Los Angeles Jewish communal professional Michelle Wolf’s daughter had been on a Birthright Israel trip, and she wanted her 22-year-old son Danny to have the same experience. But until recently, she thought that a free Israel tour together with young peers was not in the cards for Danny, who has cerebral palsy and many specialized needs.
To Wolf’s delight, her son is headed to Israel this December on the first-ever Ramah Tikvah/Amazing Israel Birthright Israel trip. Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism, has organized Israel trips for Tikvah Program participants and alumni in the past. This, however, is the first one being offered in collaboration with the exceptionally successful initiative that has brought more than 600,000 young Jews to Israel since 1999.
“When we got an email about the trip, we were so excited! Danny is thrilled to be going to Israel with some of his friends from Camp Ramah in California, where he has gone for the last nine summers,” said Wolf.
According to National Ramah Tikvah Network director Howard Blas, between 20 and 25 young adults with disabilities are expected to fly to Israel from New York on December 18 for the 10-day adventure. The trip’s itinerary includes Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Galilee, and Masada. There will also be unique opportunities, such as a meeting and conversation with IDF soldiers with disabilities.
Many—though not all—of the 18- to 29-year-old participants will have attended a Tikvah Program at one or more of Ramah’s ten overnight camps. Those who have applied and been accepted to the trip hail from every region of North America.
Elana Naftalin-Kelman, Tikvah director at Camp Ramah in California, noted that the largest contingent is from her program.
“The combination of Birthright and Ramah is one that our families have been waiting for. Raising a child with disabilities is very expensive and families don’t have disposable income. This trip is finally giving our Tikvah families access to Israel for their children,” she said.
Naftalin-Kelman expects this Israel experience to deepen the relationships between the Ezra (vocational training program) participants and the other staff at her camp next summer.
“The young men and women in our Ezra program already have good connections with members of our mishlachat (visiting Israeli counselors), but I think those bonds will become even deeper this coming summer due to this trip,” she said.
Those who will have been on the Birthright trip will also be able to share common experiences and memories with neurotypical peers at camp who will likely have visited Israel with the Ramah Seminar summer program, or Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim, Ramah’s semester in Israel for high school students.
Tikvah Program founders Herb and Barbara Greenberg look forward to welcoming the Birthright group during their visit. The couple, which made aliyah in 1998, knows how much detailed planning goes into organizing an Israel trip for young people with disabilities.
“We organized the first Tikvah Israel trip in 1984, and it was not only a learning experience for our kids, but also for Israeli society, which was not used to seeing and interacting with groups like ours,” Barbara Greenberg said.
“Israel had no concept of inclusion to that point,” she said.
The Greenbergs led seven trips through the early 1990s (Blas led subsequent trips), each time increasing their knowledge about how to help young people with disabilities experience Israel. For instance, they discovered that everything on the itinerary had to be a hands-on and on-site activity.
“You can’t talk about the history of a place while riding on the bus. You have to talk about it when you are actually at the site, so that there is a visual, tactile and experiential context,” Herb Greenberg said.
These concrete connections help form strong memories for the trip participants.
“The kids come back with the same feelings as any other kid. They have a visceral connection to Israel and feel more Jewish,” Barbara Greenberg said.
New Yorker Jacklin Simoni is sending her 20-year-old daughter Nora, who attends the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, on this December’s trip for just this reason.
“I want her to see what I saw when I first visited Israel. I was so excited to visit Jerusalem and the wall, I felt I was part of a bigger community that just my own,” Simoni said.