By Fern Chertok and Rachel Minkin
A recent JTA story noted the substantial loss to the Israeli economy as a direct result of the cancellation of heritage trips, including Birthright Israel. The losses, however, go well beyond these financial repercussions and for some Jewish young adults they are particularly poignant. Our just released report, “Breaking Barriers: A Look at Birthright Israel Specialized Trips for Participants with Disabilities,” describes what young adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities took away from their Birthright experiences and what their peers will, unfortunately, be missing this summer.
Our research team observed three specialized Birthright trips for young adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities and interviewed participants, their parents, and trip leaders. Almost universally, young adults on these specialized trips described their experiences in Israel as engaging, meaningful, and fun. Participants were excited to be in the Jewish state, to learn about its history, culture, and foods and to get to know Israeli peers. In this way, their experiences were very similar to those of their peers without disabilities. However, for young adults on specialized trips, participation in Birthright Israel had additional significance: a claim to their place in the normative “coming-of-age” experience for contemporary Jewish young adults, friendships with peers with whom they share the experience of being a person with disabilities, and new levels of independence.
Participants relayed how meaningful it was that they had a Birthright experience like their friends and family members without disabilities. They described their excitement at going on a camel or jeep ride, visiting Masada, and placing notes at the Kotel. Participants now had their own Birthright stories to share just like their peers without disabilities.
Historical sites were not, however, their most meaningful experiences. During an interview, one participant, when asked what she most looked forward to on her trip, initially stated riding a camel but quickly followed up with “to make friends.” Participants told us that, starting in their teen years, they had few or no opportunities in their home communities for social interaction with peers, especially with Jewish peers. They explained how important it was to them to have friends who understood and accepted them without having to explain their disability, and how much they appreciated experiencing Birthright with peers with similar disabilities. Participants and their parents often described the social contacts gained as one of the most important outcomes of their Birthright experience. One parent called it “the first miracle,” when he realized that his adult child, for the first time, had a circle of Jewish friends.
The concept of “dignity of risk,” describes the healthy development that is possible when persons with disabilities have opportunities to step out of their comfort zone. Participants on specialized trips described as life changing , the opportunity to try out new activities and manage challenges with the help of supportive trip staff on Birthright trips. Prior to Birthright, none of these young adults had traveled extensively without family. While in Israel, participants were responsible for daily routines of self-care, managing discomforts and stresses of travel, and decisions about what to eat and how to use their discretionary funds. Participants were well aware that they were reaching for and succeeding at new milestones of independence. As one participant exclaimed, “I went by myself halfway across the world.”
The summer of 2020 will be remembered as a time of great personal and national challenge in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, economic turmoil, and social unrest. For Jewish young adults with disabilities, it will also mean the loss of an important opportunity to gain independence, make friends, and participate in a life-changing Jewish rite of passage.
The full report is available here: https://www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/researchprojects/birthright/breaking-barriers.html
Fern Chertok is Senior Research Scientist and Rachel Minkin is Former Associate Research Scientist at Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University.