Shiluv: Inclusion and Disabilities

My experiences including children in Jewish experiences in the United States and Israel

Masada — July 25, 2013



No visit to Israel is complete without a trip to the top of Masada, the site of the ancient Jewish mass suicide during the uprising against the Romans. There are two ways to ascend the mountain top: hiking the Snake Path OR via cable car. While the rest of the Ramah Seminar participants hiked up, we took the cable car. While the cable car has existed for a long time, until about 10 years ago Masada was largely inaccessible. The cable car stopped at a point on the mountain that still required people to climb about 15 steps. With the new cable car docking station, they also made the top of Masada relatively accessible. As you can see in the pictures, the majority of the paths are paved and ramps for handicapped customers are clearly marked.

However, sometimes the ramps aren’t quite enough. If you look at the bottom-left picture, it shows a ramp. While the ramp is made of wood, at the point the wooden planks meets the concrete paving, there is a bit of concrete connecting the walkway and the wooden ramp. Unfortunately this uneven paving meant that Yishai got stuck as he traveled up the ramp. We needed to give him a push up. This happened a number of times atop Masada; ramps that seemed accessible in actuality meant he needed some assistance to maneuver them.

Given the terrain on top of Masada, generally they did a phenomenal job making this National Park accessible to people with physical impairments. I am thrilled we were able to participate in this part of Israeli history and touring experience.

Machane Yehuda / the Shuk — July 21, 2013

Machane Yehuda / the Shuk

Machane Yehuda / the Shuk

Jerusalem is well known for its holy sites, stone, and its open air market. This market place is called “Machane Yehuda” or simply “the Shuk.” It is an outdoor market, mostly for food, with one main walkway and two parallel walkways on either side. Due to the large number of people in a small space, during the Intifadas the Shuk was the site of many terrorist bombings. Similar to Ben Yehuda Street (see earlier posting) it needed to be rebuilt in the early 2000’s. In doing so they made the walkway/streets a bit wider and completely flat. I would imagine they made it completely flat so that shop owners could easily bring goods to their shops on wheeled carts. However the result is still a completely accessible environment! This is a great example of what special educators call “Universal Design”: structuring an environment so everyone can use it for a variety of reasons. For instance, everyone (people with wheelchairs, parents with strollers, customers with shopping carts, or pedestrians) can use a ramp.

However, in the Shuk, the challenge to accessibility is not with the physical environment. Any place with throngs of people and crowded, pushy Israelis makes it a difficult environment to navigate. Yishai did a great job, with help from me and some of his friends as well. Many shop owners were happy to come out of their shops and assist him as necessary.

The picture above is of a woman who I observed shopping in the Shuk. Many people use the Shuk as their primary food shopping location. The prices are cheaper and the produce fresher. After watching this woman (I was trying very hard to be a creeper…hopefully I succeeded?) I determined that this woman regularly shops at Machane Yehuda. She knew the shop owners, who were more than happy to assist her as necessary as she bought three peppers, two eggplant, and some cucumbers. I was ecstatic to see someone with her physical disabilities using this environment successfully and regularly!

More to come! — July 18, 2013

More to come!

Just to let everyone know, officially our trip in Israel is winding down and we will be leaving on July 22.  However, I have a few more places i would like to “review” and thoughts i will posting.  Please stay tuned for more posts that I am simply too exhausted to post now!  Hopefully they will be posted no later than August.  Thanks!

Tel Aviv and the Namal —

Tel Aviv and the Namal

Tel Aviv is a very metropolitan city, with some very old neighborhoods.  Today we walked through the oldest Jewish neighborhood built outside of Yafo, Neve Tzedek.  It is a beautiful neighborhood with winding, tiny streets.  The sidewalks sometimes have curb cuts, but not always.  Often Yishai was forced to drive in the street.  In addition, most of the streets don’t have enough room for Yishai’s scooter AND a car.  So the staff needed to stop traffic occasionally.  Ultimately ok, but frustrating and a bit dangerous.


