White-water rafting in Israel was a highlight for participants on a Birthright Israel trip for young adults with special needs. (Courtesy of the Friendship Circle)
White-water rafting in Israel was a highlight for participants on a Birthright Israel trip for young adults with special needs. (Courtesy of the Friendship Circle)

‘Everybody’s Birthright Experience’

Annual trip to Israel inspires and empowers young adults with special needs, many of them away from home for the first time.

Monica Smolyar is like any other 21-year-old. She wants to get out and see the world.

One of the places she always dreamed of visiting was Israel. She has a lot of family there, and so her parents have been to the Jewish state many times to see them. Her older brother, Ari, went on a two-week trip in ninth grade and studied there for four months when he was a senior in Jewish day school.

“She was enthralled by the idea,” says her mother, Suzanne. “She had done some travel through summer camp, but nothing major. The main thing was that she wanted to go on her own. And if she wants something, there is literally no way to stop her.”

Monica, however, is not like every other 21-year-old. The resident of West Orange, N.J., has been diagnosed with severe ADD and has learning disabilities. Meaning, a trip abroad would be not only challenging, but downright difficult.

“In my wildest dreams, I could not imagine that Monica would go on her own,” says Suzanne.

‘Fell in love with the land’

But she did. They came across a Birthright Israel trip sponsored by Friendship Circle, which Monica has been involved with for about 10 years. And even though Suzanne and her husband, Alexander, were a little nervous, their daughter got on a plane last summer—and had the time of her life.

“She fell in love with the land itself,” says Suzanne. “That’s something you can’t teach; you need to experience it for yourself.”

Monica notes that there were two places she really wanted to see: the beach in Tel Aviv, which she had read a lot about before going, and the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem. As for the latter, the Kotel, she says: “I wanted to see if God could hear me there. If I could really feel Him.”

While those may have been her personal highlights, Monica adds that she enjoyed many aspects of the 10-day trip. She liked the water-rafting and the Jeep ride, though she says the hikes were challenging. She liked eating falafel from the street stands and spending time with her Israeli cousins. She liked learning about Israel’s battles and eventual independence, and about the history of the Second Temple. A very social person, Monica liked being with her peers, meeting new people and having freedoms she doesn’t necessarily get at home.

Truth be told, she liked just about everything.

Monica Smolyar, 21, center, last summer in the Galilee. This year, the trip, which takes place from June 17-28, is gearing up for its 10th excursion. (Courtesy of the Friendship Circle)

And she can’t wait to go back. Her mother says all Monica talks about is the trip and the friends she made, which her mother thinks is “phenomenal.”

“It can be hard for kids with special needs to make friends,” explains Suzanne. “She came home knowing new people, and now exchanges messages, sees others from the trip and chats with them on Facebook. And she seemed a bit more mature when she got back; after all, she had to take care of herself. She’s also more focused on Judaism. On every level, this trip appealed to her.”

This December, the Smolyars will be traveling to Israel as a family to attend a cousin’s bar mitzvah, and for Monica, who says she’ll go back “any day, any time,” it couldn’t be soon enough.

Also on the trip was Julian Reiss, a fellow Friendship Circle participant. Julian lives with his parents, Allan Reiss and Cornelia Peckman in New Jersey; his older brother, Albert, is a graduate student at Brandeis University. The 21-year-old, who has autism, is in his last six months at a therapeutic school, and enjoys art, reading, sports and going to synagogue.

Julian says his mother saw an advertisement for the trip at Friendship Circle and asked if he wanted to go to Israel. He didn’t really know what to expect, but knew from Hebrew school that “Israel is the home of the Jews.” To help with background and get “the full Israel experience,” his mother gave him a bunch of books, including Exodus by Leon Uris, which he read while there.

Julian notes that he didn’t speak as well last summer as he does now, and so communicating was hard. (In fact, when sent a list of questions about his trip, he took the time to write out the answers, and afterwards spoke slowly but determinedly on the phone to flesh them out. He also made it a point to say that he had fun during the process; it made relive those 10 days.) Cornelia adds that since he got back from Israel, she’s noticed “a huge leap in language.”

Like Monica, Julian was also touched by his visit to the Kotel, saying he could “feel the centuries of people who have prayed at the wall.”

‘I won’t be judged’

While connecting young adults to their Jewish roots is one of the more concrete goals of Birthright, some of the other objectives are more nuanced, according to Rabbi Zev Baram, executive director of the Friendship Circle in Philadelphia, who led the trip for the 22 young adults last June. These goals include connecting to people—the participants themselves and those they meet in Israel along the way—and increasing participants’ independence, even for so short a time.

Julian Reiss, 21, left, riding a camel in the Israeli desert with a travel guide. (Courtesy of the Friendship Circle)

“People connect to each other and what is going on around them,” says Baram. There is a comfort level, an acceptance, he notes, about being around others with different needs. For instance, he has heard the comment: “I chose this trip because I won’t be judged for the quirks I have.”

That’s empowering, and it comes in other forms as well. While the program is adjusted to meet certain requirements regarding inclusion, especially when it comes to more physical activities, it basically follows the typical format: a climb up Masada (though via cable car or for some trips up the Roman ramp); a visit to Tzfat, and the artist colonies and synagogues there; rafting on the Jordan River; shopping in Tel Aviv; walking around Jaffa; Shabbat spent in Jerusalem. The group also went to Yad Vashem, the Israel Museum, the Biblical Zoo and the Davidson Center, all in Jerusalem, and had the opportunity to plant trees.

Birthright Israel started offering free, 10-day trips for Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 26 back in 1999. Since then, more than 600,000 young people from nearly 70 countries have taken advantage of the program, though the majority of participants come from North America. At the end of 2017, the age eligibility for certain trips was raised to 32 to widen the pool of applicants.

Friendship Circle started leading trips in 2008—offering one trip per year—and has since connected about 230 teens and young adults (these trips are geared for those ages 18 to 29) with their homeland. This summer’s trip, which takes place from June 17-28, will be Friendship Circle’s 10th excursion to Israel.

“They surprise themselves with what they can do,” says Baram. “For many, this is the first time they have been abroad, even the first time away from their families. They learn to be more independent; they have to be. Plus, we don’t water down the experience. There are some changes on the ground—our hikes are lower-key, and we provide more time for transitioning to activities—but that can happen anyway in Israel due to weather and other logistical concerns.”

Reiss, also from New Jersey, takes a break from hiking. (Courtesy of the Friendship Circle)

All in all, the rabbi emphasizes, it’s the same trip: “This is everybody’s Birthright experience.”

Julian definitely believes that to be true.

An athletic person (he’s on a Special Olympics swim team), Julian says: “I think everyone should go to be better people and better Jews”—and has been considering returning for some kind of work-study program, even for as long as a year.

His parents have acknowledged that. They’ve been gathering information and talking to others about options for young people with disabilities, and if it goes anything like the Birthright trip, where Rabbi Baram kept in daily contact posting photos and updates on Facebook, they will be reassured by this hugely independent step.

Julian’s mother says he expressed interest in going back to Israel literally from the minute he got off the plane. And why not? Knowingly, Cornelia attests: “It’s the best thing he’s ever done in his life.”

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