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March 22, 2011

Last Year in Jerusalem—Taking a Teen with Special Needs to Israel

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/last_year_in_jerusalem_--taking_a_teen_with_special_needs_to_israel_2011032/

Last year, we spent most of April (including Passover) in Israel since our oldest daughter was spending her “gap” year there between high school and college. She was enrolled in an intensive Israeli leadership preparatory program called “Nachshon” named after the Biblical hero who was the first Israelite to jump into the Red Sea. Legend has it that the Red Sea didn’t actually part until Nachshon was up to his nose in the water.

Traveling 7,500 miles away across ten zones is tough on anyone, but Danny did pretty well on the trip over, excited about seeing his big sister, and for some inexplicable reason, really enjoyed the hot kosher meals served on the plane. During our flight from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv, we met another family who was also traveling with a physically disabled child; they had other grown children (and grandchildren) living in Israel so they made the sojourn at least twice a year. They gave us a few tips about which bathrooms on the plane were the most accessible, the procedures for departing the plane with a wheelchair at Ben Gurion Airport and what to watch out for when using our California disabled placard, (some of the disabled spots in Israel are reserved for specific people/placard holders, but it can be hard to tell).

We had a joyful reunion in the airport in the afternoon and then got our rental car—we held our breath that all of our luggage and Danny’s large stroller and walker would fit in the economy-sized car we had pre-ordered on the Internet, but luckily, we were upgraded and the trunk accommodated everything. Long after dark, we arrived at our Jerusalem apartment on the 6th floor (with a very small and very slow elevator) and settled into our temporary home.

The first place we went to visit was Hebrew University - Mt. Scopus campus to get that magnificent view of all of Jerusalem, and we stopped for a snack at the local Aroma coffee shop (think of a kosher trendy Starbucks with a much bigger menu). It was difficult to get Danny up the narrow front steps, so I wheeled him around to a side door which was heavy and hard to open. The place was crowded, with tables close together, and hard to navigate even with the walker, and we finally were able to sit down.

An employee with Down Syndrome came around to pick up the dirty dishes from the people before us. Some of the patrons stared at her, and also at Danny, but then an older, professorial-looking woman entered and started to chat with the young woman, asking her about Passover plans and then said “Chag Sameach” to her (and to us on the way out).

(I later found out from the non-profit Eleywn Israel http://www.israelelwyn.org.il/ that they work closely with Aroma coffee shops to train and place workers with disabilities and that Aroma has a longstanding policy of hiring workers with disabilities and in fact, almost every Aroma restaurant in Israel has at least one such employee.)

This theme of stark differences between the positive and negative aspects of disability continued during our trip. At times we would find a great disabled parking spot, but with no curb cuts. Or, in crowded malls and venues, people without a disabled placard would pull into the space ahead of us. When we complained to the security guard standing just a few feet away, he would mumble, “I can’t do anything about it”.

On the other hand, some people took great pains to include us, including a lovely modern Orthodox family who we met in the neighborhood shul. They invited us over for a lavish last night dinner of Passover, with four courses, Torah study, and a look at the husband’s photos from his post-army trip to the states many years earlier. They were fine with Danny playing with toys on the sofa, or even rolling around on the floor as the evening grew late.

One of the more interesting incidents took place a few days into the Passover holiday when the elevator in the apartment building broke down and the key part to fix it wasn’t going to be available until “after the holiday”.  There were many families with young children in strollers, so this was a hardship for many of renters. But when people saw us coaxing Danny up and down 6 flights of stairs with his walker (and he managed to do it, even if it took even longer than the slow elevator), they grew furious with the apartment management, and our situation became the key point of protest. Many renters personally apologized to us for the inconvenience.

Next: Our visits to Beit Issie Shapiro and Kibbutz Kishorit

Note: A sad farewell to Kenneth Schaefler, a friend, role model and colleague who devoted his professional career at the Los Angeles BJE to make Jewish education available to students with diverse learning needs. He championed disabilities awareness, special education services at Jewish day schools and worked with state-funded regional centers for early detection and intervention as well as professional development for teachers. May his memory be a blessing.

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