April 8, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A Look at the Yachad Birthright Israel Trip

Many people are familiar with Taglit-Birthright Israel and the numerous 10-day free Israel trips they run. However, most people are not aware that Birthright organizes trips for young people with special needs.

According to Taglit-Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark, “Since 2001, Taglit-Birthright Israel has partnered with the National Jewish Council for Disabilities to ensure that all eligible Jewish young adults have the opportunity to travel to Israel with us. We offer a number of trips each season to accommodate individuals with physical and developmental disabilities so that each participant can enjoy the gift of a 10-day educational trip to Israel in his own way. Registration is currently open for our winter round and we are excited to offer special-needs trips this season.”

One of the partnering organizations that facilitates a special needs trip is Yachad. The inaugural OU/Yachad trip was in 2003. Yachad started out with a yearly trip, and has since transitioned to bi-annual trips. This year,Yachad ran three, since the trip has become increasingly popular through word of mouth.

The Yachad trip includes individuals 18–26 who are eligible for Birthright who have disabilities. According to Nicole Bodner, the director of Yachad Birthright and Director of NY Yachad, “The participants range from those with Down’s syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and other physical challenges. There are those with wheelchairs, walkers, OCD, Tourette’s, and developmental challenges.There are those with special accommodations, participants who live in group homes, have jobs. There are many different types of disabilities.” Bodner added, “Everything is organized. Staff members are involved. Whether participants need help with money management or making friends or with clothing, we help. The participants are from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds–all over the U.S. and Canada. There are 24 participants.”

Nicole Bodner is a licensed social worker who has been involved with Yachad Birthright since 2007, participating in a total of seven trips, six of which she organized. “I recruit everyone; I recruit staff. I make sure we can adapt to what the participants need. I work with the trip organizer and tour company. I manage dietary needs and [any necessary] accommodations ahead of time. I am in touch with families, and the medical staff on the airlines,” she noted.

Bodner said Yachad trips “have a few goals. Of course, one is to strengthen the individuals’ identity and connection to the Homeland. The trip shows that everyone can participate in Birthright. Others are to foster participant independence and friendships. For many of the participants, this is the first time away from their families, and traveling on a plane.”

The Yachad itinerary is similar to the typical Birthright itinerary but slightly altered. “We usually start in the North, [and] go to Jerusalem. We don’t hike up Masada, but we take the cable car. We do things in our own way. There are accessible hikes,” Bodner clarified. The staff-to-participant ratio is also noteworthy. “Usually there are 11 staff members, a group leader, an Israeli tour guide, and Israeli medic/guard. There are usually 36 people. A 2:1 staff to participant ratio,” she added.

According to Bodner, the most important aspect of the trip is, “having participants realize their capabilities and their connection to Judaism and Israel. When else do they have the opportunity to go away with peers? They get to do it the same way their siblings and cousins do. Post-high school is a hard time. This trip is a step into independence and a vacation for their families.”

Parents write about how much their children gained from the trip and how they still talk about it, and about their children’s new independence.

Dovid Rapps, an advisor on the June 2014 Yachad trip, said his role on the trip was, “to make sure the participants were taken care of and ensure they were enjoying their time in Israel.” He explained, “The trip is exciting and jam packed. The itinerary includes visiting Tzfat, sailing on a yacht on the Kinneret, jeep riding, volunteering at a home for individuals with special needs (Beit HaGalgalim), touring the Tel-Dan Chocolate Factory at Kibbutz Dafna, Emek HaShalom, the Old City of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus, Tel Aviv, Masada and the Dead Sea, Yad VaShem, Har Herzl, shopping on Ben Yehuda Street, etc. We were always involved in an activity or making friends on the bus. Wakeup was around 7 or 8 a.m. every day and we would return to the hotel sometime after 6 or 7 p.m. and then set up the hotel rooms to go to sleep.”

