LOTEM is an amazing non-profit organization working to make nature and nature-related experiences in Israel accessible to all.  They focus on people with special needs, working to include people with vision impairments, hearing impairments, intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, behavioral disabilities, and emotional disabilities. If that sounds like a tall order, it is!  But they are up to the task, citing over 50 groups throughout Israel that they work with to achieve their goals.

While I had never been to their location in the northern Israel Galilee region, I have heard a lot about this very special organization. This year on Ramah Israel Seminar, all the Seminar participants came to visit LOTEM’s Ecological Farm.

They have a multitude of stations: pressing olives into olive oil, pulling water from the ground, making perfume from herbs, stomping grapes for wine, forming mini-clay pots, etc.  Each station has been adapted so that all people, including those with disabilities, can perform the task.  This disability could be physical or intellectual.  For instance, the water-well station has lower bars to allow for someone in a wheelchair to push.  The olive press station has guiding lines to follow so as to keep the wheel on track.  They have the only wheelchair-accessible wine press in the world!  All stations can be accessed via stairs or a ramp.

LOTEM is constantly looking to improve and advance their organization.  In addition to the newly paved entranceways and constructed buildings, LOTEM is expanding their staff to include adults with disabilities.  We met Elimelech, an employee at the LOTEM Ecological Farm, who helps prepare stations before and clean up after groups come to tour the facility.  When asked what his favorite part of working at LOTEM is, he thought about it for a second, and then sheepishly smiled and said “Kulam,” meaning “all of it.”

After experiencing the agricultural practices of the Mediterranean world, we walked on the HaShofet Nature Park, the first fully accessible circular hiking trail in Israel.  It is paved and includes curbs to guide people along.  We saw all sorts of people on the path or stopping at the benches along the way: babies in strollers, people in wheelchairs, elderly, children, and people just out for a lovely walk in nature.

While the stations and the nature walk were awesome, I think the best part was our group discussion about inclusivity.  The whole day had been focused on community; what, who, and how do we make up our communities.  During our discussion, Arielle independently volunteered to share about her disability.  She spoke about how it hasn’t always been easy.  That there have been many communities in her life open to including her, especially Ramah.  After she shared, there was a bit of an awkward moment.  Her peers were used to having a discussion about inclusivity and open communities, but in a more abstract way.  It is rare to have the person you are talking about including, to be standing in front of you.  They didn’t quite know how to respond.  Frequently we have conversations ABOUT groups of people yet rarely do we include these people in the conversation.  It’s difficult and awkward, yet so crucial to creating open and inclusive communities.  I’m so glad Arielle felt comfortable in her community to share and I’m thrilled her summer community made her feel safe and included.

Reflecting on this experience, I realize how committed Ramah has been to inclusion in all of its overnight and day camps. I have been privileged to serve for many years as both a counselor and an inclusion specialist in the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England. For the last three summers, I have been honored to serve as the inclusion specialist for Ramah Israel Seminar.  We are delighted to be able to include participants with disabilities on Ramah Israel Seminar.

The expansion of opportunities to include teens with disabilities on Ramah Israel Seminar is being supported by a generous grant from the New York Teen Initiative, which is jointly funded by UJA-Federation of New York and the Jim Joseph Foundation. The Jewish Education Project serves as lead operator of the Initiative.