Overcoming Challenges, Wheelchair User Joins ASL Birthright Trip

Van Hook with other trip attendees on a night-out in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy Alex Van Hook.

By Selah Maya Zighelboim

Hillel International has offered a Taglit-Birthright trip for American Sign Language users for more than 15 years.

As with other trips, the participants visit Yad Vashem, explore Machane Yehuda and ride camels. The trip also goes beyond the more mainstream Birthright experiences by including elements of particular interest to the deaf community. The Israel Defense Forces soldiers who join the trip, for example, are also deaf and use Israeli Sign Language. Participants may enjoy Nalaga’at, a theater group whose actors are blind and deaf. Interpreters also join.

In June, Alex Van Hook, a 26-year-old from Bucks County [Pa.] and a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology and American University, was one of the participants. Van Hook was the first wheelchair user to ever attend the ASL Birthright trip, said Sara Teichman, vice president for operating programs and initiatives at Hillel International.

“I wanted to go on Birthright because I love traveling and I wanted to experience Israel, a vital part of my Jewish faith,” said Van Hook, who spoke with the Exponent through email.

Figuring out how Van Hook would be able to participate in a Birthright trip was something of a challenge, Teichman said. There are Birthright trips for ASL users and trips for wheelchair users, but not a trip for people who have both needs.

At first, Birthright felt that Van Hook should attend the trip for wheelchair users with an interpreter, but Van Hook was clear that was not the right decision.

“While a trip for wheelchair users would have easily accommodate[d] my physical needs, there would have been no direct communication between me and other participants as I would have had to communicate through interpreters,” said Van Hook, whose family occasionally attends Kehilat HaNahar, the Little Shul by the River, in New Hope.

“Going on an ASL Birthright trip allowed me to have easy (and fast) direct communications and relationships with other participants. Overall, I wanted to be able to be in a group where I can easily connect with others in the same communication method (sign language). After all, that’s part of what Birthright should be about.”

Birthright and Hillel worked with Van Hook to ensure the ASL trip would be fully accessible.

That meant that their hotels and bus had to be wheelchair-accessible, Teichman said. They had to make sure every place they visited would be accessible and even had to consider where he would sit on the plane.

One hallmark of Birthright, for example, is a visit to Masada. Most trips head up to the fortress for sunrise, and while a cable car to the top does exist, it doesn’t open until after sunrise. A ramp was built to accommodate Van Hook.

Another example of how they accommodated Van Hook was in Safed, a city in Northern Israel that’s difficult to navigate. Birthright groups often visit a Kabbalist art studio there, but that studio would have been inaccessible for Van Hook, so the artist met with the group outside of the studio instead.

“To make a trip fully wheelchair-accessible in Israel is a very large feat,” Teichman said. “There are very, very few wheelchair-accessible buses, for example. The way we wanted to be inclusive and the way Birthright works with inclusion and the way Hillel works with inclusion is we didn’t want to ever have a point where we said, ‘OK, Alex is going to go do this because that’s where the wheelchair can go, and the rest of the group is going to go do this activity.’ We wanted to make sure the entire itinerary was accessible to him.”

Van Hook, who plans to attend law school in the fall, said he always believed that he would be able to go on Birthright, with efforts to make accommodations for his needs.

Traveling has its challenges, Van Hook said. This trip’s challenges included its very active schedule and some especially hot days, and, at first, he did not have the appropriate commode chair for the shower. Overall, though, Birthright was a great experience, he said.

“One of my favorite highlights of the trip was praying at the Western Wall in Old City Jerusalem,” Van Hook said. “It was perhaps the … holiest thing I could ever do as a Jewish person. In addition, being able to float on the Dead Sea (with some help) was amazing; it felt like being in a spa and I have to say it was the best water I ever swam in. I also made new friends within the group and I look forward to remaining in touch with them.”

Originally published in The Jewish Exponet; reprinted with permission.