Shiluv: Inclusion and Disabilities

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

Why Bother? — August 6, 2014

Why Bother?

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.


Leader-sheep Skills — July 29, 2014

Leader-sheep Skills

While the main purpose of the Ramah Seminar program is to experience Israel, there is also a focus on developing leadership skills.  Students in the Ramah Seminar program are entering their senior year of High School and preparing to enter the world of independence after that.  As such, we participated in some leadership activities at a facility called Neot Kadomim (see:  They focus on Biblical leaders and what we can learn about contemporary leadership from them.  We participated in two main activities.

Drawing Water from a Cistern

With the cistern in the middle, the bucket is hooked up to 4 separate ropes.  The ropes go to the corners of the pavilion through a pulley.  Four people, blindfolded, operate each of the ropes.  A single person, called a conductor, stands in the middle of the pavilion to direct the blindfolded rope operators, but the conductor cannot speak.  Since the conductor cannot speak and the rope operators cannot see, each operator is also given a messenger to relay the visual cues from the conductor to the rope operators.  Together this team of 9 must lift the bucket, lower it into the cistern, and then pull it back up and place it on the stone.  Sol took on the role of the (blindfolded) rope operator, but he obviously did not need the blindfold J

Herding a Flock of Sheep

Since many biblical leaders were shepherds and God is often referred to as the shepherd of the Israelite people, campers get to try their hands at herding a flock of goats/sheep.  The herd is contained in a fence but the campers must move the flock to the first circle and then to three subsequent circles.   (*Note: this is hilarious to watch as a staff member)


I was struck how during the Cistern activity, every member of the team had a limitation, a disability so to speak: one couldn’t speak, one couldn’t see, and one couldn’t do.  Working together was much more challenging, but certainly not impossible.  It required specific, purposeful communication, patience, and focus.  They were not always successful.  The conductor frequently used gestations to mean one thing, which was interpreted by the messengers as a different meaning.  The messengers were not always specific with who they were talking to, causing the rope operators to become confused.  But overall, the group preserved.  One group successfully completed the task.  The other group succeeded in lowering the bucket into the cistern, but celebrated too early and lost focus, causing them to drop the bucket on its ascent out of the cistern.

While the group was successful at the sheep herding activity, managing to move the sheep from circle to circle, was not always seamless or controlled.  The group eventually, haphazardly, moved the herd in the general direction of the next circle.  Usually one sheep would need to take the lead, and the rest of the herd would follow.

Watching these two exercises, I wonder how well we prepare people with disabilities to be leaders.  We work on skills related to following directions, social constructs, vocations, transportation, and academics.  But when do we work on leadership skills with people with disabilities?  Leadership skills, such as expressing ideas, delegating, assessment, accepting feedback, and trying again, are challenging enough to teach to the typical population.  These are skills that are not concrete, that change with each situation and team of people, making it all the more challenging to teach to a population with other handicaps or disabilities.  Not only are people with disabilities often not taught how leadership skills, as a society, we tend to expect people with disabilities to be the followers, not the leaders.  Many of our own leaders throughout history have tried to hide their disability, viewing it as a weakness that the public will not be able to see past.

So while I question as a teacher how I can teach leadership skills to people with disabilities, I think first we need to change how we view someone with a disability and their ability to take control of the reins.  On our way into Jerusalem, our bus stopped at a mall to get some lunch.  Sol decided to get Kosher McDonald’s, on the second floor.  Sol is very experienced at using escalators, a skill that amazes me.  He is quite adept at sensing the beginning/end of the escalator and moving on/off quickly.  As he was transitioning onto the escalator, I noticed a man watching intently.  Sol stepped onto the moving stairs and the man said “no, I’ll help you.  Careful!”  I turned to the man and said “no thank you, we don’t need help.”  The man obviously thought I was crazy in allowing Sol to do this independently, reached out and clutched Sol’s arm.  I began to panic as Sol was pulled backwards by the man while the escalator was taking him forward.  I grabbed the man’s arm and jerk Sol free, screaming “what the hell are you doing?!”  The man looked at me and responded angrily “I was just helping.”  I glare at him before stepping onto the escalator and responded, “He doesn’t need help.  Don’t ever do that again.”

We have a perception that people with disabilities need help, constantly.  Sometimes we ask if they want help, and promptly ignore their answer.  Other times, we don’t ask, we simply assume they cannot.  We don’t give them an opportunity to practice or use their independent skills.  How can we expect someone to become a leader when we don’t even let them order their own food or ride an escalator?

