Special Needs Trip Makes Birthright Israel Accessible to All
By Tonyia Cone
After Erica Cassorla’s sister Jessie returned from a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, Erica wanted to go too. Her parents, longtime Austin residents, initially did not think it would work out, but a trip organized for people with special needs made it possible.
In the summer of 2014, Erica traveled to San Francisco for 10 days with Austin Adventurers, an organization for people with special needs in Austin to develop lifelong independence and achieve their full potential through continuing educational, vocational and community experiences. The trip was a success for Erica, which led her parents to believe she might be able to go on a Birthright trip, since they also last 10 days.
Birthright sponsors educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults who are 18 to 26 years old. Providers organize the trips, and organizations recruit participants and work out communication and details.
Alison Cassorla, Erica’s mother, the Jewish Federation of Greater Austin Philanthropic Information Systems Manager, said, “It was a very hard decision for me to come to, to agree for her to go.”
Erica, who does not talk, worked hard to prove to her parents that she really wanted to go on the trip and would be able to handle its challenges. She previously did not drink water, a concern to the family since they knew she would need to do so while traveling in the desert, so she began drinking water flavored with enhancers. Knowing that only showers would be available in Israel, she switched from taking baths to showers in preparation for the trip. And she started eating new foods, since she knew that would be necessary while overseas.
“Erica showed us that by doing these things, she really wanted to go,” Alison said.
Erica’s father, Jon Cassorla, added, “The thing that gave us both comfort, and I’m sure Erica comfort as well, was the trip last summer that she went on with the Adventurers for 10 days to San Francisco. It was the same amount of time. She was somewhat familiar with those folks before, and they were familiar with her, so this was going to be a little bit different. But at least the amount of time away was the same and we didn’t participate in that one either.”
Jon started investigating Birthright Israel and found trips organized for people with special needs, including the June 22-July 3, 2015 trip, organized by Shorashim, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Friendship Circle, Philadelphia Region-South, that Erica ultimately attended.
The Cassorlas went through a thorough registration and preparation process, which included a long conference call with the rabbi who led the trip and social worker interviews with the family and others who knew Erica well. The family also had the opportunity to make sure Erica’s needs – like help with buttons on clothes, assistance turning on showers, a copy of each day’s schedule, and help with food and drinks – could be met.
Rabbi Zev Baram, executive director and special needs advisor and specialist at the Friendship Circle, Philadelphia Region- South, said, “Individuals with special needs should be treated and given the same opportunities as everybody else.”
“I’ve looked for ways to give them the appropriate experience and make sure they are included in the best way possible, or even if it’s not so much of an inclusion aspect, just giving them opportunities to be part of the community and the experience and friendship.”
The Friendship Circle, Philadelphia Region-South, has participated in seven Birthright trips. The trips started out just for those with special needs, but now are inclusive, meaning that groups of participants are made up of people with and without physical and developmental disabilities.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times individuals with special needs, people look at them and see their disability rather than who they are as individuals. Our model is having teens in the community volunteering, but they’re really volunteering as friends. The way we describe it is half our focus is on individuals with special needs, and half the focus is on volunteers themselves,” Baram said, explaining that all participants on the trips are meant to experience Birthright, regardless of whether they have a disability.
Shorashim trips offer participants the opportunity to see Israel with Israelis, to give travelers the chance to see the country from an authentic perspective. In partnership with Friendship Circle, Israeli participants make up the inclusion aspect of the trip.
The Shorashim trip featured a higher than usual staff-to-participant ratio, and experienced, specially trained staff created an itinerary with a less intense rhythm of the day than most other Birthright trips.
Six staff members, including a doctor, were part of the group, along with 23 people with special needs and one of their siblings.
Just a few of the events on the itinerary included an archeological dig at Beit Guvrin National Park; a Bedouin feast; floating in the Dead Sea; visiting the Kotel and Yad Vashem; trips to the Palmach and Independence Museums; a Shabbat celebration; a Golan jeep ride; and a trip to the Israeli Children’s Museum, where they experienced an adult exhibit showing what it is like to be deaf or blind.
Baram explained that since everyone is treated equally on his organization’s Birthright trips, the result is a more mature trip than some others because participants are not permitted to drink alcohol.
Erica particularly liked the trip’s opening ceremony, shopping for additions to her bear collection at a Jerusalem shuk, volunteering at Israel’s national food bank, seeing Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, and shopping and dinner at Mahane Yehuda. She also really connected with and enjoyed her roommates.
Alison explained that the Friendship Circle took measures to make sure everyone felt comfortable with the trip. Participants were encouraged to take part in activities, but no one was made to do anything, and there was a blog for those at home to follow so they would know what was happening on the trip.
Alison said, “This was a fabulous chance for Erica to go and see and learn. It was at no expense to us except for going to and from Newark. That was a huge thing. The cost would have prohibited us from sending her or us going as a family at this point.”
She added, “I have to let Erica have her independence, to go to these places. That’s going to make her who she is – to eat new foods, drink water and take a shower. That told me she really wanted it, and I had to honor that.”