If Max Zwain had to describe his trip to Israel in one word, he would choose “amazing.”
The 24-year-old Livingston resident recently participated in a one-of-a-kind program, a Birthright Israel trip for Jewish youth with special needs.
Designed to accommodate medium-to-high-functioning young adults with developmental disabilities, the trip, organized through Birthright: Mayanot, is now in its fifth year. It is held in partnership with the Friendship Circle, Chabad’s outreach program that recruits teens to assist youngsters with special needs and their families.
From June 25 to July 5, Max was a member of a group of 33 young adults, 26 of them with special needs. He has apraxia, a disorder of the brain and nervous system that hinders performance; Russell-Silver Syndrome, a growth and endocrine disorder; and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which is on the higher end of the autism spectrum.
He said that during his first time experiencing Israel, he wanted to explore his Jewish heritage “in a different way other than through TV and the Internet.”
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” said Max. “But if I had any expectations, the trip would have surpassed them.”
The trip had two main goals beyond providing an opportunity for its participants to visit Israel: to foster friendships and to encourage independence and a heightened sense of capability.
Going into the program, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, director of the local Friendship Circle, which is based in Livingston, acknowledged some hesitation regarding the participants’ abilities to handle the vast differences between home life and an overseas trip.
“In retrospect, and after seeing the pictures and video clips from the trip,” he said, it was clear “that the impact was so incredible, and the care and concern for every participant was an amazing thing.”
While groups traveling to Israel on the free, 10-day trips for Jewish adults between the ages of 18 to 26 usually have two American staff members, the Friendship Circle travelers were accompanied by six staff members, including a physician.
The Friendship Circle trips are structured to provide more hands-on involvement and a slightly slower pace than the standard trip. However, the participants obtain the same exposure to the many facets of Israel that all other Birthright participants do.
“The support system within the program literally runs flawlessly,” said Grossbaum. The individuals with special needs “see the same places and tourist spots that everyone goes to. They get the same experience.”
For Rabbi Zev Baram, executive director of Friendship Circle Philadelphia Region-South, the biggest challenge is always the initial frenzy in the airport. “The most amazing thing is, though, by the time you all land in Israel, everyone is comfortable with everybody,” he said. “You’re thrown into it. You land and you keep moving for 10 days.”
Max’s 26-year-old sister, Jenna, accompanied her brother as one of seven “inclusion participants” who benefit from the Birthright experience while facilitating social interactions for the others.
Max said having his sister along made the trip less stressful and made him feel more comfortable. Also, he said, “I just wanted her to be with me to share the experience.”
Jenna said that Max initially “clung” to her, but she soon reminded him that he didn’t need to stay by her side. “By the end of the trip, I had to remind him that I was still there,” she said. “He met so many great people and did so many things he would never be able to do here…. I am so grateful.”
Max celebrated his 24th birthday in Israel, for him a highlight of the visit. “First we went to an elderly home, where we sang and danced for everyone and played instruments to try to make them all happy,” he said. “One person even stood up and danced with us.”
That night, Max said, there was a musician at the hotel, so everyone joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
Grossbaum emphasized that all Jews deserve the opportunity to experience Israel and feel at home there. The Friendship Circle participants are not only benefiting from the trip, he said; “they give so much more than they receive. They leave a mark wherever they go and they leave a mark on everyone.”
Baram, who was integral in organizing the first Friendship Circle trip to Israel, said a goal is to expand the trip to include those who have greater challenges, affording those who need one-on-one care the opportunity to participate in what he calls “the Friendship Trip.”
Max has been active in the Friendship Circle for five years; now he is even serving as a volunteer to help younger people with special needs. He said the Friendship Circle helped him gain many friends and is now helping him get a job.
Max, who took over 300 photos during the 10-day trip, keeps in touch with his new friends through Facebook and texting.
When asked to choose the best part of the trip, Max said, “Oh, that’s a difficult question — everything.”
However, he did say that the Western Wall, Masada, and the Dead Sea were a few of his favorite places. “It was amazing to see them. I know I keep using that word a lot, but that’s how it was.”