The Israel tour of a lifetime

Disabled young people are getting the chance to see Jerusalem and Masada, thanks to a ground-breaking initiative


We are arranged in a circle, surrounded by pots of coloured paint and plastic stencils, ready to create designs for Purim T-shirts. The place is northern Israel, minutes from the Mediterranean. Ages range from 18 to 25. In the past few days we have been donkey riding in biblical costumes, taken part in adventure activities in the Carmel forest and toured the Mini Israel theme park. A serious amount of photographs have been taken. After a day of sun, sightseeing and loud music on the bus, decorum is low, but enthusiasm is high. This could be any British tour group in Israel.

In fact, three of the group are in wheelchairs, while the other five also have physical and learning disabilities, and there are 15 volunteers on hand to support them.

The group, which spent 10 days touring Israel this month, were the first-ever participants of Limitless, a UJIA Birthright trip for people who use Norwood's services. Birthright, which takes young Jews on their first educational tour of Israel, has been running in Britain through the UJIA since 2003. Britain's nearly 2,000 Birthright alumni tend to rave about it as the trip of a lifetime, but until now the opportunity has been denied to those with more complex welfare needs.

Lerona Gelb, who works for the UJIA Israel Experience and led the recent trip, is the reason that is no longer true. Two years ago, Gelb, wheelchair-bound since she was a child, led the first North American Birthright group for people with physical and mental disabilities. Coming back, she says she was determined "to do something for the UK community" and soon had Birthright and Norwood on board.

There were times when she thought it would not happen. Organising any Israel trip is a mammoth task, but that is without taking into account the need for accessible toilets and ground-floor accommodation, or having to devise a suitable educational programme or plan a route through the Old City bypassing the narrow cobbled streets. And don't even talk about negotiating El Al security with non-Jewish support workers, liquid medicines, extra baggage and participants who have never flown before. The group used a bus fitted with a wheelchair area and a lift system to help with disembarking - one of only two in Israel.

"We've done our best to make a programme which meets their needs," explains Matt Keston, a former Norwood volunteer and Gelb's co-leader. Some activities had to be scrapped or cut short. "It's a shame when we want everyone to participate in everything and they can't. But we improvise." A girl in a wheelchair who could not ride a donkey was given the chance to pet it, a boy was taken on a hike through the Carmel Forest on a tandem. "The aim is for them to enjoy themselves and have a good experience in Israel," says Keston.

Helping ensure that were the support workers, whose "holiday" was spent working tirelessly to assist participants with everything from washing and eating to negotiating the excursions. Most were experienced Norwood volunteers, like Laura Lewis, there to assist Netalie, a 21-year-old with a rare chromosome disorder. "The highlight is watching their faces light up when they do something they enjoy," says Lewis.

Jane Nzeako has helped at Norwood's Redbridge centre for four years. When the opportunity came to assist Benjamin, a 19-year-old with a profound learning disability caused by a brain injury at birth, she did not hesitate. "It's exhausting, you're always trying to think ahead but you can't really," she says. "I have to ensure he's having a good time and it's all in his best interest. Still, it's going so smoothly - more than events in London do."

Nzeako, like some of the other assistants, is not Jewish and would probably have never visited Israel otherwise. "It's amazing to be here - I'm learning so much," she says.

For Joel Meyer, the British-born educator for tour operator Routes, showing Israel to the support workers was an added bonus. "I took them to the border with Lebanon at Rosh Hanikra and we spoke about the issues. These are people who are intimately involved in the Jewish world because of Norwood, and coming to Israel gives them a different view of what it is to be Jewish."

"They are seeing Israel in an extremely positive way, seeing it for what it is, not how it is in the papers," adds Gelb. When she went on Israel tour, her youth movement was able to work around her wheelchair. Her experience made her all the more certain that this trip was possible, and that it was about more than giving the participants a holiday and their parents a break, but about changing attitudes to disability.

"I believe every single Jewish person has the right to see Israel and experience it in whatever way they can," she says. Before the trip, one parent broke down in tears at the idea. "She said her other children had been on tour - their birthright - but she never thought her son would. Making them feel the same as everyone else is a big thing."

"There isn't that much for these young adults to access that mainstream young people can," says Judith Mitchell, co-ordinator for Unity, Norwood's recreational service for children up to the age of 18. "I think that's why parents wanted to be part of the pilot programme - to show things like this can be done. It's very special."

Chatting to Shalev Nymark, his enthusiasm for something so many take for granted is infectious. The 23-year-old, who has the neurological condition microcephaly and an autistic spectrum condition, is overjoyed to visit previously off-limits points like Masada.

"My dad is Israeli and I wanted to see more about his country. I will be able to show him my photos and tell him about the places I have been. I can go up to him and say 'boker tov' and 'toda' and 'aba'," he says with a broad grin.

Not all the participants have Shalev's capacity to express his excitement, admits Keston. "But I know they are having a good time. People think they are not going to understand or take in any of it in. But knowing them, you can see when they are happy. As long as stuff is broken down they understand it."

This inclusivity is something that needs to be reinforced, believes Shoshana Bloom, responsible for Jewish culture at Norwood. "The community should be looking at the things we all have access to that people who are learning disabled don't have," she says.

She expected to meet more opposition to the trip because of the expense at a time of communal belt-tightening. But the costs have been spread between Birthright, the Israeli government, UJIA and Norwood, and Bloom has been "pleasantly surprised to see how positive people are about it".

She stresses that it is still only the first step. "For some it works to be in a specialised group, but there are others who would be able to participate in a mainstream Birthright trip - it just needs to be more accessible, and this trip can show how it can work."

As the coach weaves into Jerusalem at nightfall, the sense that this visit is something special is palpable. After a day of eating hamantashen dressed in hand-decorated T-shirts, as well as a sing-song and Purim seuda with adults at a UJIA facility for people with disabilities, it is a weary but enthusiastic group that first glimpses the Old City.

With stars in his eyes, Shalev says he cannot wait to put a note in the Kotel. "Every single person should be able to come on a trip like this. I have made some great friends and had a really fun holiday and I want to come back again."

Thinking for a moment, he adds: "My favourite bit is all of it."

Last updated: 4:37pm, March 22 2012