Of the 17 Birthright Israel trips that Yael Tamari organized this past summer as director of OU’s Israel Free Spirit, the final trip of the season — geared for Americans ages 18 to 32 with chronic illnesses and mobility issues — was among the most magical.
“This particular cohort was extremely varied in age range and Jewish and personal backgrounds, representing a truly diverse spectrum,” she says. “The participants and staff were an amazing and fun group of people, open to one another, to the adventure of the experience, and even to testing their limits at times.”
Of the 18 participants, 17 use mobility devices, including power and manual wheelchairs and/or walkers regularly or occasionally. Participants’ medical issues include various forms of muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and spina bifida; some use ventilators and require assistance with basic needs, including eating. There were also a few post cardiac and kidney transplant recipients. Thanks to Yad Sarah, a Jerusalem-based agency that provides health and home care services for people of all ages in Israel, the group was able to borrow six extra wheelchairs, shower and bath chairs, and other equipment which contributed to participants’ comfort.
“Sometimes participants with mobility devices are denied the chance to equally participate in activities and experiences, either because of a lack of accessibility or because of a misconception that a disability means a lesser desire or capability to take part in social, academic or professional settings,” says Tamari. “This trip serves as an equalizer — everyone gets to participate just like on every other Birthright trip, and everyone’s voices matter.”
Israel Free Spirit is a provider of Israel trips on behalf of Birthright Israel, the largest educational tourism organization in the world. Its mission is to provide all young Jewish adults ages 18 to 26 with opportunities for transformative and immersive shared experiences in Israel, and a foundation for ongoing Jewish connection. Founded in 1999, Birthright Israel has gifted over 800,000 free, life-changing, 10-day trips to Israel with the goal of ensuring a vibrant future for the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with the Jewish homeland.
Tamari commends Birthright Israel and the Birthright Israel Foundation for their unwavering support and commitment to invest in accessible Birthright trips despite this year’s budget cuts.
“They made an important decision to unflinchingly maintain their investment in these special trips,” she says. “Birthright Israel’s long-time partnership with the OU has changed participants’ lives. Many more will potentially be inspired to take this journey and these values one step forward.”
Israel Free Spirit organized three accessible Birthright trips this summer: OU’s Yachad trip, for participants with special needs – which has been partnering with Israel Free spirit for years, “Recovery”, a trip dedicated to individuals overcoming addictions, and this final summer trip, led in conjunction with Yalla, a Brooklyn-based organization dedicated to providing year-round programming for individuals with physical disabilities and special medical needs, including accessible trips to Israel.
“People in their late teens and early 20s generally travel,” says Yalla’s founding director Faigie Schwartz-Blaise, who initiated the partnership with Israel Free Spirit. “Often the only way people with physical disabilities or chronic conditions can go away or do a fun activity is with their parents. When you are 19 and 20, you want to enjoy life with your peers.”
Schwartz-Blaise, a physician assistant who works in a hospital emergency room, and her husband Daniel Blaise, an EMT and director of Yalla’s male division, interviewed all participants and oversaw everything from pre-trip screening and medical management to the recruitment of volunteer staff and the collection of medical equipment.
Twenty-eight staff members from the U.S. and Israel, including volunteer paramedics, nurses and physical therapist Rachel Rosenberg, supported participants and facilitated their enjoyment every step of the way.
“I joined Yalla because I enjoy being a part of the organization and helping young adults that have physical and medical challenges to enjoy a social scene just like their typically-developing peers,” says Rosenberg, who has volunteered with Yalla for the past seven years.
Rosenberg worked with participants to determine the amount of assistance they would require throughout each day with all tasks including dressing, bathing, eating, mobility and accessing their environment.
“The highlight of the trip for me was watching participants being able to access and explore their homeland,” she reflects. “One of the most memorable moments was watching our group of about 40 people, including 16 wheelchairs, travel around the top of Masada, learning about the history of our people and exploring our heritage, without accessibility being an obstacle. For many of our participants, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I loved watching them experience so many firsts in our Holy Land. Being a part of making that happen is truly indescribable.”