Then we headed to the Namal, the Hebrew word for port.  While this was, at one point, the literal port of Tel Aviv, it has been converted into a boardwalk / promenade covering about 14,000 square meters.  It follows the Mediterranean Sea, sometimes right along the beach and other times the waves come crashing over the guardrails.  But getting a little wet is part of the fun.   Skateboarding, bicycling, and skating are encouraged along the walkway.  There are even little “jumps” for kids to do on their skateboards built into the boardwalk.  As such, it is COMPLETELY ACCESSIBLE!!! And many of the restaurants on the Namal are built without steps and plenty of room to use a scooter.  From early morning to late night, the Namal is always busy and always accessible 🙂

Old Jewish Quarter and Ben Yehuda Street — July 16, 2013

Old Jewish Quarter and Ben Yehuda Street

Old Jewish Quarter and Ben Yehuda Street

We had a fabulous time in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and on Ben Yehuda street.

*NOTE: Ben Yehuda street is different from “Machane Yehuda,” which is also known as “The Shuk.” Stay tuned for a post about Machana Yehuda/Shuk when we go later this week.*

Overall both areas are very accessible. They become less accessible with more people (as is the case in most cities). Both neighborhoods have broad streets and very few stairs. The stairs that are present are optional; there is a ramp directly next to the stairs. The bottom-middle picture shows the main street in the Old Jewish Quarter, Rehov Tifereth Israel. We parked at the Yafo Gate and walked / scooted about 7 minutes into the Old City from there. Many of the restaurants have open seating outside, eliminating the need to maneuver Yishai’s scooter inside a restaurant.

As you can see from the bottom-right and bottom-left pictures, there are lots of signs for handicap accessible bathrooms and pathways through the Old City. Very exciting!

One problem we encountered was the bumpiness of the road (see top-left picture). This is a problem that is difficult for people who are NOT in wheelchairs to understand (such as myself!). Going over the very uneven and bumpy roads of the Old City and Ben Yehuda street is very exhausting and trying on the person driving the chair. And we should be careful to point out; these cobblestone streets are not originals! The city of Jerusalem used them to pave the roads of these areas to improve the aesthetics of these areas, especially for tourists. Unfortunately, they did not think about the effect of these stones on certain individuals.

Finally, the picture on the top right: an ice cream shop!!! While many of the stores and restaurants on Ben Yehuda street have 1-2 steps to get in, this ice cream store had not one ramp, but two!!!! They have one entrance and one exit to their store, to encourage the flow of traffic in a single direction. Each entrance/exit has a ramp, so Yishai could drive in, order his ice cream (gleeda!) and then continue driving, without having to turn around in a small cramped store. Yay!!!

Guest Writer: Jonathan’s experience with Yishai at the Kotel — July 14, 2013

Guest Writer: Jonathan’s experience with Yishai at the Kotel

This past Friday, Ramah Seminar participants went to the Western Wall (the Kotel) and walked back to our base, about an hour and half walk.  Since the route back was mostly not accessible, Yishai and I attended tfilot at the Kotel and then took a taxi back to our base before Shabbat officially started.  Since I cannot enter the Men’s Section of the Kotel, Jonathan agreed to help Yishai.  He has written an amazingly beautiful piece about his experience.  When Yishai read it, he started to cry and said “Wow, Jonathan understood that incredible intense emotional experience better than I did!”  Thank you Jonathan for your beautiful words.

Yishai at the Kotel

 It’s 6:13 PM on Friday evening. The kotel plaza is starting to fill in as I speak with “Chippy” (Yishai’s personal counselor) about timing and logistics. “Shabbat comes in at 7:15 so we have to get Yishai on a cab by 6:45, latest.” “Let’s meet at 6:35 on the dot, wheel him to the exit, hail a cab, and we should be fine.” “Where should we meet again!?” But Yishai and I are already on the move.

The logistics of moving a camper in a wheel chair through the old city seem to trump all other feelings that I might usually have at the kotel. With one eye on my watch and the rest of my body straining to keep Yishai’s chair from careening head first into the Western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, I quickly maneuver past a group of Russian tourists, a requisite “have-you-put-on-tfilin-today?” guy, yeshiva boys, and mincha daveners. We find a nice quiet spot with access to the wall. Most of the Kotel is made up of large, rectangular Ashlar-style limestone, highlighted by chiseled raised borders, but we happen upon an odd shaped rock that juts out from the wall, no chiseled border, nothing rectangular about it at all, nestled among the larger, regal looking stones. This will be his spot at the Kotel.   

