Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Birthright opens circle to include special needs

by Johanna Ginsberg
NJJN Staff Writer

March 27, 2008

Avi Saunders 18, of Livingston and Eric Kaye, 20, of Parsippany just returned from their once-in-a-lifetime Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.

Just thinking about being at the Western Wall made Avi clap his hands and sigh in contentment. Eric recalled how happy he was when they landed in Israel and emerged into the warm weather.

Those were highlights of a trip their parents never thought their children would be able to take. Avi and Eric both have autism.

Hosting youngsters with special needs was a first-time experience for Mayanot, a trip provider for Taglit-Birthright Israel, a program that provides free or heavily subsidized Israel tours for young travelers to Israel.

“There’s no reason people should miss Birthright Israel just because they have a disability. Every young Jew should be able to go,” said Avi Weinstein, director of Mayanot’s Birthright programming.

“I first thought, ‘no way,’” said Avi’s mother, Lori, when she found out about the trip last August. “I’m not letting him go 6,000 miles away without me. I couldn’t do it; he couldn’t do it.”

But as she heard more about the trip, she said, she warmed to the idea. “What better place for him to spread his wings and become a little more independent?” she said.

Linda Kaye was excited about the trip from the beginning.

“On the day he left, I burst into tears of joy that he could have this opportunity,” she said.

The trip was far more complicated to arrange than regular trips, Weinstein acknowledged. It included a thorough interview process, conducted with the help of two doctors who would also accompany the group. The staff-to-participant ratio was kept low, and the trip was conducted at a slower-than-usual pace.

“Birthright is famous for fast-paced, lack of sleep, zipping through Israel. We slowed it down for this trip, but they’ll still get to see many of the same attractions,” he said, interviewed by phone from his office in New York before the end of the trip.

“We’ve always had people asking if we do trips for people with special needs,” said Weinstein. “But this year we had way more than the normal amount of people asking.”

Avi, the oldest of three siblings, attends the Children’s Institute in Verona, where he takes senior-level classes. With his family, he is a member of the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston. Eric attends ECLC, a special education school in Chatham for students ages six through 21. In addition to his classes, he receives vocational training there. He is the third of four siblings and with his family is a member of Temple Beth Am in Parsippany.

Avi and Eric, like about half of the trip’s 25 participants, participate in the Friendship Circle, a program for special-needs youngsters run by the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic movement in communities throughout the country.

Friendship Circle made a concerted effort this year to work with Birthright Israel to organize such a trip, according to Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, executive director of the Friendship Circle of MetroWest NJ.

On this first go, Mayanot limited the trip to individuals with no physical disabilities and chose applicants who were very high-functioning.

“Most were independent in terms of eating and getting dressed,” Weinstein said.

They plan to continue the trips. “It’s been a beautiful, beautiful trip. There’s definitely a big motivation for us to do it again,” he said.

Avi and Eric, longtime friends, departed from JFK on March 12 and returned March 24 in the early morning hours.

Avi Saunders, far right, with friends on day five of their trip to Israel.
Later that same day, they gathered around the Saunders’ kitchen table, munching leftover hamantaschen, chocolates, and popcorn and reliving the high points of their visit to Israel.

Exhausted and jet-lagged from their overnight flight, the two friends were nonetheless exuberant about all they had seen. They talked about milking goats in Caesarea, taking cable cars to the top of Masada, swimming in the Dead Sea, seeing candles being made in Tzfat, and taking a boat cruise on the Kineret. They watched goat cheese being made, celebrated Purim, rode on camels, and slept in a Bedouin tent in the desert.

“We had to walk a long way to get to the bathroom!” said Avi.

“I liked looking at the buildings in Tel Aviv,” said Eric, who was also surprised at the farmland he saw in Caesarea. “I was expecting it to be more city-like,” he said.

Asked how he felt when the time came to board the plane and head back to the states, Eric said, “I was sad and happy at the same time.”

Upon seeing Avi return from Israel “so happy,” Lori said, “It just elevated me.”

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