It was always a question of “when,” not “if” I were to go on Birthright Israel. As a Chinese, Jewish, autistic, adoptee, with a single Ashkenazi mom (a mouthful!), I’m constantly exploring my intersectional identity. Being Jewish was a core part of my identity, and I wanted to connect with the diverse, international Jewish tribe – and eat a lot of falafel!

Preparing for the Trip

I worked as a Ruderman Family Foundation Inclusion Ambassador with Rachel Klein (Exec. Dir. Hillels of Westchester) during my senior year at Sarah Lawrence College (2020). Rachel has staffed Birthright Israel trips for over seven years. I knew I wanted to go with her, as she would be a friend a million miles from home among strangers.

Ava Rigelhaupt with her 2022 Birthright Israel group at Mt. Herzl (Har ha-Zikaron)

As an autistic person, I like to know what to expect! I asked Rachel a ton of questions about what to pack, what happens when we land, and what happens on nights out. My mom and I discussed different scenarios and how I might handle them. I talked to alums, including my cousin, who led a trip. Hearing people’s experiences made some of the unknowns known.

For me, the packed schedule was the easy part! It limits the hard part: awkward unstructured social situations. In foreign places with new people, I like structure and knowing we’re all doing the same thing together. Luckily, about 90% of Birthright Israel is scheduled and led by your friendly, knowledgeable guides.

Sample 10 Day Itinerary: See how a typical Birthright Israel trip comes to life and how it unites young Jewish adults from all over the world with the people, history, and land of Israel.
Sample 10 Day Itinerary: See how a typical Birthright Israel trip comes to life and how it unites young Jewish adults from all over the world with the people, history, and land of Israel.

Meeting the Israelis

I was nervous and excited to meet the Israelis. Many of my friends are from other countries! As someone who struggles with social cues, interacting with international people takes the pressure off due to culture/social norms “lost in translation.”

When discussing being Jewish, two Americans – myself included – and one Israeli mentioned encountering the annoying “you don’t look Jewish” comment. All three of us looked completely different! This raised the question: What does a Jew look like? Answer: there is no one “look” to a Jewish person, just like there’s no “right way” to be Jewish!

As many in our 20’s, we also debated what it means to be grown-up! One American said that they see the Israelis as grown–up and independent with their military duties. The Israelis commented that they see American students as more grown-up! Unlike many soldiers who go home on weekends, many college students don’t return home often. The Israelis couldn’t imagine not seeing family for month-long stretches.

By the end of the trip, our Israeli soldiers quickly became our Israeli peers.


I experienced the richness and beauty of Israel with its long past and complex dynamics. Our guides added memorable personal experiences in addition to the main sights. We squeezed in a visit to our Israeli guide’s Kibbutz and ate a snack with his family. We also visited Telshe Stone, a monument near Jerusalem to American Colonel David “Mickey” Marcus, Israel’s first general. He’s related to Rachel’s grandfather! Colonel Marcus’s story demonstrates how Israel fought to be the Jewish homeland while simultaneously being a sacred ground to many people and religions. Being in historical Israel is humbling but in an amazing way!

A collage of photos of 2022 Birthright Israel participant Ava Rigelhaupt floating in the Dead Sea and praying at the Kotel

Life After Birthright Israel Post October 7th

As a Chinese/Jew of color, I want to highlight a question that Amy Albertson asks, as I ask it too: “How can Asian-centered organizations claim to be for all Asians when they continue to exclude and deny Asian Israeli and Jewish stories and voices?” It’s saddening to see some Asian-centered social media accounts/organizations (after October 7) not recognizing/including any perspectives of Asian Israelis or Jews.

Personally, my life has and hasn’t changed post-October 7th. I am listening more to the news, hearing various opinions from Israelis, Israeli soldiers, Palestinians—both those in Israel and Gaza—and in the States. Some ideas I agree with, some I don’t. Right now, I feel I don’t know enough or grasp the conflict’s history well enough to make public speeches and posts about it. I feel I need to take a college-level course on the history of Israel, Palestine, and surrounding regions/countries to fully understand and form a nuanced, educated opinion I can support in real-life conversations. And, of course, defer to people living there day to day shoulder to shoulder with each other.

