, two homers, and six RBI in a game since the legendary Johnny Bench did it in 1973. He went 5-for-18 in five games with the team before being sent down to Cincinnati’s AAA affiliate in Louisville.

Given Lavarnway’s chaotic past month and the 140-game minor league baseball schedule, it is impressive that he was able to commit to a day and time to speak with a reporter. He was upbeat, friendly and forthcoming in recounting his exciting and fulfilling baseball journey so far.

He vividly recalled career highlights, including his first two-homer game with the Boston Red Sox, and a similarly exhilarating walk-off homer with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lavarnway also spoke fondly about his great run with Team Israel, and his amazing trip Israel.

Lavarnway was born in Burbank, California, grew up in Woodland Hills, California, and has mainly been a catcher – with stints in the outfield and first base – since his little league days. He attended Yale University in Connecticut for three years, where he juggled his academic studies with a very successful baseball experience.

Lavarnway earned Ivy Player and Rookie of the Week honors in March 2006 as a right fielder before switching to catcher full-time. In 2007, he led the NCAA in batting average (.467) and slugging percentage (.873), set the Yale single-season record in batting average, slugging percentage, home runs (14), hits (70), doubles (17), RBIs (55), and total bases (131). He also had an Ivy-League-record 25-game hitting streak and won the G.H. Walker, Jr. Award as Most Valuable Player.

In his junior year in 2008, Lavarnway led the Ivy League in home runs (13), RBIs (42), walks (29), slugging percentage (.824), and on-base percentage (.541), while batting .398. He missed the last 11 games of the year after breaking a bone in his left wrist while diving into home plate in April. He finished his three-year college career with a .384 batting average, 33 home runs, and 122 RBIs in 120 games, and he became the Ivy League’s all-time leader in career home runs.

Lavarnway left Yale 11 credits short of graduation as he was drafted in the sixth round of the 2008 MLB Draft by the Boston Red Sox. He played at every level of the minors within the Red Sox organization –from the Class A South Atlantic League Greenville Drive, to the Class A+ Carolina League Salem Red Sox, to the Class AA Eastern League Portland Sea Dogs. He racked up many honors, including 2010 Red Sox co-Minor League Offensive Player of the Year. Lavarnway spent the 2011 season between the AA Portland Sea Dogs and the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox.

Lavarnway got his first big break on August 18, 2011 when he was called up to the Red Sox; fellow Jewish player, Kevin Youkilis, went on what was then called the disabled list (now known as the “injured list”). He got his first major league hit the next day, and started for the Red Sox on September 27. Lavarnway still proudly remembers this game as he hit his first two major league home runs and had four RBIs in an 8–7 victory over the Baltimore Orioles.

Lavarnway returned to the minors and again saw action with the Red Sox on August 1, 2012, when he was called up from the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox. Lavarnway and fellow Yalie, fellow Jew (and in 2017, Team Israel battery mate), Craig Breslow, were Boston Red Sox teammates during part of the 2012 season. Lavarnway returned to Pawtucket where he was named best power prospect in the International League as well as the 2012 International League All Star starting catcher.

Lavarnway continued to be part of the Red Sox organization through 2014. In June, he had surgery to remove the hamate bone from his left wrist. He was designated for assignment in November, and his dizzying “see-the-country” baseball career continued as he was claimed off waivers in the winter, first by the Los Angeles Dodgers, then by the Chicago Cubs, and was signed by the Baltimore Orioles – his fourth team in 18 days. He played 10 games with the Orioles early in the 2015 season, then chose to become a free agent over accepting a minor league position in the Orioles’ organization.

He signed a minor-league contract with the Atlanta Braves in May 2015 and had 49 plate appearances for AAA Gwinnett before being called up to the majors. He was released by the Braves in May 2016. Lavarnway signed a minor-league contract with the Oakland Athletics, started the season with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds, and was called up to Oakland in July. He played in one game – covering for a catcher on paternity leave – and then returned to the minors before being called up again by the A’s on July 27. He was designated for assignment in August and chose to become a free agent at the end of the season.

