Originally published in Jewish Insider

In Short

Birthright Israel’s “Big Tent” approach allows participants from a range of Jewish backgrounds, including families with only one Jewish parent – and, though less-widely known, to people with disabilities and medical issues. 

Isaac Orhring of Danbury, Conn., still can’t stop talking about his unique Taglit-Birthright Israel trip three years ago. “Every Jew should have the right to go on Birthright Israel as a rite of passage, just like a bar mitzvah! Unfortunately, not everyone’s aware of every kind of disability. While some disabilities are obvious, others, including autism, are not. This should not stop young Jewish adults from visiting Israel for free on Birthright Israel.” he said.

Birthright – for all Jews

Taglit-Birthright Israel is well-known around the world for its free trips to Israel for Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 32. Since 1999, they have given over 750,000 people from 68 countries, every U.S. state and nearly 1,000 universities the opportunity to experience Israel and Judaism first hand.

Birthright Israel’s “Big-Tent” approach welcomes participants from a range of Jewish backgrounds, including families with only one Jewish parent – and, though less-widely known, to people with disabilities and medical issues. 

The program included people with disabilities and other support needs almost from its inception, with its first accessible trip in 2001. To date, over 2,000 participants have participated in more than 75 trips through various trip provider organizations.

A “Pinch Me” Moment

In 2019, Birthright Israel reviewed its policies on disabilities, developing a mission statement that clarifies its stance that all are welcome on the trips, regardless of disability. “Guided by our Jewish values, we aim to be inclusive of all individuals with disabilities, special requirements, limitations or challenges.”

Potential participants may be considered for participation on a typical Birthright Israel trip, or they may elect to participate in a specially designed trip with support for their needs. The itinerary often includes the usual “highlights” including the Dead Sea, Masada, the Kotel and camel riding. 

Trips support participants with various intellectual, developmental physical and sensory disabilities, medical issues and addictions. Recent trips include a range of themes: American Sign Language, Asperger’s syndrome, inflammatory bowel disorders, physical medical disabilities, twelve-step recovery and others.

Feedback to date has been positive.

Pamela Saeks, mother of an Aspergers trip participant said, “For years we searched for an organized trip to Israel that had the additional support necessary to enable Karly to participate.” Birthright’s willingness to include Karly was a “‘Pinch me, I must be dreaming’ moment,” she said.

Danny Wolf of Los Angeles participated on the Tikvah Ramah trip. He has cerebral palsy with limited mobility and verbal abilities. An aide funded by Birthright Israel assisted with feeding, self-care and communication needs. 

“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, adds.

Pete, a participant on a Birthright Israel twelve-step recovery trip, reflected on his childhood Hebrew school experience, followed by “a series of events that paved the way for trouble” and subsequent addiction issues.

“Recovery has been my path to taking responsibility and to growing up,” he said. “Coming on Birthright Israel, I knew I would have a chance to have a second bar mitzvah. I brought my tallit and tefillin, which I received for my original bar mitzvah. This trip has given me the chance to have my real bar mitzvah and today I am ready to embrace the responsibility that it entails.”

Building a Special Trip

Most Aspergers trips include a visit to the Holon Children’s Museum “Invitation to Silence” exhibit. During the hour-long tour, participants are taught by deaf guides to use non-verbal communication. Participants gain a better understanding of the Israeli deaf community, and the deaf guides learn of the many strengths of people on the autism spectrum. 

Some trips include visiting army bases to meet soldiers with disabilities as part of the “Special in Uniform” program. The soldiers with disabilities share their experience in the army and national service and of their overall experience as an Israeli with autism. The encounter usually ends with a joint pizza party and the exchanging of contact information on social media.

As Israel’s borders continue to open even more to tourism and as the number of Birthright Israel trips increase, it is a good time to continue spreading the word about Birthright Israel’s commitment to sharing the Birthright Israel experience with every Jewish — with and without disabilities and medical needs.

The authors have been associated with and committed to Taglit-Birthright and accessible trips for many years. Elizabeth Sokolsky is the executive director of Taglit-Birthright Israel. Howard Blas is a social worker, special education teacher, Jewish educator and writer. He has been associated with the Tikvah (disabilities inclusion) program at Camp Ramah for 35 years. He currently serves as the director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network. He has led one Tikvah Birthright Israel trip for participants with intellectual and developmental disabilities through Amazing Israel and four Birthright Aspergers trips through Shorashim.

