I can’t even fully explain how amazing my Birthright Israel trip was, but I’ll do my best. Birthright Israel No Limits In Motion is a trip designed specifically for young adults with disabilities ages 18-32. This trip promises a completely free and accessible trip to Israel. Each participant gets to bring a companion with them for free, so I brought my former camp counselor Shira Schneeweiss, who knows me so well that I consider her a sister. Together with the other six participants and their companions, we had an adventure of a lifetime.
Over the course of ten days, I saw beautiful sights, pushed myself to do things I never thought were possible, and made incredible friends. It started out a little rough when we landed at 6:00 am and faced a full first day of activities. We explored Jaffa, a port city with 4000 years of history. I had my first Israeli shawarma and took in the beauty of this historic city. The next day, we began our morning with a zipline that was constructed right outside of our hotel just for us! This wasn’t a typical zipline; instead of climbing a ladder and stepping off a platform, the creators buckled us in at the bottom and hoisted us to the top before letting go. At first, I wasn’t sure if I could do it because I’ve had some negative experiences in the past. The creators proceeded to construct a custom sling for me out of a hammock they found in their car so that I could participate safely with adequate neck support. Day 2 and I already conquered a fear!
Later on Day 2, we visited an olive oil factory. It was cool to see how the olive oil was made, but the more interesting part was a conversation with a stranger. I was not expecting to meet the teacher whose class was shot during the Parkland school shooting. What’s even crazier is that she was teaching a class called History of the Holocaust. It was moving to hear her story, and it reminded me of the importance of continuing to advocate for gun reform. I’ll always cherish the #MSDStrong bracelet she gave me. We finished the day by visiting our tour guide Omer’s house, where we met his father and learned about a special wheelchair Omer built so that his paralyzed dad could hike.
On Day 3, we visited beautiful grottos at Rosh Hanikra. We took a cable car down to the caves and saw the stunning Mediterranean Sea up close. Then, we visited the ancient city of Acco to explore tunnels built by the Crusaders. I enjoyed learning about the history of the city and browsing a craft market set up in the tunnels. This was our last full day at our beautiful kibbutz hotel in Ginosar in the North of Israel before relocating to Jerusalem.
Day 4 was full of excitement and relaxation at the same time. First, we went biking with a special biking organization! I used a handbike for the first time, which I really enjoyed because it taught me that I was stronger than I thought. I had some assistance from a volunteer, but I was the source of most of the bike’s power. It was a really cool experience, and I might even consider going to the gym to use hand bike machines! Then, we had a picnic lunch in a park. Israel in the summer is extremely hot, although today, July 20, it’s hotter in Clarksville than it is in Jerusalem. After boiling in the heat, we went to a winery for a tour and a wine and chocolate tasting. It was interesting to learn about the process and then taste some of the products. I’m an inexperienced wine drinker, but I did manage to like one or two of the samples.
The next day, we explored the Old City of Jerusalem. However, before our tour began, we got some new additions to the group. Every Birthright Israel trip has an encounter between Americans and Israelis. I am so glad that three amazing women currently serving in the Israel Defense Force decided to join our trip. Eyla, Maya, and Gal are not only sweet, hilarious, and smart, but they also have important roles in keeping Israel safe. I’m also glad that they had a real progression in their thoughts on disability as they saw first-hand the accessibility troubles my group had. I had so much fun with them, and I’m proud to call them my friends. We started our time together by visiting the Western Wall, also known as the Kotel. I wrote a note for myself and for my grandma and put them beside each other in a crack in the bricks. It was an emotional experience for me because of the holiness of the site. Then, we ate lunch in the shuk, a busy market that was especially crazy before Shabbat. I could barely navigate through the crowds, but at least I got the authentic Israeli experience!
We went back to the hotel so that we could prepare for Shabbat. I don’t usually do much for Shabbat at home, but I challenged myself to go technology-free for this one. I succeeded, except for a necessary alarm. It was so nice to just relax and be in the moment talking and relaxing with my new friends. Friday night we had a lovely Kabbalat Shabbat service and a good dinner before having fun at an improv workshop led by our awesome staff member Jake.
