Last year, when I finished my trip with Yishai I wrote a post entitled “Was it worth it?” based on a friend’s question to me. Now, as my second trip has finished and I reflect, the same friend posed the question “Why bother?” Sol can’t see the views from Masada, the ceiling in the Abuhav synagogue in Tzfat, or the sun light glistening on the Jerusalem stone. And while part of me wants to scream “of course people with disabilities should travel the world!” I think it’s an important question to delve into, to understand why we “bother” investing time, money, and energy into Sol’s trip to Israel.
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that humans have five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. While lacking in one sense will alter the experience, there are still four other ways to interact with, experience, and appreciate the world. For instance, Sol’s Braille Sense (a sort of computer that allows him to write documents, surf the web, use email) also has an FM transmitter. He spent many bus rides listening to Israeli radio stations. He tasted shwarma for the first time. He swam in the Kneret and floated in the Dead Sea. He smelled spices in the Shuk, and he definitely heard the Israeli shop owners when they shouted at him to stop smelling their spices. He learned the geography of Masada and Jerusalem though 3-dimensional maps.
There are also the encounters he had because of his disability, the people he interacted with him because Sol is different and he experiences the world differently. Walking through Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem, I noticed a young boy watching Sol intently. I overheard him asking his father “what is that?” pointing to Sol’s cane. As his father explained how people who are blind use canes, I whispered to Sol, “There’s a boy next to us asking about your cane. Do you want to introduce yourself and let him touch it?” Sol nodded yes, and turned to the boy saying “Shalom, ani Sol. What’s your name?” The boy cowered for a few seconds, but curiosity got the best of him. Eventually he even gave the cane a try, walking a few feet and handing it back to Sol with a shy smile and a “todah!” In this age of globalization and constant communication it’s easy to stay secluded, surrounded by what you know. It’s comfortable and it’s easy.
It’s crucial to be challenged, to step outside of the comfort zone. For everyone that means something different. For Sol that meant flying half way around the world to be in Israel, and no other place would have substituted. Israel is a country with a different language, currency, and culture. The campers who are not visually impaired are challenged to incorporate all of this into their experience. I watch them struggle to formulate an informed opinion on Operation Protective Edge and calculate the currency exchange rate. Sol does all of this, while also organizing his wallet so he can differentiate between a 20 shekel note and a 50 shekel note, remembering the feeling of a 5 shekel coin versus a 10 shekel coin. Israel is a challenging place, and being blind certainly doesn’t make it any easier. But we “bother” with Israel because it is also a little bit of home. Sol has grown up hearing about Israel from his parents, Hebrew school teachers, members of his synagogue, Israeli counselors, and even some of his American staff who have made aliyah, making Israel their permanent home. Israel is a place where he has friends and where he gets to connect to a network of spirituality from Tzfat to the Kotel. We also do this because Sol forces those around him to step out of their comfort zones: the boy in Mamilla Mall, fellow participants on his bus, the Ramah staff, and me. And there will be people who Sol meets in the future who will be challenged to rethink their perception of Sol, of Israel, of people with disabilities, and of blindness when they hear about Sol’s trip. He has been waiting for his Israel experience for 17 years. We “bother” because Sol deserves his own Israel experience. And if we’re lucky enough, Sol’s Israel experience may even impact our own Israel experience.