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Original Article Published On The Respectability

Founded in 1948, Israel’s accessibility for people with disabilities was not a top priority.  I recall several almost comical incidents from nearly 20 years ago when helping people with disabilities navigate Israel.  On one group trip, while pushing 20-something Rivka in a wheelchair in northern Israel, the sidewalk abruptly ended. We carried her in the wheelchair to where sidewalk eventually continued.  In the Old City, near the Kotel, I asked soldiers where was the accessible path. They lifted Rivka up the steps in her wheelchair.

Fortunately, Israel today is fairly accessible and straightforward: from riding buses, to shopping in grocery stores, to studying in university. Modern Israel has become a well-known destination for accessible travel.

Israel’s road to accessibility has been a journey. Physical accessibility doesn’t happen automatically; nor does shifting attitudes toward people with disabilities and accessibility.

Twenty years ago, Yuval Wagner, a recently paralyzed helicopter pilot, ignited a public awareness campaign. Wagner eventually founded Access Israel. Having elicited President Weizman’s attention,  the President invited Wagner to celebrate this accomplishment together. Access Israel’s impact on access and inclusion of people with disabilities is now experienced worldwide.

Each year, over 800 people with and without disabilities from 22 countries visit Israel to participate in Access Israel’s International Conference, where they learn about accessibility from technology to tourism; experience Israel’s accessible beaches; visit the now-accessible Old City of Jerusalem; and learn about Access Israel’s work in Israel and worldwide.

“We are the only Israeli organization that focuses on accessibility and inclusion– not only for people in wheelchairs, not only for people who are blind or who have hearing impairments— but for all kinds of disabilities and in all fields of life,” reports Wagner.

Alan T. Brown, Director of Public Impact for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, a board member of FAISR (Friends of Access Israel) and a person with quadriplegia, attests to Israel’s efforts to increase accessibility. Several years ago, Brown met Access Israel CEO Michal Rimon, expressed his desire to visit Israel, and shared concerns about accessibility. Rimon enthusiastically invited Brown to Israel to experience its  accessibility firsthand. Brown later summarized, “Something like this has to be done in America – something that is proactive and aggressive in attaining accessibility for all. I even went on the tour under the Kotel walls in a wheelchair!  I am amazed at how Israel is using more than ramps to include the disabled.  They are also doing it through corporate sensitivity training.”

Pre-COVID-19, tourists with a wide range of disabilities experienced the country, holy to many of the world’s religions.  I have been leading trips to Israel for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for many years.  I have served as group leader for multiple trips with Camp Ramah’s Tikvah disabilities inclusion program and Shorashim Birthright Israel Asperger’s trips.  Each trip’s participants travel the country, visit Jerusalem’s Old City, Tel Aviv, Old Jaffa, Safed, the Golan Heights, Masada, and the Dead Sea. We go camel riding and explore off-the-beaten path gems such as the chocolate factory at Kibbutz Ein Zivan. Tikvah’s and Birthright’s participants experience a multi-sensory, multi-cultural country with great excitement—and no barriers.

Close to 2,100 young adults with disabilities from around the world have experienced Israel on nearly 100 Accessibility Israel trips, according to Elizabeth Sokolsky, executive director of Birthright Israel North America.  Birthright Israel offers approximately ten accessibility trips annually for participants with a variety of medical, developmental, and physical disabilities including: Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Asperger’s, vision or hearing impairments, IBD and Crohn’s Disease and other medical issues, and for participants who use wheelchairs.

Sokolsky emphasizes, “It is our belief that every eligible young adult should be able to travel to Israel to experience their birthright. . . . Accessibility trips typically have fewer participants than a traditional Birthright Israel trip, with a larger participant to staff ratio as well as other programmatic accommodations as needed. Birthright Israel also offers opportunities for young adults with a disability to join a classic trip as an inclusion participant, who may be accompanied by an aide or shadow.”

We eagerly look forward to a day soon when tourists with and without disabilities will again have the opportunity to experience Israel, celebrate Israel’s 72 years of growth, and dream of a day when the country will be even more fully accessible to everyone.

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