Rapps pinpointed the most important aspect of the trip: “The participants made new friendships on the trip. For some of the participants, making friends is somewhat difficult due to the nature of their disabilities. Being in a close-knit environment like we had was conducive to making this work. We spent many hours touring together and additional hours either on the bus or in our hotel rooms. Whenever we would change from one hotel to another we would change roommates–it was important for the participants to learn to meet new friends.” He added, “The Israeli soldiers were integral to our trip because they added an element to the trip, namely their fun, happy, relaxed personalities. They became good friends with the participants over the few days they were with us. It felt as if we had known them for years.”

Despite all of the fun, the trip does not come without its challenges. “As a staff member, the biggest challenge was making sure to have enough energy to be cognizant of where my participants were at all times, to check in with them to see how they were doing. The day is long and there is a lot of moving around and it is easy to lose energy. We had a staff meeting every night to discuss the activities of the previous day and to make sure that we were aware of what to expect the next day,” Rapps noted. He added, “We took attendance every time we gathered as a group to make sure everyone was accounted for. The most rewarding moment as a staff member was reading the emails from the parents after the trip thanking us for being there for their children and giving them a time they will never forget. I took a lot of satisfaction in knowing that I did something not only for the participants but also did something for the whole family.”

Rapps said, “The participants in my attendance group came back extremely happy. I remember getting off the plane on arrival and one of the participants predicted that he wasn’t going to have a fun time and wanted to go home. But after the trip was over, he didn’t want to leave. I also felt that the participants worked on their money-management skills throughout the trip. It was a challenge for them to use their money appropriately and I felt that they did a better job as the trip went on.”

Like most Birthright groups, the method of keeping in touch post-trip involves social media. “We have a special Facebook group for our trip in which we post pictures and our thoughts of the trip,” Rapps said.

Tova Gilbert, a two-time Yachad Birthright advisor, said, “You might be wondering if someone who has trouble walking can get up Masada or walk all of the stairs in Tzfat, or if someone who has trouble seeing can really appreciate the Kotel? The question is not “can,” it’s “how.” Yes, all the participants go up Masada and up the stairs in Tzfat. How are they getting up Masada, and the stairs in Tzfat? How can we enable someone who cannot see to appreciate and feel a connection to the Kotel? No matter how we get there, we get there together.”

Teaneck resident Bassie Taubes, mother of 19-year-old Yosef Taubes, who went on Yachad Birthright this past June, shed some light as a mother of a Yachad Birthright participant. “It was a group decision [to send Yosef on Birthright]. One of the reasons was to have a great opportunity to tour Israel with peers. His personal needs would be able to be taken into consideration. He could see Israel in a different way than he could see it with his parents,” she said. Taubes added, “There were considerations sending him 6000 miles away from home. What if he wouldn’t enjoy himself? He also has a special diet. He would be in a different time zone and a different country for the first time. I have a lot of faith in Yachad. If I was going to send him with any group, this is the group I felt comfortable sending him with.”

What did Yosef gain from Birthright? Taubes answered, “I think he had experiences he wouldn’t have had with his family. He visited an army base. His connection and love for Israel and connection to the country [crystallized]. He understood that this is a special place for us. Family could visit him, but he didn’t spend any time with relatives. The purpose was to see Israel like everybody else. To see the beauty of Israel and see how people live. He got the full feeling of the country. He loves the country, whatever it means for him. He’s a Zionist in his own way.”

Taubes highlighted the uniqueness of the Yachad trip, “This trip allows people with some disability the opportunity that all college kids get to do. This is the only chance that people with disabilities can do the same thing as their peers. The advisors were remarkable. They made it fun. Nothing seemed to faze this group. Their entire mission was to make the participants have a fantastic experience from the airport until they get back to their parents’ homes.”

Rivka Hia is an intern at JLBC. She is a junior at Stern College majoring in journalism. Find out more at: about.me/Rivka.

By Rivka Hia

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