For the disabled, Birthright trips are extra special

For the disabled, Birthright trips are extra special

NEW YORK — Pamela Saeks thought her daughter Karly, who has Asperger’s syndrome, would never be able to go on Birthright Israel, the program that offers Diaspora Jews free trips to Israel.
“For years she has been so frustrated that she can’t be like other kids and go on an organized trip to Israel,” Saeks said.
But in December, Karly will embark on a 10-day Birthright trip tailored for individuals with Asperger’s, a form of high-functioning autism. The trip will take her from the shores of the Dead Sea to the verdant plateau of the Golan Heights.
The trip is organized in partnership with Shorashim, an organization aimed at strengthening ties between the Diaspora and Israel, and Koach, the college outreach group of the Conservative movement.
It will be the fourth Birthright trip suited to meet the needs of people with Asperger’s.
The Asperger’s trip is one of a number of specially tailored Birthright programs for those with disabilities. Birthright, which has brought some 220,000 Jews aged 18 to 26 to Israel since its inception in 2000, also runs trips for the hearing impaired, the developmentally disabled and wheelchair users, and has had one trip for blind participants.
By the end of 2009, at least 28 groups of people with special needs will have traveled to Israel on Birthright since 2003, according to Birthright.
The Birthright trips for the disabled visit all the major sites of a typical Birthright trip, but changes are made to suit the participants’ unique needs.
At Masada, they do not ascend to the ancient citadel via the rigorous serpentine trail. Instead, they tour the Roman ramparts at the bottom of the hill and take the cable car to the top.
At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, organizers highlight the persecution by the Nazis of people with disabilities. And Asperger’s trips hold discussions about the Nazis’ persecution of Eastern European Jewry in classrooms located next to the museum to provide a better environment for participants to absorb the information.
Despite their popularity, the frequency of Birthright trips for the disabled is limited due to budgetary constraints.
“It’s an expensive trip to run, and we can’t do it again,” Hillel’s director of immersion, Andrea Hoffman, said of a trip for the mobile impaired. “People have asked us if we could get private funding and we have a lot of requests.”
The costs of the trips for the disabled are higher for several reasons. Each group has a higher staff-to-participant ratio — one to three on the Asperger’s trip, for example, compared with one to 20 for regular Birthright trips.
In addition, some groups need specific and sometimes expensive facilities. Mobile-impaired groups need special buses that can accommodate more than 20 people in wheelchairs, and organizers have to scout every destination to make sure they are wheelchair accessible.
Laura Siegel, who went on a trip for the hearing impaired two summers ago, said the experience was transformative.
“I feel that this trip would leave a long-lasting impression for every deaf Jewish young adult out there in the United States, as it did for me,” Siegel wrote JTA in an e-mail.