Herding sheep isn’t so different from these tasks.  It requires coordinator, communication, trial and failure and trial again.  For an hour, twenty teenagers tried coaxing, shoving, bribing, and pulling sheep from circle to circle, and Sol was right there with them.  He used his hands to shove and his cane to poke the sheep, attempting to move them in the appropriate direction.  He used the tools he had available to him, in that moment, to lead the herd.  What more can we expect of a leader?



More blog posts to come! — July 22, 2014
Here and There — July 19, 2014

Here and There

As an educator, I’m always interested to see the similarities and differences between children in the States and in Israel.  During this time period of Operation Protective Edge, the differences seem even starker. 

Thursday as I walking through the Havat haNoar (where Ramah Israel offices are, also number of Israeli day camps), there was a group of Israeli children with their counselors.  They were sitting on the steps of the Auditorium with their too-large backpacks and excited laughs for another day of camp.  As I approached this group, I overheard the counselor explaining to the children they were going to learn a new prayer today.  She instructed the children to repeat after her: “Misheberach avoteinu avraham, yitzhak, v’yaakov, hu y’varech et hayaley tzva gibor l’yisrael…” and these young children dutifully began repeating this prayer.  The prayer for soldiers who are defending the state Israel: May it be your will Gd of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob he who blesses the fighters of the Israeli Defense Force… This prayer isn’t hypothetical or far away for these children; the soldiers manning the Iron Dome or crossing into Gaza are as real as their counselors at camp.  In fact, some of them may be the same person, called up from reserve duty and pulled away from their summer jobs.  They went off to war and their campers prayed for their safe return. 

On Friday Ramah Seminar participants go to spend Shabbat with family/friends around Israel and I too went for Shabbat to my teacher Nechama and her family, one of the many people who adopts me when I’m in Israel.  This Shabbat, her nephews were visiting for Shabbat as well.  They entered the house and each claimed their bed, bouncing excitedly on their mattresses.  Then Nechama said, “Come boys, let me show you where we need to go if there is a siren.”  The boys sobered and followed her to the staircase where she showed them which steps they would sit on.  It struck me that this is what Israeli children learn to do when they go to a new place. 

Saturday afternoon with Nechama and I went for a walk with the boys.  A neighbor commented to Nechama, “O you should take the boys to see the Iron Dome*!  It’s just up the road, then turn onto that path.”  Two of the boys wanted to go.  Since I was curious, I went along for the walk with Nechama and the boys.  We were clearly not the only ones who had this idea; the path leading to the Iron Dome battery was busy with people coming and going.  It was almost like a tourist attraction.

The icing on the cake was reading this article in Haaretz entitled “When 90 seconds isn’t enough time to reach a shelter: For Israel’s disabled and elderly, the sounds of sirens present unique challenges.”

I flashbacked to fire drills with my students throughout the school year.  In Montgomery County, MD we are required to have fire drills once a month.  My students generally do this in a calm and orderly manner, but there are always a few who are agitated by the loud noises and disruption to their routines.  There was one morning as the buses were unloading this past year when the fire alarm went off.  This was clearly NOT a drill.  School had no even started yet.  My co teacher and I frantically started trying to direct our students off the buses and away from the school doors.  But they were confused and upset and not inclined to follow our directions.  Would I have been able to get them to safety if I had a 90 second time limit and a potential missile heading toward me?  For some families, the answer is no, and they need to weigh the risks of moving their disabled child or elderly parent versus the risk of a direct hit by a missile.  One Tel Avivian stated: “We figured that it was riskier to get him to the bomb shelter, which requires that he go down some stairs, than to keep him sitting in his usual place in front of the TV. The chances of the house taking a direct hit, we figured, were smaller than his falling trying to make his way to the safe space in less than a minute and a half. All we asked is that he sit away from the windows so if shrapnel falls in the yard and the windows break, he doesn’t get cut.”

Observing the children praying for IDF soldiers.  Helping the little nephews practice crouching on the stairs. Walking to see the Iron Dome.   Reading about the horrifying choices families need to make when they hear a siren.  This has been my life here in Israel the last few weeks.  But this is every day for Israeli children and their families.  And I’m sure it’s not different for the Palestinian children in Gaza.  It’s mentally draining and psychologically trying.  The past few weeks has left me emotional and confused, but overwhelmingly, I just feel sad.  I’m not sure where is “here” and where is “there” anymore but I am sure that these experiences should not be happening to anyone, anywhere.