All Birthright Israel trips include a contingent called a “mifgash”, comprising young Israelis who are either serving in, or have just completed, the IDF. While these men and women typically stay with Birthright groups for part of the journey, the four Israelis who joined the Yalla Birthright trip were able to stay for the trip’s duration, thanks to Birthright Israel’s generous support.
“The mifgash is very meaningful to both the Israelis and the Americans,” says Tamari. “The bonds they solidify underscore the mutual sense of being part of the Jewish people, Am Yisrael, not just members of their specific communities. They strengthen the ties and commitment to the State of Israel and to each other.”
For participant Charley Seckler of New York, a highlight of the trip was the group’s Bnei Mitzvah ceremony. A Birthright Israel tradition, the celebration enables those who did not experience the rite of passage or wish to infuse it with extra meaning, to voice their commitment to their Jewish identities and to Jewish action. Participants are encouraged to consider how they wish to pursue an aspect of “mitzvah” in their lives moving forward, and to choose a Hebrew name, while those with Hebrew names explore their meaning in greater depth.
“The most special part of the trip was going to the Western Wall,” says Seckler. “The first time I went, around 2008, I didn’t recognize the significance of the visit because I was the only one with an apparent disability in my family. I made it about myself. This time, being part of a large group with others dealing with similar challenges helped me to remain optimistic that I have a place in this world, and in my Jewish community.”
Yalla’s Daniel Blaise was touched by the ceremony as well.
“Just seeing all those people reconnecting with their Judaism was amazing and so inspirational,” he recalls.
On a summer trip to Israel, OU Board Member and Commission Chair for Israel Free Spirit Jeff Cohen and his family had the special opportunity to meet up with the group at the Kotel.
“Watching the participants authentically connect to Judaism was a remarkable reminder of the power of Israel to light up every Jewish neshama,” says Cohen.
At the Kotel, Cohen’s son Gavriel shared a truly inspiring moment with Charlie Seckler. “He asked to borrow my Tefillin, which I helped him wrap, and then I taught him to say Shema word-by-word,” shares Gavriel. “It feels good to think that someone now has the knowledge to choose to say it again in the future after learning it with me at the Kotel.”
The trip marked the first time Florida’s Alyssa Shangold had ever been to Israel, and she relished every moment of the journey.
“Having the opportunity to embrace the sites and culture, and being able to participate in the activities of this beautiful country was incredible on its own,” she says. “But to be able to experience it all with a group like Yalla made the trip extra special. Everyone was so welcoming and truly understood what it’s like to live life with a disability. We all helped each other and the wonderful staff made sure everything was accessible for everyone. I went on this trip not knowing anyone, but I truly feel I left with friends and memories that will last a lifetime.”
OU Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph credits the organizations involved for collaborating to make this trip truly exceptional.
“What happens when the OU’s Israel Free Spirit partners with Yalla and Yad Sarah on an incomparable Birthright Israel trip? Not only the participants, but all of us, are elevated by the life-changing experiences — through video and shared testimony. Each one more ‘wow’ than the next.”
Tamari adds, “In supporting Israel Free Spirit’s accessible Birthright programs Yachad, Recovery and Yalla, the OU loudly declares, ‘We don’t leave anyone behind.’ We as Jews are all bound to each other, and we all impact each other. It’s that simple and that beautiful.”
Director, Israel Free Spirit/Taglit-Birthright Israel
About Israel Free Spirit
Israel Free Spirit is the OU’s Birthright Israel trip provider. Our goal is to impact and strengthen the Jewish future of young Jews across North America by providing them with tools to explore and strengthen their Jewish identity, their sense of belonging to Jewish communities and their relationship with Israel. Our vision is to bring thousands of young Jewish adults from every background and interest on a trip to Israel, to share the magic of Israel with them and to motivate them to take active steps to nurture their Jewish growth and their relationship with Israel, with each other and with their families.
About the Orthodox Union
Founded in 1898, the Orthodox Union (OU), or Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, serves as the voice of American Orthodox Jewry, with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network. As the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry, the OU is at the forefront of advocacy work on both state and federal levels, outreach to Jewish teens and young professionals through NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, Yachad and OU Press, among many other divisions and programs.