“How does Yishai want to be positioned?” “With his face to the wall? Or maybe his side so that he can be closer?” “How will he be most comfortable?” “Oh, and what time is it again???”

Yishai begins to touch the wall, stroking it up and down, and looking around at the sea of humanity trickling into the men’s section as Shabbat nears. He is taking it all in. He looks up and sees all of the notes stuffed into the wall, overflowing onto the floor below us. I say something inane about how there are so many notes in the wall. He then turns to me as best he can and says, “If one day the kotel were to get buried, and many years later was discovered again by archeologists, from these notes alone, a new Torah could be written. Imagine how many thoughts and prayers are here? Psychologists could gain so much insight into humanity by reading what people wish for in this place.”

As his voice trails off, I see that he is not sure what to do. Not knowing Yishai very well (I work with only half of Ramah Seminar and Yishai is not in my group), I mumble that perhaps he has a T’filah (prayer) that he might want to say.

And then he begins to sing:

 “בשם ה’, אלוקי ישראל. מימיני מיכאל. ומשאלי גבריאל. ומלפני אוריאל. ומאחורי רפאל. ועל ראשי שכינת אל.”

(In the name of the Lord, G-d of Israel. On my right is the angel Michael, and on my left Gavriel, in front of me Uriel, and behind me Rephael. And on top of my head is the Divine presence of G-d)

And then another song, ” טוב להודות לה’ ” (It is good to thank the Lord).

And racing through my head is the following thought: “It is good to thank the Lord?! This is what a boy who cannot walk well, who has many physical challenges, who cannot…cannot…cannot…these are his first words of his private conversation with G-d at the Kotel?”

 But Yishai has turned cannot into a resounding CAN.

And as Yishai chants another one of the many Shabbat songs that we sing at Ramah, I begin to be convinced. It is hard not to thank G-d when you see a גבר (man), a true mentch like Yishai, praying with all of his might, making people around him smile, enjoying life to the fullest.

It’s now 6:25 and my mind shoots back to the logistics of “Operation ‘Yishai Goes to the Kotel.’” In about 9 minutes I’ll start wheeling him back, we’ll meet with Chippy at…and then I hear Yishai start another prayer. Straining to hear, I can make out various tunes from our daily Shacharit (morning) prayers. I hear Mah Tovu, the Shmah, and maybe even the kadish. At some point I see Yishai struggling to pick something up that might have fallen. I can’t see what he has dropped until one of the nearby men, a Charedi man with a long beard and side curls, comes over to us, kneels down, and picks up a “Shabbat-o-Gram” that had fallen from Yishai’s lap during his davening. And now I realize that I’m not the only one looking at Yishai, but that all around us people are taking note of him. They see him davening, moving back and forth in his chair, caressing the wall, kissing it, and singing every prayer and Jewish song that he knows, and I can only imagine what each person in our immediate area might be thinking.

With tears in my eyes, I see that Yishai wants to stand up. I do not know Yishai well and have never seen him stand, so I was not sure what miracle to expect at the Kotel this afternoon. As I later learn, Yishai can stand and even take a few steps, but at this point, nothing would have surprised me. I remove the foot rests and Yishai stands on his own, leaving the comfort of his wheel chair and placing his hands on the wall. He then begins to bow, a deep, low genuflection. Maybe he is saying Aleinu, maybe the Modim paragraph of the Amidah. He holds his bow for a few seconds, and then sits back down. Time has stopped for me. Time seems to have stopped for all of us praying at the Kotel plaza. We have been transported. Like Shabbat itself, Yishai’s prayers create a special place in time, and sanctify it. Tov Lehodot L’hashem.