*There are nine units that make up the Iron Dome, in Hebrew Kippah Barzel.  They can be quickly constructed and deconstructed in a matter of days and moved if necessary.  So far in Operation Protective Edge, eight have have been deployed in the field.  

Becoming accustomed — July 17, 2014

Becoming accustomed

There’s a section of Talmud in Megilah 24b that discusses what duties a priest (kohen) can or cannot perform if he has a hand deformity.  Specifically, the discussion centers on a priestly blessing where the kohen has a hand deformity and must lift up his hands before the whole congregation.  The Mishna ends that a kohen with a hand deformity may not perform this priestly blessing because it would cause the congregation to look at him.  The implication is that this would be distracting to the congregation and not allow the community to focus on God and prayer.

The Gemara continues the conversation by giving examples of specific people with deformities who did in fact lead this blessing.  Every example is followed by the phrase “the townspeople had become accustomed.”  What we learn from this is that a person with some sort of deformity cannot lead a congregation in certain prayers because they could, possibly, inhibit the congregation from their focus and intention.  Creating a focused prayer space is very important.  However, if it is not distracting, if the congregation is used to this person, knows them, it’s not a problem.  The person is simply a member of the community participating in a prayer ritual.

The other day, Sol led Mincha* for our kvutza (group).  He stood at the front of the group with his braille siddur and loudly led our group in prayer.  I marveled how this did not strike any of our campers as strange.  No one shushed loudly saying “Sol’s leading” or “the blind kid is leading Mincha.”  They simply opened up their books and faced in the direction of Jerusalem.  The same campers who goof off during prayers were up to their shenanigans, the campers who are genuinely interested were focused, and the group that is quietly bored continued their examination of the dirt.  No one made an extra effort to sing, be quiet, or focus.  And in a strange way, this is exactly what we’ve been striving for.  Sol is simply a member of the group and as such, different people take turn leading daily prayer services.  He’s a contributing member of Kvutza Senesh. 

But just for the record, I was kvelling. 

*Mincha is the second of three prayer services Jews say daily.  It is said during the afternoon hours.


The blind leading the (sort of) blind — July 13, 2014

The blind leading the (sort of) blind

As many of you are aware, there is a bit of a security situation here in Israel.  Because of this security situation, we have been in the northern part of Israel for longer than expected and hence planning extra days of sightseeing.  We learned that in Kibbutz Lavi, just a short walk from where we are staying in Hadayot, there is a garden designed specifically for blind people.  There are many plants with clear smells and touches.  All the plants have signs indicating the plant name in Hebrew, England, and Hebrew braille*.  Railings surround most of the garden to guide you, and there is a 3D map of the views from the garden.  Obviously, we had to check it out.

We brought that whole kvutza (group) to the garden, asking campers to pair up; one partner to cover their eyes and the other to be the leader.  About half way through, they would be asked to switch.  I’m sure this was not a new activity to many of them.  Whether it was a conversation about people with disabilities or a trust exercise, this is a common activity to have done. 

However, it was most interesting to watch Sol.  Sol had a partner who covered her eyes and was led by him.  In the words of Sol, ”the blind leading the sort of blind.”  Sol guided his partner through the garden, reading the names of the plants with ease due to his fluency in braille (both English and Hebrew).  He carefully narrated what he was doing and explained to his partner how to interact with her environment.  He was the only person to correctly identify the hadas plant (known in English as the myrtle) from the lulav used on Sukkot.  Sol was in his element. 

After the partners switched and finished the activity, we sat together to discuss and process the experience.   Here were some of the responses:

·         I felt scared.
·         I felt anxious.
·         I felt uncertain because I didn’t know what was coming.
·         I felt assaulted when X poked me!  Or grabbed my hand.  Or led me into a tree.  (usually followed by laughing)**
·         I felt weird.  My sense of touch and sound were heightened.
·         I felt more introverted because I didn’t really know what was going on around me.
·         I felt more extroverted.  I just kept wanting to talk to everyone around me so I knew who was there. 
·         I felt confused.
·         Sol I don’t know how you do this.  This was so hard!