Lavarnway continued to find major league clubs interested in him. In January 2018, Lavarnway signed a minor league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he had a decent 77 games for Triple-A Indianapolis before being called up to Pittsburgh on September 4. He had four hits in six at bats.

In November, Lavarnway again became a free agent – and was again picked up by another club. The New York Yankees signed him to a minor-league contract for the 2019 season, where he played with AAA Scranton, before being released July 18, and rushing off to Cincinnati. The next day, he hit two home runs for his new team.

Lavarnway continues to enjoy the excitement of playing baseball – and the potential to be called up for that dream moment.

“I am with my 10th organization since 2014,” he said. “I go where the job is, I don’t think about it. Every time I am called up – that’s what makes it worth it. Hopefully, I will help get a team to the World Series – it is an opportunity I don’t take for granted.”

Lavarnway feels his experience over so many years in different organizations and at different levels has made him a “quick-learn” on the job.

“It helps that I’ve been around a while and have so much experience catching different types of pitchers. I can catch guys I’ve never seen before, and I can build trust with new pitchers.”
As Lavarnway looks back on the 11 years since leaving Yale, he is proud of his professional and personal accomplishments.

He reported that he and his wife of six years, Colorado native Jamie Neistat Lavarnway, have gotten used to the “ups and downs.” She has had jobs in each town, has written a food blog in the past [“The Fork and Knife of a Baseball Wife”on cookinginredsocks.com] and has most recently done volunteer work in animal rescue in Nashville.

“It is hard to find something portable,” notes Lavarnway, indicating that Jamie has done an amazing job coordinating their personal travel and professional moves and “could be an excellent travel secretary” for a baseball team.

Ryan and Jamie love to travel and try new restaurants.

“We are trying to cross off the top 50 restaurants in the world,” reports Lavarnway. They recently visited the well-known Israeli restaurant in Paris, L’As du Fallafel (“it was so good!”). Next up on the Lavarnway’s off-season travel agenda is Thailand.

“In each city, [Jamie] finds the best restaurants for us to explore.” Lavarnway truly appreciates how fortunate he is to have a job with a long off-season. “We have a great life-where else can you have four months to travel?!”

The Lavarnways’ travels have also taken them to Israel, though that trip, with other members of Team Israel, was different from the others—Ryan recalls it as being “life changing.”

The blue-and-white’s impressive run in the World Baseball Classic and the team’s trip to Israel, was chronicled in the recent film, “Heading Home.” Lavarnway – who served as Team Israel’s starting catcher, went 8-for-18 (.565) with two doubles, a home run, and six RBIs, while walking five times – loved the movie.

“They did an amazing job, and it’s cool that a moment that was so important in my life is on video so I can relive it.”

Lavarnway can barely contain his excitement when speaking about the trip to Israel. While he always thought of himself as Jewish (his mother is Jewish and his father is not) and connected to the religion in his youth, he proudly stated that “the Team Israel experience and going to Israel helped me find my Jewish identify and reaffirm my own Jewishness.”

Lavarnway never got to participate on a Birthright Israel trip as he was busy playing baseball each summer. He refers to the Team Israel trip as “our baseball Birthright.” He especially enjoyed “seeing Israel, feeling the love, and seeing the people,” and liked learning about Jewish and Israeli history.

The Lavarnways continue to be connected Jewishly and are members of Temple Emanuel in Denver.

Lavarnway still feels very connected to Team Israel and to Israel Baseball.

“Our goal is for Israel Baseball to continue to grow. We didn’t want to just be a one-time WBC highlight. We wanted to grow the game internationally and domestically. Our whole goal was to get homegrown Israeli baseball players to keep playing at the highest level.”

While Lavarnway is willing to consider future involvement with the team as it works to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, he notes that he “hope[s] to be on a big league team in September – that is when the qualifiers are. But if I’m not, I’m totally willing to participate.”

