Color & Control:

Next Year in Israel


Aaron Broverman visited Israel with Birthright, a program for Jews aged 18 to 27.

For 10 days, we were like a traveling circus, going from well-known cities Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to lesser-known spots like Tzfat, home of Kaballah, and Sderot, which was plagued by daily rocket attacks at the time of this writing.

I never truly felt like a Jew – I was more “Jew-ish.” Then, against the Western Wall (Kotel) in December 2006, surrounded by the din of thousands of Shabbat baruchs, attas and adonoys, it all came together. I was at the most iconic landmark of my faith on the holiest night of the week and, for the first time, the fact that I didn’t celebrate Christmas put me among the faithful majority. They were all here, at this moment, at this time, and I thought, if Israel meant enough to them to come from far and wide to pray with passion, why couldn’t it mean more to me? All Jews end Seder dinner the same way every year: “Next year in Jerusalem.” But for me, “next year” was now. Suddenly, Israel wasn’t just a tourist destination – it was home.

Of course, there’s always stiff competition. Israel’s the religious home to millions around the world, but the Jews are the only ones who offer a one-time-only 10-day trip to the Holy Land for free. The program is called Birthright, and any Jew from 18 to 27 years old is eligible. It’s too good an offer to pass up.

The trip is planned to the minutest detail. I travelled by bus with 38 other young Canadian Jews across a country that is roughly the same size as Vancouver Island, but each region brings wildly different weather than the one before it. Israel is temperate in the rainy season, with snow in the north at higher elevations like the Golan Heights, while the country is stiflingly hot in the dry season, with desert conditions in the Negev year-round.

Every stop and activity during Birthright was scheduled, from hiking up Masada – the site of the last stand in The Great Revolt, where a group of Jewish rebels chose suicide instead of defeat at the hands of the Romans – to visiting Independence Hall, where David Ben-Gurion declared Israel a nation in 1948.

For 10 days, we were like a traveling circus, going from well-known cities Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to lesser-known spots like Tzfat, home of Kaballah, and Sderot, which was plagued by daily rocket attacks at the time of this writing.

Just because rocket attacks from Gaza weren’t a concern when I participated in Birthright in 2006, didn’t mean security wasn’t weighing heavily on my mind. That summer, Israel had just come off a bloody conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and I had to ask that familiar question: “Is it safe to stay in Israel?” I didn’t have to worry. Birthright was stacked when it came to security. In addition to our excellent tour guide, David Solomon, and our two student leaders, Nikki Greenspan and David Ashwal, we had two armed emergency-response security guards. Our bus was tracked by a tour command centre that wouldn’t allow us to go into the Palestinian territory and would reroute us at any sign of trouble. Plus, halfway through the trip, we were joined by a group of men and women from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), one of whom told us the harrowing story of a bloody ambush by Hezbollah when his was the first unit charged with crossing the border into Lebanon (a declaration of war) and locating kidnapped comrades. As the unit’s medic, he saw his best friend fall that day.

Even though most of you won’t be travelling with IDF soldiers, there’s still a lot the solo tourist can learn from the Birthright experience. Going to Israel with a tour is the easiest way to get around. Unless you speak Hebrew, or have family members living in Israel who can guide you, it’s difficult to appreciate Israel’s rich history or ensure there are medically trained security personnel on hand. Otherwise, you won’t know where you’re going, and could wander into dangerous territory.

In general, Israel is a safe country. I observed armed guards outside public buildings and businesses, like malls or restaurants, and bags are checked before you enter any public building. The airport scans your luggage for bombs before you even make it to the check-in counter. The IDF is a constant presence on the street, as army service is compulsory for all young people in Israel.

Still, the “safety in numbers” approach of a tour doesn’t help if, because of your disability, you can’t even get on the bus. Unfortunately, the Birthright buses do not have ramps or lifts. For my purposes, renting a manual chair from Toronto and storing it under our bus worked fine. (The wonderful Isaac Arobas, the assistant whom Birthright assigned to me, did the rest of the heavy lifting.)

There is an organization that conducts tours for all abilities and can customize a trip that accommodates your specific disability. Eli Meiri’s Israel 4 All uses his 15 years of experience providing personal and customized tourism opportunities for wheelchair users, people who are blind or have low vision, people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and even slow walkers. “The problem is that hotels and sites in Israel tend to tell tourists beforehand that they are wheelchair accessible, and then worry about the logistics when the visitor arrives,” senior tour guide Mark Reitkopp told The Jewish Post and News.

That’s why Meiri and his team take care of every aspect of your trip from the moment you land at Ben-Gurion Airport. His organization screens “accessible” hotels in advance to see if they will fit your needs, and it provides an accessible van to get you there, plus assistive equipment rentals for touring the sites. All of their guides are trained to work with many different disabilities, and physicians travel with the tour.

Travelling by yourself has its challenges, but it is not impossible. Miguel Hass knows first-hand what it’s like for locals with disabilities to move about their country. “Accessible public transportation hasn’t developed yet, but there are ramps at almost every sidewalk, and people are more than happy to give you all the help you need.”

A polio survivor, Hass knows that trying to get a scooter on a plane can be stressful, so he started his own scooter-rental company. Access 4 You features foldable scooters that can be dropped off at your hotel when you arrive and picked up when you leave. Renting cars is easy too – ELDAN is the only company in Israel with a fleet of 1,600 cars that offer right- or lefthand controls, and although there are only a dozen or so accessible taxis nationwide, a volunteer organization called Yad Sarah picks up the slack by offering accessible van service to and from the airport, and city transportation in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv at a fixed price. (Be careful of being ripped off by cabbies and vendors; haggling means survival, on Israeli soil.)

While Israel has over 150,000 people with disabilities, a number driven up by injured IDF soldiers and terror victims, it is actually easier to vacation in Israel than it is to get around as a local. “Generally, people have an attitude toward people with disabilities that’s better than the U.S. and the ADA, but sometimes they have trouble keeping that attitude. People still park in accessible parking spots or bus stops, so that buses can’t come close to the curb to let patrons with disabilities off safely. Israelis lose patience easily,” says Mieri.

Except for the Kotel, because of closer parking, the Old City of Jerusalem is virtually closed to people with disabilities. However, I was able to get there with help – it depends on the size of your chair, and there are some accessible passages along the way. All government buildings and most museum attractions, including the official Holocaust memorial museum Yad Vashem and The Israel Museum, which features a model of Jerusalem circa 66 CE, when the second temple was still standing, are fully accessible.

“If the U.S. represents 100 per cent accessibility, Israel is about 60 per cent,” says Hass. Thankfully, the non-profit group Access Israel acts as a watchdog for the Knesset (parliament) when it comes to following through on pending disability legislation. The group has started various projects nationwide to improve the quality of life for Israelis with disabilities, and it also doubles as the foremost resource for tourists with disabilities.

For all the tumult and accessibility challenges, Israel continues to draw me close from half a world away. At first, I was skeptical of its power over me, but soon, standing in Zion Square at the end of the Ben Yahuda Pedestrian Mall, I surrendered to the energy of its embrace. In a freeze-frame moment, men from all directions dropped their bags and rushed in my direction. Before I had my bearings, I was encircled in a massive hundred-person horah (circle dance). All of us singing, chanting and embracing in unison, as our bodies meshed into a single spiritual machine. It was the horah of a nation, and if you give Israel a chance, it will embrace you too.

Aaron Broverman is a writer based in Toronto. He wrote “Coming Attractions,” a story about inclusion in the entertainment industry, in Abilities’ Winter 08/09 issue.


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