Perhaps my complex feelings post-October 7th have manifested in becoming more involved in my Jewish community through ways that intersect with my other passions and identities. Last year, I was Vashti in my synagogue’s Purim spiel, and this year, I’m a part of it again! It is so much fun as it connects my love of theatre and performance while being a proud Jew. I also spoke at my synagogue, reflecting on my adult Bat Mitzvah and what it means to be part of the Jewish community. I love representing my community, breaking stereotypes, and fostering a greater understanding of each other through public speaking. I am excited to be speaking on various JDAIM (Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month) panels, too. An upcoming event with the disability-led nonprofit RespectAbility highlights Jewish disabled writers of color! Lastly, I am proud to be representing my Jewish community as a Birthright Israel Alum Ambassador for the 2024 cohort!

The Importance of Birthright Israel for People on the Autism Spectrum and the Greater Disability Community

Unfortunately, too often, people with disabilities don’t get as many opportunities to explore due to inaccessibility in various areas, including physical, monetary, and mental. Thanks to wonderful donors, Birthright is a free trip with the aim of including all Jews, including Jews with disabilities. There are disability-specific trips, too. The trip is made accessible through less hectic hotel changes (I could’ve done with that) and is conducted at a more relaxed pace. They explain on the website the schedule has “accessible activities that speak to the strengths of our participants.” As part of some of these trips, the Israeli peers are also people with disabilities! It can be hard for disabled people to find community and make friends. Trips like this could become an international affinity space where Americans and Israelis with disabilities connect with each other, learning about each other’s lives and perspectives. Some trips also visit disability-centered Israeli organizations and nonprofits. I would’ve loved to do that!

As an autistic woman with wanderlust and someone who advocates for autistic people and people with disabilities—primarily through the entertainment industry (i.e., what stories are told, authentic casting), I love hearing the perspectives of disabled people and/or autistic people in other countries. How does that country view disability and work to create opportunities for disabled people? How are those ideas and laws – even TV/movies similar and/or different from America? What can we learn from each other? On disability-specific Birthright trips, even ones that are not, Jewish young adults have the opportunity to explore these questions and others in the community with their American and Israeli peers. When the time is right, and I return to Israel, I hope to ask more of those questions.

My Birthright trip was not disability specific. What worked for me might not work for everyone. As the saying goes, “You met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person!” Autism, disability, and Judaism are not monoliths. As I wrote earlier, I chose my trip because my accommodation was going with a trip leader whom I knew and trusted. If I felt uncomfortable or needed someone to eat lunch with, she promised me she’d be there to support me. It’s important to know yourself and what you want to do.
No matter what trip you go on, you will be out of your comfort zone, but each day, you’ll get to choose how far more you want to venture and what risks you want to take. I experienced a falafel-load of new things, learned who I got along with, and enhanced my problem-solving skills. My first recommendation: Talk to people who’ve been on trips and those who have led trips! You can find the trip that’s right for you, from those specifically designed for people with disabilities to other community and interest-based trips such as Pride and Culinary. I believe Birthright can be the jumping-off point to exploring who you are as an autistic person, a disabled person, a Jewish person, or just a person!

Ava is a writer, actress, and advocate for diversity/disability representation. She’s the Autistic Creative Consultant for the Broadway musical, How to Dance in Ohio! (It follows seven autistic young adults at a social skills center in Ohio as they come of age, forge connections, and prepare for a spring dance.) She’s also a writer for PBS Kids upcoming animated series, Carl the Collector. As a Chinese, Jewish, transracial, autistic adoptee, Ava shares her intersectional lived experiences through consulting, public speaking (ie: synagogues during JDAIM, SXSW, Disney), and publishing articles. She’s determined to educate and influence the entertainment industry, creating more opportunities and authentic representations for the talented and diverse disability community!