Mike Jaslow always wanted to go to Israel. The South Orange resident said, “I’m Jewish, my heritage is Judaism. Most of my family has been to Israel, and I wanted to feel what it’s like to be in Israel.” An avid news watcher, he also wanted to see if the reports about the Middle East paint a fair portrait.
But Jaslow, 31, has cerebral palsy and is a client at JESPY House — the Jewish community’s program for developmentally disabled adults in South Orange — so he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to go.
So when Mitch Rottenstreich, who holds a variety of positions at JESPY, including religious director, announced he was organizing the first trip to Israel for the agency’s clients, Jaslow jumped at the chance. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to go there,” he said.
He wasn’t alone. After sending letters to all 160 clients and their parents, more than 50 responded.
“I don’t think any Jew should be denied the right to visit Israel,” said Rottenstreich. “Despite their disabilities, I knew we could make it work.” He acknowledged that the logistics of taking people with a variety of disabilities on such a trip were complicated; each one’s needs would have to be taken into account, including the accurate dispensing of medications.
Rottenstreich selected for the trip individuals who are high-functioning and have no physical limitations; to qualify, they had to be self-sufficient on a daily basis.
He also arranged the itinerary carefully. “We did a lot of the typical things people do when they go to Israel the first time,” said Rottenstreich. “We just did them in an abridged way.” For example, most groups spend half a day at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem; the JESPY clients spent three hours there on their last day to avoid its setting the tone for the whole trip.
The group of 20 — 12 men and eight women ranging in age from 30 to 55 with a variety of disabilities — departed for Israel March 27 and returned April 7.
Jaslow said he initially had some concerns over whether the tour guides would know how to work with all the group members. His own cerebral palsy makes it difficult to walk when the ground is uneven.
Rottenstreich had addressed such concerns by adjusting the itinerary and by staffing the trip with a second social worker from the JESPY team, plus two members of the agency’s support staff, for a total of four chaperones on the trip. Each chaperone has between 10 and 15 years of experience in the field, he said, and they all worked closely with the tour guide to ensure everyone’s needs would be met.
Those arrangements helped in dealing with participants’ special needs, according to Jaslow. A few weeks after returning to New Jersey, he said he would love to go again and have more time to do things independently. He did, however, point out that some participants at one point “did not want to go high up on a cable car, and the tour guide wanted them to go.” But Rottenstreich added that not everyone went, and that some did need a little push to embrace the challenge.
Jaslow said he was struck by how “peaceful all the places we went are. They don’t remotely show what is in the media.”
Meeting with NJJN at JESPY’s main building in South Orange, Jaslow said visiting Jerusalem was a highlight — from the architecture to visiting the Great Synagogue on Friday night, to seeing all three religions in perspective. Being at the Western Wall and “seeing people praying really captured the moment,” he said.
Another participant, Roger Baron, in a letter he wrote about the trip, described another highlight: “That morning we went up to Masada, an ancient fortress that was the site of a battle between almost a thousand Jews and several thousand Roman soldiers, which ended with killings and suicides amongst all but a few of the Jews themselves to avoid becoming slaves to the Romans. Masada was an amazing and spiritual sight….”
Jaslow described time in the Dead Sea. “It was so peaceful, floating, and when we got out, I felt so relaxed.”
Baron described his attempt at riding a camel at Genesis Land in the Judean Desert, where biblical characters greet tourists. “I had to hold on for my health as the camel got up abruptly, walked down a hill, got down to eat leaves, went up the road and back, and went back down at the end.
“Still, I saw what Abraham saw when he traveled that route thousands of years ago.”
Both men also described their visit to Yad Vashem as “moving,” “powerful,” and “very important.”
‘Experience to cherish’
The group also had the chance to meet with members of the Neve Eliyahu Youth Center, a group of similarly disabled adults in Rehovot. Together they picked fruit at a nearby orchard and enjoyed an evening of karaoke together at their center. Although the New Jerseyans spoke little Hebrew and the Israelis did not speak English, they all found creative ways to communicate. “We did a lot of interacting with hand gestures,” said Jaslow.
The trip was also a revelation for at least one staff participant, Tim Raymond, a Christian, who said that if he hadn’t been working at a Jewish agency, he would probably never have visited Israel. He was surprised at how different Israel appeared from media reports, beginning with his first steps in Tel Aviv. “The media never shows this pretty city on the Mediterranean. It’s gorgeous at sunset on the beach…. I just didn’t expect it.”
He expected Jerusalem to be “a madhouse,” but that wasn’t what he found. “It’s such a cool city because it’s such a mix of the modern with the ancient. I love that they want you to touch everything. In America, if something is 200 years old, you have to keep 50 feet away; in Israel, if something is 4,000 years old, they want you to touch it.”
He was also surprised at how well everyone in the Old City got along: “They were all mingling, selling each other things, eating each other’s food, and hanging out, respecting each other’s religions.”
After the trip, Rottenstreich said, “I’ve been to Israel so many times, but this was really inspiring. To see so many clients who have never been to Israel and told they would never be able to go — to be there as a witness, it was amazing. To see how they appreciated being there and how moved they were by the beauty of the country, the scenery and the landscape, and the significance of being in the Jewish homeland — I want to do it again.”
Although the group was too old to qualify for Birthright Israel, the free trips that are limited to participants between 18 and 26, Oranim Educational Initiatives, a frequent Birthright trip provider, coordinated the JESPY visit, and each of the 20 participants received a $500 subsidy through United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
As Baron concluded, “It was a very unique, amazing, and spiritual experience and a great privilege for me and the other JESPYites to visit Israel, the home of the Jewish people. Israel is much, much more than what’s reported about it in the news — it’s a great and beautiful country that has lots of rural scenery, many new and old cities and towns, and thousands of years of history.
“Our Israeli experience was one that we’ll all cherish for the rest of our lives.”