When his parents first took four-year-old Dan Perl from his home in North Caldwell to the slopes of Stowe, Vermont, he hated skiing.
But within six years he would learn not only to love the sport but turn it into a way to heal wounded Israeli soldiers and others with severe physical and mental challenges.
Perl is an adaptive ski instructor with an organization called Challenge Aspen, a therapeutic ski program. One week a year the organization hosts Golshim L’Chaim (Hebrew for “Ski to Live”), which brings Israeli soldiers to the Colorado slopes for instruction, bonding, and a chance to test their physical and mental limits in a safe environment.
“What we do is truly life-changing for people with disabilities,” said Perl, adding that a special “gung-ho” attitude sets the IDF veterans apart from the other people he teaches.
“The Israelis have an incredible spirit,” he told NJJN in a March 23 phone conversation from his home in Aspen. “Most of them have never skied before but they are ready to go to the top of a mountain, loving it all the way. If they wipe out and fall down, they’ll hop up laughing, ready to try it again.”
The most recent cohort spent Feb. 28 to March 6 learning to ski and snowboard, sometimes using special “sitskis” and similar adaptive equipment.
Golshim L’Chaim was started by the Chabad Jewish Community Center of Aspen and UJA Aspen Valley in 2008.
“When I heard about it I insisted on being part of the program,” Perl said. “Skiing is a great means of rehabilitation. What it comes down to is what we try to instill in them: ‘If I can do this, I can do anything.’”
When the soldiers return home, said Perl, “they realize they had no idea they could ski from the top of a mountain with no legs and using a wheelchair to get around.”
Since its start, the program has doubled in size from six to 12 participants. Skiing in Israel is mostly limited to Mount Hermon, on the border with Syria and Lebanon, so few if any of the injured troops have been on skis before they reach Aspen.
Perl, 27, who graduated from West Essex High School in North Caldwell, moved to Aspen in 2006. His parents, Theodore and Patricia, still live in North Caldwell and are members of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, where Perl attended religious school and became bar mitzva.
Perl became interested in teaching special education as a student at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY.
“After college I wanted to move to a ski town, and on my way to Aspen I learned about adaptive ski programs for people with disabilities, and it was the perfect match for me,” he said. “I wanted to work with people with disabilities and I wanted to be outside on the ski trails.”
Perl is featured in Beyond the Boundaries, a documentary about Golshim L’Chaim that was produced last year. Filmed in Israel and Aspen and directed by Yonatan Nir, the film was screened in West Orange at the NJ Jewish Film Festival last week, with Perl and producer Nina Hawn Zale leading a discussion.
Working with Israelis is only part of Perl’s assignment.
“A lot of my clients have cognitive disabilities like autism and Down’s syndrome,” Perl said. Others are American military veterans who received traumatic brain injuries, as well as civilians with spinal cord injuries, paralysis, and amputated limbs
Perl would like to serve injured soldiers from other parts of the world as well.
“There are opportunities for anyone with disabilities to come to Aspen and learn how to ski. It will help their recovery happen that much faster,” he said.
But those opportunities are expensive. It costs $5,000 to house and train each soldier in the week-long Golshim L’Chaim program, so Perl is urging community members to support the program; for further information, visit ski-to-live.com.