Lavarnway loves baseball and hasn’t given much thought to life beyond. As he playfully commented, “Plan B distracts from Plan A.” While completing college is not itself a Plan B, he is taking steps in that direction. Lavarnway said that Yale has recently begun offering credit for online courses. Despite his busy 2019 baseball season, he recently completed two courses – Movie Physics and The Genius Course. “I just submitted my final paper for two Yale credits – I am now two credits closer to graduation,” though he still has seven more classes to complete to earn his degree.

For now, Lavarnway will focus on the rest of the baseball season – and dream of the call-up which may bring him back to the majors for a pennant race and another twist in his whirlwind tale.

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Original Article Published on The Jerusalem Post

Over 800 people from 22 countries participated in Access Israel’s 7th International Conference.

When paralyzed former helicopter pilot Yuval Wenger wrote in 1998 to a fellow former pilot, President Ezer Weizman, to complain about lack of access in Israel for people with disabilities, he didn’t expect a prompt reply – and a demand. Wenger followed Weizman’s terse response to do something about it and start an NGO. He called it Access Israel, and six months later met Weizman at the President’s Residence. Twenty years later, Access Israel’s impact on access and inclusion of people with disabilities is now felt worldwide.

Over 800 people from 22 countries participated in Access Israel’s 7th International Conference, which was held last month in Tel Aviv and throughout the country. The fast-paced conference, entitled “The Future of Accessibility,” kept participants moving – between sessions within a given event space, and to various cities in Israel.

Meetings on the first day of the conference were held at the Export Institute in Tel Aviv, where participants were welcomed by representatives of the Foreign Affairs and Tourism ministries. They were later welcomed by Avremi Torem, Commissioner for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Israel. Some participants toured and experienced disabilities simulation activities at Wingate Institute, Israel’s National Center for Physical Education and Sport.

Friday was spent in Jerusalem, viewing the city from Mt. Scopus, and touring such sites in the now-accessible Old City as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Western Wall. The international delegation continued to bond at a traditional Shabbat dinner at Wegner’s home, and during Shabbat tours of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, including several of Tel Aviv’s accessible beaches.

A NUMBER of sessions took place at Avenue Convention and Events Center in Airport City and at Beit Hagimlai in Shoham. Many were attended by Israeli disability professionals, representatives of municipalities, ministries, banks, insurance companies, accessibility coordinators from leading companies in Israel, IT and website experts, representatives of Israeli technologies, CEOs of Israeli accessibility start-ups and companies and policy makers.

Conference attendees and presenters included many people with visible disabilities, including app and product designers from around the world, commissioners on disabilities from the mayor’s offices of New York and Chicago, and even the co-founder of Space IL, Yariv Bash, paralyzed from the waist down two years ago in a French skiing accident.

Attendees heard from access and inclusion experts on such topics as Accessible Technology; Barrier-Free Tourism; Urban Accessibility Initiatives and Challenges from Around the World; and Global Models for the Implementation of Technology. And they participated in customized sessions – and panels – on such topics as Inclusive Design, Culture for All, Justice and Democracy for All, Inclusive Education, Inclusive Technology, Accessible Websites and Applications and Workplace Accessibility.
The conference’s largest delegation came from Austria (20 people), with Google’s Accessibility Team coming in second place with seven representatives. Google Israel hosted a well-received Accessible Technologies Speed Dating event where pairs of delegates spent ten minutes at each of seven stations, learning about such technologies as StepHear (orientation and guidance systems for the blind and visually impaired), Travaxy (accessible travel), Accessible Roads (navigation on accessible streets and roadways) and SignTime (translates texts in to sign languages).

VIENNA RESIDENT Hugo Furtado displayed his Dreamwaves Navigation System at the Google-hosted event. The Portuguese-born PhD completed his electrical engineering training in Switzerland, Slovenia and Austria, and has created a navigation system to guide blind and visually impaired people in unknown environments.