As Yishai finishes, I wheel him towards the plaza. Again, my body strains to push Yishai’s large body and wheel chair up the ramp as we start looking for “Chippy.” I’m back in logistic mode…or so I thought. Running towards us is a young woman and I see Yishai’s face light up with recognition. He calls out her name and gives her a huge hug. After she leaves, I ask Yishai who she is and he explains that she is from his youth group chapter back home. He says that at the Kotel, the last thing he did was sing a song from this youth group, reflecting on the fact that he wishes he could see them in Israel and hopes that they will also have a powerful prayer experience at the kotel. And then, out of nowhere, he saw them. This truly amazes Yishai. As my mind goes towards a more pessimistic place, thinking back on how many people I have seen at the Kotel every time I come, Yishai offers a different perspective. “It’s like G-d was winking at me,” he says, as we rush to a cab and head back to our base to celebrate Shabbat.

And I think, Yishai, on second thought, I’m sure that G-d was winking at you, and what’s even more special, I think you winked back.

My last thought as I welcomed Shabbat was Tov Lehodot L’hashem.

Shavua Tov,


A 5th year yoetz/social worker for Ramah Seminar

Beit Guvrin – Maresha National Park — July 12, 2013

Beit Guvrin – Maresha National Park

Beit Guvrin – Maresha National Park

Israel has been home to many different groups of people and societies. Sometimes I feel that everywhere you go in Israel as an active archaeological excavation…and that wouldn’t be so far from the truth. About 30 minutes outside of Jerusalem is a very large and active archaeological excavation, called Tel Maresh, located within Beit Guvrin National Park. It is a popular place for tour groups to visit because they allow visitors to take part in the archaeological process by sifting through dirt for pieces of pottery and clay.

At first glance this looks incredibly inaccessible for people with physical impairments, and the archaeological dig area is. In order to access the caves and dig sights you must cross an incredible rocky terrain and then ascend steep stairs. We attempted to join our group to at least see some of the active sights, but the terrain was too rocky for either the scooter or the manual wheelchair. We headed back to the van.

We then headed over to a section called the “Bell Caves.” These are huge caverns used as limestone quarries during the Byzantine and early Islamic periods. These have already been fully excavated and the Beit Guvrin Park has worked to make this area extremely accessible! There are concrete paths that go through the caves, connecting up to other caves. There are informative signs, describing the flora and fauna along the way (in both Hebrew and English). In addition to the accessible paths, excellent signage (see the top-right picture), there are also accommodations for visitors with visual impairments. There are copper replications of common birds found in the region (see the middle-right picture) for people who are blind or visually impaired. While walking through the caves, you can hear the birds chirping and echoing off the walls, those with visual impairments can get a sense of what these birds look like. So cool!!!

Since they have worked to make this place open to all, it can be rented by individuals or organizations. The Bell Caves have amazing acoustics and is therefore a great place for concerts and other functions.

While we were thoroughly impressed with the Bell Caves area of the Beit Guvrin Park, we were disappointed by one major area: the bathrooms. After finishing our tours of the area, we headed to the bathrooms where there were three signs: men, women, and handicap. However, the handicap bathrooms were locked! Often it’s easier to keep these bathrooms locked and not worry about cleaning them (since they get less use). While I’m sure it’s easier for the park to keep them locked, it does not create an accessible atmosphere.

Two Types of Regret — July 11, 2013

Two Types of Regret

In our discussions about this trip months ago, we discussed Yishai going on a hike with the group using an adapted chair. For those of you who do not know Yishai, you should know that he is not an outdoors- y person. However, during our discussions, he said he was open to trying this adapted chair and he expressed an interest in going on a hike. I was thrilled at his adventurous attitude!

The chair is called a “Gilgalon” named after an Israeli soldier named Gil who was injured during his IDF service but wanted to continue hiking, a very popular Israeli pastime. He designed the chair you see above as a way for him to hike with the assistance of 2 or more people. There is one large, heavy duty, wheel and bars that extend in front and behind the chair to be used by the able-bodied individuals supporting. The idea is that the able-bodied individuals supporting the Gilgalon are mostly pushing a wheel and balancing the device, not lifting and carrying.

