February 21, 2019

The Beauty of Yes

When you have a child with significant disabilities, you get used to hearing “no.”

From nationally recognized speech therapists who say, “Sorry, my cutting-edge techniques won’t work for your son,” after you have schlepped the family halfway across the country to work with them, to Jewish educators who will open their classrooms to some “higher-functioning” students with special needs but not to those who need one-to-one assistance. Not to mention navigating the world of special education in the public school system in which you need to become an expert on the governing federal laws in order to get the services to which your child is entitled.

Such was the case with Birthright. Although I have worked on and off as a Jewish community professional for many years, I never imagined that our son, Danny, now 23, would be able to go on Birthright — the program providing free Israel trips to adults between 18 and 26 — in spite of the fact that he would be the perfect candidate in many ways.

He grew up watching kids’ musical videos in Hebrew, understands a lot of Hebrew, attends Shabbat services weekly at a Conservative synagogue and has visited Israel with our family. He loves Israeli dances and enjoys flying on planes.  He has probably watched the documentary “Hava Nagila” more than anyone else in the world, and his older sister spent a Masa-sponsored gap year in Israel, speaks Hebrew fluently and has staffed two Birthright trips.

In my former position at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, I sat in on many meetings with Birthright staff members and always enjoyed hearing all of their post-trip stories and adventures. But I couldn’t imagine a Birthright trip that would be able to accommodate Danny, who has limited mobility, not to mention a complicated medication regimen. The 10-day Birthright trips are known for their fast-paced, grueling schedules, including intensive physical activities and moving from hotel to hotel.

How could Danny ever participate in a trip like that?

Then in September, I received an email from the national Conservative-affiliated Camp Ramah Tikvah network. It was announcing the first-ever Birthright Israel: Amazing Israel-Ramah Tikvah trip for young adults ages 18-29 with disabilities. Ramah has organized previous Israel trips for Tikvah program participants and alumni, but this would be the first one being offered in collaboration with the international Birthright program, which has brought more than 600,000 young Jews to Israel since 1999.

The trip starts on Dec. 18 and will include classic Birthright Israel activities such as visiting Masada (by cable car) and Yad Vashem and spending Shabbat in Jerusalem, while also adding programming geared specifically for these participants, such as meeting Israeli soldiers with special needs.

Thanks to Elana Naftalin-Kelman, Tikvah director at Camp Ramah in California in Ojai, Danny has been an overnight summer camper there for the past nine years, always accompanied by a personal aide to help him with such everyday activities as dressing, eating and showering. Danny loves his time at camp, and we also love our “time off” from family caregiving. Last summer, Danny was able to gain vocational experience doing his favorite activity — being a DJ at the side of the pool, which also is his favorite place in camp.

I never imagined that our son, Danny, would be able to go on Birthright.

Elana helped me connect with Howard Blas, National Ramah Tikvah Network director, who is coordinating and leading the trip in partnership with Amazing Israel, the Birthright tour provider. Howard has led many trips to Israel with young adults with disabilities and fully understands the need to adjust the trip’s pace and intensity.

During our Skype call with him, Howard was very welcoming and open to the idea of having our personal aide from camp accompany Danny on this trip. He told us, “While we will all learn a lot from the explanations of our very experienced tour educator, Doron, each person will experience Israel differently. The trip takes each participant’s unique needs and learning style into consideration. We will experience Israel through all of our senses — riding a jeep in the Golan Heights, floating in the Dead Sea, planting trees, making chocolate and T-shirts, touching the Kotel and lots of singing, dancing and eating delicious Israeli foods!”

The word “yes” has never sounded so good.

Michelle K. Wolf is a special needs parent activist and nonprofit professional. She is the founding executive director of the Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs Trust. Visit her Jews and Special Needs blog at jewishjournal.com/jews_and_special_needs.