“I attended the event because I had heard that the topic of accessibility has become very important in recent years,” he said.
The well-traveled Furtado was particularly excited to make his first trip to Israel. “Israel is a famous start-up nation. Within this framework, it was a great opportunity for me to learn and to further develop the business. As Dreamwaves is a start-up developing a navigation app for blind and low-vision people, the fit could hardly be better,” he said. “Both things were confirmed: One can see the big effort that is being put into making the public spaces accessible – I can imagine the challenge to make visiting Jerusalem accessible – and bringing the topic into the authorities’ agenda.

“Also, it was especially valuable for me to learn why Israel is such a strong start-up nation. In my view, the energy and will power that people put into what they do plays a huge role. This was impressive for me in the country in general. People put a lot of energy into making things happen instead of worrying about smaller detail. That’s what you need in a start-up,” Furtado said.
Others came from Sweden, Latvia, Chile, Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, Ireland and Australia. Some has been to Israel four or five times – like Martin Essl, head of the Essl Foundation, which coordinates The Zero Project, focusing on the rights of persons with disabilities globally. It also focuses on social projects in Austria, with an emphasis on the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the open labor market, and in accessibility and inclusive education.

The excitement for Israel on the part of foreign attendees was a familiar trope; they consider Israel to be the Start-Up Nation and a world-leader in accessibility and inclusion.

KJELL STJERNHOLM of Stockholm, Sweden, was invited to the conference by Access Israel after having been awarded an international best practice by Zeroproject.org. The good natured Stjernholm, who founded and directed a disabilities acting troupe in Sweden where actors were paid market wages, currently works in the field of accessible elections. In this capacity, Stjernholm is working to teach people “what we are voting about,” and to assure that “the very politics needs to be accessible.”

Stjernholm enjoyed both the conference and the country. “I’ve learned heaps of things. Among the most usable to me: interpretation techniques within easy read, accessibility to the arts and some amazing tech-projects.” He says that, “Israel is a beautiful country. I am impressed by the high aims of accessibility, and the use of the law to enforce it,” referring to a law where government-funded bodies with more than 100 employers are committed to ensuring that at least five percent of its workforce are employees with disabilities.

IRISH INCLUSIVITY activist, Caroline Casey – whose TED Talk, “Looking Past Limits,” has had more than 2.2 million viewers – described learning about her near total blindness due to ocular albinism – she had unknowingly been diagnosed with it as a child – at age 17. She left a promising career in managing consulting and has committed her career to inclusion in general, and to inclusion in the work place in particular.

Casey was curious to visit Israel for the first time, since her father had shared stories about his time here in the early 60s while he was living on a kibbutz. Prior to her visit, she noted that: “Over the years, I have witnessed the extraordinary development and impact of Access Israel. It has truly amazed me how far both the country and the organization have come in their accessibility journey.”

The inclusivity activist loved what she saw and experienced in Israel. “The food, the archaeology, the history, the heat, the sense of historic civilization – for an ex-archaeologist – unbelievable,” reported Casey. “But no doubt: The real draw was and is the people. I love their energy, their straightness, their attitude to “getting stuff done”; their warmth, humor and ambition. They seem to work with the intention of solutions, not problems.”

Casey followed Space IL co-founder Yariv Bash and Bank HaPoalim CTO, Haim Pinto, by delivering what were billed as “Inspiring Opening Lectures” on the Sunday of the conference. Casey, like most attendees, raced between sessions, met with colleagues and made many new friends.

And she never stopped appreciating the fact that she was in Israel. “It was so great to go to a global conference like that and it not be in the ‘typical’ place,” she said. “I think we can learn a huge amount by going to different places and immersing ourselves in cultures completely different from our own – and I knew so little about Israel, I wanted more time there – much more.”

Casey and hundreds of others will surely be back for next year’s 8th International Conference.

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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 Published on The New York Jewish week

At 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.

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.

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!

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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