Shiluv: Inclusion and Disabilities

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

Was it worth it? — August 7, 2013

Was it worth it?

I was talking with a friend of mine about this trip, my job, Yishai, the preparation, the reality of being in Israel with a disabled camper, the scooter, and ultimately the financial cost of such a trip.  Ramah Seminar was given an incredible grant by an amazing family (who wishes to remain anonymous) to build some of the ramps as well as offset other costs associated with taking a physically handicapped child around a foreign country.  The reality is that a trip such as this is very expensive.  And so my friend posed the ultimate question: is it really worth all that money?

 

My immediate answer was yes, of course it is.  Every child should be able to go to Israel, to experience the mountains of the Golan, the history of Masada, and the feel of the Kotel.  But not just to experience all those sensations and emotions, but they should be able to do these things with their friends, their peers, their summer-camp family.  Yishai, no matter his physical capacity, deserves to have this trip available as an option to him.  Many times throughout the weeks we were here, Yishai mentioned that his emotions and excitement was not necessarily connected to the physical places (many of which he has been to before with his parents) but seeing it with his community, his friends, his trip.

 

But I think it’s important to realize that this is not a one-way street.  Yishai is not the only person to gain from this experience.  Since the full Ramah trip is six weeks long, an exhausting period of time for Yishai, it was determined months ago that Yishai would participate in the first three weeks of the trip, and then return to the States.  When the campers in our group realized that Yishai would be leaving, they became determined to show their love and appreciation for their fellow group-member.  Each member of the group stood up and spoke about their “Favorite Yishai Moment.”  Some were funny, some were touching, and some were inspiring.  All were heartfelt.  Here are some of the things they said:

 

  • You’re amazing.
  • You inspire me.
  • You are a bad-ass.
  • You make me think of things in a totally different way.
  • You’ve been dealt a “tough hand” in life, but you make it look easy.
  • You have conquered your disability better than I have conquered my own disability and I hope I can follow you.
  • Your laugh is unforgettable.
  • You never give up.
  • I am so lucky to have gotten to talk with you.
  • I want to be you! 
  • I admire you.
  • You are way more inappropriate when the counselors aren’t around!
  • I am so honored to have helped you take each step, something this is so easy for me, and so painful for you.  And no matter the pain, you continue to take those steps.
  • You will always be a part of this family.

 

While my primary job this summer has been to plan Yishai’s program in Israel given his disabilities within the context of the Ramah Seminar experience, my secondary job is to facilitate his social inclusion with the other Ramah campers.  My primary job has been fulfilled; you can see the proof in the pictures and the blog posts.  We went to Tel Aviv.  We toured Masada.  We hiked Har Meron.  Yishai did all of these things in tandem or in parallel to all the other Ramah participants.  However, his social inclusion is more difficult to show, to define its “success.”  As each camper took the microphone to tell an anecdote, to relive the past few weeks, it became obvious that Yishai’s social inclusion is not punctuated by a question mark.  These campers consider Yishai to be their confidant, intellectual rival, spiritual leader, inappropriate-joke maker, and friend.  Each and every camper said they would miss Yishai as an individual and a presence in their group the final three weeks of the trip. 

 

These campers not only experienced Israel, they experienced Yishai, and they became aware.  These campers start looking for curb-cuts everywhere we go.  They immediately start spying out ramps from the moment we descend the bus and they give him a push when his scooter gets stuck.  They extend their hands to help him walk and they collectively groan in pain for each step.  And so we return to the question: was it worth it?  Is it worth all the money, the planning, and the energy for one teenager to go to Israel for three weeks?  I think the answer is a resounding yes.  You cannot put a price tag on tolerance, awareness, and ultimately, friendship.

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Kotel Tunnel Tours — August 1, 2013

Kotel Tunnel Tours

When you say the word Western Wall or Kotel, most people think of a wall filled with holiness, prayer, and maybe also tension. What people sometimes forget is that the Western Wall (like almost the entire country of Israel) is an active archeological site. When Israel united Jerusalem after the 6-Day War in 1967 they began to excavate this area. The area devoted to prayer, the Kotel Plaza, is actually only 1/8 the length of the Western Wall that is still standing.

A little history: the famous Western Wall was built as part of a larger 4-walled complex, by King Herod who ruled the Israelites under the Romans from 37 to 4 BCE. He strived to be a Jewish and Roman leader, combining the cultures together. He was an architectural genius, building cities and palaces in places no one thought was possible. One of his premier projects was to re-build the temple (which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 422 BCE) and to make it the greatest temple complex ever. After the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE and destroyed the temple, Muslims built their city on top of the ruins, and their Dome of the Rock on top of Herod’s temple.

This is important because the majority of the Western Wall which originally surrounded the temple complex is underground…making it very inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair. The part of the Western Wall where people pray is above ground but all the excavations take place below ground level. In addition, since it is an active archaeological site, it changes regularly. I have gone on the Kotel Tunnel Tours about 5 times and each time you see something new and different.

This time, what was different was the accessibility! They have installed lifts to go up and down the many staircases as you descend down into the depths of history, both physically and metaphorically. These new handicap lifts are VERY NEW. So new, we literally took the plastic wrap off of the devices! And using new technology always means that they are still working out the kinks. Certain parts of the tunnels have a lot of moisture, which wreak havoc on these devices. At one point the employee helping us went to get an extension cord since the lifts were not working using the current wires and connections. Ultimately, we were not able to join our group all the way to the end of the Western Wall tour. The final set of lifts were not working. But, we were able to travel down to the Western Wall underground and walk along it for a few hundred feet.

Yishai said this was one of the highlights of his Ramah Seminar experience. Touching rocks that Herod had built, that were thousands of years old was incredible. I am thrilled he was able to have this experience. When I first saw this as part of our itinerary I remember saying to the other staff that it would be incredible if we could get him down a little bit but it is largely inaccessible. Kol ha-Kavod to the Kotel Tunnel Tours for making their tours open to all! This has always been a site I have recommended to visitors and tourists, and I am elated to be able to recommend it to ALL!