In August, two college students from the Delaware Valley area participated in a different sort of Birthright Israel program. They were among 11 individuals with physical disabilities, who, along with the assistants they'd selected, enjoyed the usual stuff of a trip; they pressed grapes at a winery, visited Mount Herzl, saw Yad Vashem and even had time for the mall in Tel Aviv.
And despite the fact that this particular group mashed those grapes while in wheelchairs — and reached the top of Masada by cable car rather than ascending on foot — they accomplished what all Birthright participants do: discovering and exploring the beauty and diversity of Israel.
"For me, what stands out most is going into Jerusalem," said Lauren Beller, 21, a Temple University student who grew up in Yardley. The wheelchair-bound young woman had expected to be moved by it all, she attested, "but I guess I just didn't expect to respond so emotionally."
Ilana Hollander, a 19-year-old nursing student at the College of New Jersey, summed up her experience in just a few words: "It was so amazing; the whole trip was incredible."
Hollander said that she simply "couldn't believe it" when a friend in Florida called and asked her if she wanted to go to Israel as her assistant this summer.
She remembered being initially surprised by the request, but very excited when her parents agreed to it. It seemed unreal that she was going to Israel with one of her best friends.
The girls were already close — having met years before at summer camp — but since they live far from one another, they rarely see each other. Traveling together sounded like an exciting prospect for both of them. And Hollander said that she felt confident about being able to assist her friend while there.
'An Amazing Team'
The idea of taking individuals with specific needs to Israel is not new. It has, in fact, already been successfully implemented, according to Liz Sokolsky of Birthright's Canada office.
The organization has run trips for participants with developmental disabilities, Asperger's syndrome and for deaf participants, "seeing it as part of Birthright's mandate to reach out to Jews who have previously been unable to come to Israel for a variety of reasons," stated spokesperson Debi Goldberg.
Birthright plans such trips with meticulous care, since problems can crop up at every turn and must be prepared for.
"This group couldn't have been accommodated on an ordinary trip, since wheelchair-accessibility needs special planning," explained Andrea Hoffman, Birthright's Hillel director in Washington, D.C. "We actually planned the trip for a year, and utilized only locations and sites that could accommodate our group's physical needs."
"We wanted a regular trip for these students so they'd have the real Birthright Israel experience, not a disabled trip," added Hoffman, "and we had an amazing team in Israel plan for the mobility needs of our travelers."
The key component for the Israeli staff members was thinking through the logistics every step of the way, she explained. With so much to see and do, no trip would feel complete until the major attractions and sites — the wall, the Knesset, Masada — had been experienced.
"Eleven young Jewish adults with physical impairments flat-out made it happen," Hillel's Eric Samuels said about the group of travelers he oversaw. "Some stared down their fears that they wouldn't be able to pull it off and came back with the experience of a lifetime under their belt."
In addition to touring the traditional sites, the group spent a Shabbat at a resort that offers disabled Israeli Army personnel a place to recuperate.
Fruits of Their Labors
Another highlight was that wine press — one of only a few in the world — where, Samuels explained, "everybody got in there and stomped or wheeled away on the grapes while singing Israeli tunes" before drinking the fruits of their labors.
Beller, who has used a wheelchair since the age of 9, heard about the August trip from a Hillel friend: "It came at the perfect time for me. It gave me a sense of how incredible it is to be a Jew."
A full-time student at Temple, she lives in an off-campus apartment and works 10 hours a week for a nonprofit agency. Carrying a double major in education and psychology, with plans to become a teacher, she does volunteer work and plays percussion instruments in her free time.
In fact, Beller now credits the Birthright experience for leading her to practice her Judaism more fully, adding that even "the High Holidays had more meaning for me this year."
Hollander expressed regret about having to leave Israel: "I miss waking up and being with my friend in Israel."
She added that she'd return in a heartbeat.
As for that very same question posed to Beller, she didn't skip a beat when responding.
Would she go back?
"Absolutely," she declared. "Definitely!"