To say Yishai was nervous about this would be an understatement, and therefore should not be underestimated how impressive it is that he decided to take this opportunity and roll with it (pun intended!). On the bus ride to the Har Meron trail we discussed two types of regret. There’s the type of regret you have a few hours later, because you are hurt (physically, emotionally, etc) and you wish you did not have that pain or discomfort. However, there is a second type of regret, the kind of regret you have in three months, when you think about an experience you missed. This is the type of regret I want him to avoid. While it would seem that Yishai sitting in a chair and being wheeled around a mountain would not impact him physically as much as the people pushing him, it is not a comfortable experience. Every bump, rock, tree root, or step on the trail is felt by him and, after enough bumps, causes his muscles to spasm. We knew that physical pain and muscular spasms were a distinct possible result of this hike. But Yishai agreed that he did not want to have the regret in three months, or five years, or however far in the future, of having given up this opportunity.

So off we went. To be honest, Har Meron is not the ideal trail for the Gilgalon. The trail circles the top of the mountain. So while the trail does not go up or down, there are still many steps and rocks to maneuver. There are flat sections, but for the most part, it is very uneven terrain. The rest of the group did the hike in about an hour, while it took our team of six staff members and one camper over two hours to complete the trail. While Yishai was in a decent amount of pain, and the foot rest fell off multiple times throughout our trek, Yishai continued to appreciate the amazingness of this opportunity. We stopped at various spots to take in the views and point out important sites, and each time Yishai declared “This makes it worth it.”

Once back on the bus, he declared that while he had no interest in repeating that experience, if he could go back in time, he would definitely still choose to do it. To go hiking in Israel is the kind of experience he only dreamed of having. Even with the pain he felt over the next 24-hours, he has no regret.

I want to say a HUGE thank you to all those who helped Yishai through this experience: Adam, Yaakov, Eli, Avishai, Rabbi Ed, Nissan, and Rachel. Without their help, this experience would not have been possible.

20130711-070516 אחה״צ.jpg

Cultural Sharing —

Cultural Sharing

The Ramah Seminar experience strives to give its participants a complete, multifaceted view of Israel, from mountain tops, to below sea level, from Zionists to Palestinians. We met with a group of teenage Muslim Palestinians and broke into small groups to have more personal conversations. They discussed Arabic language, Muslim religion (it’s currently Ramadan and many of the Seminar participants had questions about the holiday), popular singers, and video games. Yishai was discussing a popular video game, Assassins Creed, with the Palestinian teenagers who also love and play this game. Yishai pointed out that it is the only video game where Muslims are the good guys. To which the Palestinian teen declared, “Yes! That’s why we love it. You’re so smart!”

I was excited to watch this cultural interaction in general, but specifically related to Yishai and his disability. At no point did the teenagers ask (or maybe even notice?) his physical impairments. Rather, they were impressed by his intellect and perception.

20130711-070202 אחה״צ.jpg

Tel Dan — July 8, 2013

Tel Dan

Today, we went to the Tel Dan Nature Reserve. Tel Dan was once a Canaanite City, then the central city for the Tribe of Dan during the time of Joshua. It is the location of Nahal Dan (Dan River) which feeds into the Jordan River. There are archeological remains from the City of Dan and a Canaanite Gate. In addition there are lots of different plant samples and a wading pool full of very cold water.

The best part of Tel Dan is how accessible the grounds are. They have a boardwalk that goes from the main entrance down to the wading pool (top-left picture). From the wading pool you can take a concrete path up to the Dan City walls and then continue on to the Canaanite Gate (middle-right picture).

But Tel Dan isn’t just paving roads; they are consciously creating an experience for those with physical disabilities. If you look at the bottom-left picture, it shows a concrete semi-circle added to the pathway. When we stopped and spoke to a groundskeeper, he explained they added this semi-circle so that people in wheelchairs could see straight through to the City of Dan gate. Without this added semi- circle, people limited to the walkway can only see the walls of the city and the gate at a sharp angle. I was so impressed with their attention to detail and desire to create a complete and meaningful experience for all their visitors.

And it doesn’t stop there. The picture on the bottom-right shows construction currently taking place to continue expanding Tel Dan’s accessibility. The grounds are quite large and include a lot of areas with tree roots and rocks. They are adding more walkways and cement paths. While there, we saw a number of groups with participants in wheelchairs or limited mobility. It’s exciting to see people with varying abilities and disabilities sharing a pathway that has been walked by so many before.

20130708-110721 אחה״צ.jpg