On Saturday, we had a meaningful discussion about Jewish values that made me rethink my views of Judaism and Israel. I realized how fortunate Israelis are not to have to seek out Judaism actively. In America, we are in the minority. It gave me a new appreciation for Israel and the importance of a Jewish State that all Jews can call their home. Later in the day, I swam in the beautiful hotel pool with my friends and just thought about how lucky I was to be spending Shabbat in Israel. We ended Shabbat with a Havdalah service before going out for a night on the town. My friends and I shopped on Ben Yehuda Street, a busy hangout spot in downtown Jerusalem, and then we had some fun singing along to live music in a bar.
Day 7 was exciting because it included two of the most famous Israeli sites: Masada and the Dead Sea. Masada is an ancient mountaintop fortress built by King Herod. Jews hid up there in the Roman period, but when the Romans finally came for them, the Jews all killed themselves to avoid being captured and enslaved. These ruins include Israel’s oldest synagogue and an impressive water supply system. My favorite part of Masada is the cable car to the top and the gorgeous view of the desert and the Dead Sea surrounding it. On that note, I really enjoyed the Dead Sea as I floated in the salty water with some assistance. Not everyone likes the feeling of the Dead Sea (I felt bad for people who shaved the night before), but I felt completely relaxed and carefree.
Day 8 was our most serious day. In the morning, we went to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. This museum was incredibly powerful and moving. The children’s memorial was especially poignant; it was a room filled with candles and mirrors that made the space look infinite while a recording of voices said the names and ages of the 1.5 million child victims of the Holocaust. Later in the day, we went to Mount Herzl Military Cemetery to honor the soldiers who gave their lives to protect Israel. Even though this day was heavy, it is important to learn about Israel’s past.
On Day 9, we had a lot of fun in Tel Aviv. First, we went sailing with an adaptive sailing organization! I never thought I would get to steer a sailboat in the Mediterranean, but I did just that. I had never been sailing before, so it was a super cool experience. That being said, I would not recommend trusting me to sail a sailboat by myself in the future! Next, we went to a busy market for lunch, but first, we had an impromptu dance party with a street singer. I loved being spontaneous enough to just dance in the middle of the street, like no one was watching. Then, we went on a tour of the Birthright Israel Innovation Center, where we learned about Israeli innovation.
We closed out our amazing trip with some bonding sessions that made me realize just how close this group had gotten in ten days. Some of the best moments on the trip were the unplanned moments, like hilarious dance parties on the bus or impromptu conversations about having a relationship when disabled. There was never a dull moment on this trip. I feel like I gained a new community of people who truly understand me, and I hope these friendships will last a lifetime. I really did not want this trip to end (in fact now that we have been home a month, we still have an active group chat where we are all in constant communication).
I want to thank Jake, Becca, and Shereen, our amazing staff members, for pushing me beyond my comfort zone and facilitating such a fantastic experience. Jake, you brought so much laughter and excitement to our trip, plus you made me feel understood because you have a form of muscular dystrophy yourself. You’re one of the funniest people I know, and I expect to see you on TV someday. Thank you, Becca, for not only your OT knowledge but also your compassion and fun personality. Thank you to Shereen for always having something nice to say. Thank you to Eyla, Maya, and Gal for being amazing Mifgash participants. Thank you to Omer for being the best tour guide and the “most person.” Thank you to my incredible fellow participants: Cat (the influencer), Haley (the storyteller), Avery (the journalist), Ethan, Vanessa (the mom), and Liad (the hugger). I feel lucky to have met you all, and I hope to stay in touch. Thank you to the companions who volunteered their time to go on this trip. Most of all, thank you to Shira, my companion, for accompanying me on this fantastic trip. I am so glad we got to do this together.
When I look back at my Birthright Israel experience, I feel proud and lucky. I feel proud because I pushed myself to try new things. If you know me, you know that leaving my comfort zone is often difficult for me, but throughout these ten days, I did things I never thought I could do and expanded what is in my realm of possibilities. It served as a reminder that I am capable of more than I realize. But most of all, I feel lucky because I got to participate in this amazing program that has sent hundreds of thousands of Jewish young adults to Israel for free. I feel lucky because I met incredible people from all over the world. I feel lucky because I increased my connection to Judaism and Israel. Thank you, Birthright Israel Foundation, for the best ten days in Israel.
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