Then the camper who had been led by Sol raised her hand.  She said she didn’t experience any of the negative emotions such as scared, anxious, uncertain, or confused.  She trusted Sol, she followed his directions, simply enjoying the garden for the smells and touches and sounds.  I ended by reminding the campers that we didn’t take them somewhere dirty or negative; we took them to a beautiful garden, overlooking the Galilee and Kneret.  While they may have had challenging emotions, ultimately this wasn’t about seeing how negative or impossible it was to experience the world without sight.  This was about experiencing something beautiful in a different way, the way Sol experiences it. 

At dinner, word spread that our group had gone on a special trip to the blind garden, led by Sol.  Other campers in other kvutzot (groups) were interested in this experience as well.  Sol offered a second tour on Shabbat afternoon.  So Saturday afternoon Sol led a group of 6 campers through the blind garden.  With this small intimate group, led entirely by Sol, the reactions were very similar to the girl who had partnered with Sol.  They felt safe, secure, and open to this new experience.  They were amazed by Sol’s ability to read the Hebrew braille.  They listened to Sol’s advice on how to find the Kneret on the 3D map (feel for the deepest hole!).

As an educator of both students with disabilities and typically developing students, I felt truly in honored to witness these interactions.  Sol comfortably took on his role as a leader, a role he does not get to assume very often.  His peers willingly took on the role of followers, taking Sol’s advice and guidance naturally.  Anyone who works regularly with teenagers knows that asking them follow directions can be challenging at best.  Yet these teenagers clearly had profound trust and respect for Sol as he introduced them to his world.  And that trust was not misplaced.  He led them through the blind garden with grace, poise, and confidence.

*Hebrew braille is written with the same characters as English braille.  Because of this, Hebrew braille is actually written left to right, the same direction as English writing.  If Hebrew braille were to be written from right to left, like the Hebrew language, the characters would be upside down.

**Some joked about feeling assaulted when a  seeing friend would grab them or poke them.  I reminded them that people with disabilities, even if they aren’t cognitive disabilities, have a higher rate of assault and sexual assault than the rest of the population.  I reminded them that while they were joking, it was not a joking matter.  


Majrase Nature Reserve — July 10, 2014

Majrase Nature Reserve


Part of the fun of staffing trips multiple times is getting to see changes to various sites.  The Majrase is a perfect example of this.  The Marjrase Nature Reserve is located in northern part of Israel in the Galilee region on the Daliyot Stream (nahal in Hebrew).  It is believed that the name, meaning grinder, comes from the gristmills once found in this area.  When I was there last year, I would have called it “acceptable.”  Nothing to write home about (or blog about) but certainly not the worst site we visited. 

However, they have done major work over the past year to make it  more handicap accessible in a way that integrates the accessible pathway with the typical path beautifully.  The Majrase is a path that goes through the river; literally you walk in the river for 90% of the hike.  It starts about ankle deep with a step down from the path and ends about knee deep at a staircase to walk up the riverbed.  They have now added a paved walking path, called the “dry trail,” which parallels the “water trail.”  In addition, there are three spots for viewpoints where people walking on either of the two trails can interact.  Sol and I took the “dry trail” stopping at each viewpoint to wave to his friends.  Then when we arrived at the exit point, Sol was able to take the steps down to the water and enter the stream where it is not nearly as slippery or rocky. 

It’s amazing to watch places like this increase their accessibility.  In fact, while we were splashing around in the water, the Majrase staff was paving a platform which will make it easier to get in and out of the water at the exit point.  I look forward to visiting again and seeing even more developments for the disabled!

Basically — July 7, 2014


Whenever people say the word “basically” I cringe a little.  Rule number one of working with people with disabilities is that nothing is basic, or simple, or easy.   Each evening before the next day’s trip I discuss the logistics and details with our group’s tour guide.  Often she will say something like “the bus will basically drive us up to the summit of the mountain and then it’s a short walk from there.”  Excuse me if I’m hesitant.

So on a recent trip, this is basically what she said.  I tried to get more details, but from what she told me, the walk from the bus parking lot up to the summit was not to be worried about.  We were heading up to daven shacharit while the sun rose over the Kneret.  Sol would be able to feel the breeze, the change in temperature, and enjoy a spiritual morning prayer service with his peers.  Awesome.

The walk started off fine, a paved pathway with a slow sloping upwards.  Then the paved pathway ended, replaced by a dirt path.  Not ideal, but still doable.  Sol and I slowed down to accommodate for some of the rocks on the trail, and the group continued walking, now a bit ahead of us.  As we approached the summit, the dirt path was replaced with large, sloping, flat rocks and no clear path.  Our group had chosen a spot farther away from where the dirt path ended.  I deposited our three backpacks (1 for Sol, 1 for me, and 1 for the braille siddurim) and Sol’s cane at the bottom so Sol and I could begin the trek up the rocks.  Every step was an accomplishment.  How do you describe which rock to step on when surrounded by rocks?  What directions can I verbalize to make the process smoother?  So when Sol politely asks, “where did the group go?” I explain that we are actually quite close but we still have to continue a little further.  It takes us approximately 15 minutes to walk up the rocky terrain, a walk that took that rest of the group under a minute to complete.

A similar experience happened the next day at an archeological site with an ancient castle (from around 2000 BCE).  Our tour guide said that we would take the “easy” path to the castle.  A paved path led to the ancient castle entrance, and was then replaced by a series of rock steps.  Challenging but not prohibitive.  Then the stone steps turned to large stones.  Some were more like cobblestones, and others were massive rocks, flattened by the years of use and disuse.  And then they started sloping uphill.  A typical person does not even process how we use the visual information provided by our eyes.  We take in the shape, size, texture, and orientation of the rocks and make split second decisions about where to put our feet.  Not in the crevice.  Larger step over that bump.  Step left to avoid that slippery patch.  Without those pieces of information, the walk up becomes trying and tiring.  By the time we made it up to the group, our guide had finished her explanation of the area and was ready to move on.  Sol and I decided to explore the area, since we had only just arrived, and then make our way back down the way we came.

This blog post is not meant to be a public complaint, a place to air my woes to the world.  In fact, reflecting back, I would change nothing about our actions.  Sol is very determined to be as much a part of the group as possible, and clearly these parts of the hikes were possible for him.  After the sunrise hike/shacharit I asked him how he felt.  His response was “accomplished.”  When we finished the ancient castle, he said “Well I think I earned that swim later!”

There is, however, something for us able-bodied people to learn: nothing is simple.  Sol is acutely aware of every curb, every step, and every rock.  Without the comforts of paved sidewalks or wooden walkways, the world is a much more treacherous place.  Treacherous, yet also a world that should be experienced as fully as possible.  That’s as “basic” as it gets.


Top of the Arbel, Lower Galilee

On top of Har Arbel, Northern Galilee


Walk to Ancient Castle, Tel Dan Nature Reserve

Path leading to ancient castle, Tel Dan Nature Reserve


Jerusalem: City of _____ — July 2, 2014

Jerusalem: City of _____

Ask most people to finish this phrase and they would answer “gold.”  Jerusalem: City of Gold.  And this is exactly how our driver from the airport explained Jerusalem to Sol as we drove up the mountain into Israel’s capital city.  He said that Jerusalem, while typically called City of Gold, could just as easily be called City of White, since all of the buildings and houses are made of white, Jerusalem stone.  However at certain times of the day, when the sun hits the buildings, they look golden.  As I was listening to this description, it occurred to me that describing Jerusalem as gold or white or any color was not ideal for someone who is blind, who has never known colors.


So, how do I finish the phrase so it’s relevant and meaningful to Sol?  Firstly, I think it’s important to describe the geography of the region.  Sol can feel the upward incline as we ascend into Jerusalem and so we discussed how Jerusalem is built on a hill, and surrounded by hills, that it is anything but flat.  Secondly we discussed the various neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the Old City versus haMercaz (city center) versus San Simon, the neighborhood where Ramah’s “home base” is located.  Sol quickly noted as we settled into our beds that night, how quiet it is.  I explained that the neighborhood of San Simon, while still inside the city of Jerusalem, is far from haMercaz and busy streets like Emek Rafaim.  Next I explained Jerusalem’s weather patterns, with the desert to the south and the Golan to the north, temperatures on the mountainous Jerusalem tend to be hot during the day, but cooler at night.  All of these are way that Sol can personally connect with Jersualem, and yet “City of Warm-Days-Cool-Nights” doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it.


As we drove out of Jerusalem the next day to start our adventures in the Golan, I started thinking about “gold” not as the color, but as the precious metal.  Rather than using it as a descriptor, we can use the word “gold” to convey how beloved Jerusalem is.  This is a city whose name derives from the word “shalem” meaning “peace or wholeness” but has been the scene for so much bloodshed.  And yet we still cherish it, above all other cities in the world.  Jerusalem is what we have always wanted, but not always had, and never taken for granted.  That is a concept anyone can relate to.

Kayitz 2014: readysetgo — June 29, 2014