By Daniel Horowitz—For Toronto’s Jessica Silver, visiting Israel had long been a dream.
The 21-year-old had watched as many friends set out to enjoy the Jewish state over the years; even her own sister Joanne participated in Birthright Israel six years ago. But, for Jessica, who has spent her entire life in a wheelchair as a result of being born with cerebral palsy, her dream seemed destined to remain just that.
“I always thought it would be amazing to go, but I figured that being in a wheelchair would just make it too difficult, with too many constraints; too many accessibility issues, and, of course, travelling is always a challenge,” says the fourth-year York University student. “Even here, in Toronto, I find it tough to get around sometimes. Many places claim that they’re accessible, but often they are not.”
But, when it comes to a young Jewish adult discovering his or her Israeli roots, Taglit Birthright Israel, which is funded by the government of Israel, private philanthropists, Jewish communities around the world, in Toronto by UJA Federation, believes that no one should be left behind, and recently Jessica’s dream became a reality thanks to the unique and life-changing No Limits Birthright Israel initiative. Jessica joined a group of other disabled Jewish men and women between the ages of 18 and 26 on their first trip to Israel, through the trip organizer Routes Amazing Israel.
Since the inception of Birthright Israel in 2000, close to 14,000 young Torontonians between the ages of 18 and 26 have participated in this unforgettable, free of charge, ten-day educational trip to Israel.
Funded by the Community Fund of The Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto – UJA Federation’s endowment development program - the wheelchair friendly No Limits Trip, featuring handicap accessible accommodations, site visits and activities, was designed for participants with reduced mobility, so that they too could reap the life-changing benefits of the Taglit Birthright Israel experience.
“I’ve taken many history courses, as well as some world religion courses, so I’ve had a lot of exposure to the historical context of Israel, but to actually be there, to finally see this remarkable place, to meet its people and to be immersed in the culture was completely amazing,” gushes Jessica, who, like the other participants brought a chaperone on the trip. In Jessica’s case, it was her mom Julia who also experienced Israel for the first time.
“Finally being there, I felt as if I had been transported into the pages of a history book. When we got to Jerusalem, my tour guide asked me how it felt, and I didn’t have the words to articulate my feelings. It was if I was a rabbit who fell through a portal into this world. I had to keep pinching myself. After being in Jerusalem – at the Kotel for Shabbat – I instantly felt a strong connection to Israel. It quickly became my home away from home.”
“We were thrilled that we had the opportunity to design and provide a trip to accommodate this group with mobility challenges,” says Elizabeth Sokolsky, vice president, education and operations, Taglit Birthright Israel. “Thanks to the generosity of the Jewish Foundation, these young Jewish adults were able to experience Israel on this amazing and intense ten day exploration of Jewish culture, history and its people. It was important to the organizers of this trip to ensure that the participants have a fully inclusive experience, and regardless of physical ability, that they would be able to experience their ‘Birthright’ in a meaningful way. By making Israel accessible to these young adults, they now join the over 250,000 worldwide alumni of Taglit Birthright Israel in a new and strengthened bond between Israel and Diaspora Jews and in their own journey to an ever-evolving Jewish identity.”
Adding to the uniqueness of the No Limits trip was one of its leaders, Lerona Gelb, a 27 year old Jewish woman from north London, who has been confined to a wheelchair since a car accident at the age of five.
“I have always wanted to take a Birthright group,” said Gelb. “I’ve seen the impact these trips have on the participants and when I was asked to take part, I jumped at the chance. As a wheelchair user myself, I know what it is like to be with a group and have to accept that I won’t be able to take part in every aspect of the tour. However, on this trip, every participant took part in every activity. From abseiling down Mount Gilboa to sailing on the Mediterranean, from climbing to the top of Masada and swimming in the Dead Sea, everyone was a part of the group, and everyone bonded over the same experiences with no one staying behind on the bus. There is a special bond between all participants of a Birthright trip; however the bond with this group went even deeper. The participants were so touched that so many people had gone to the effort to arrange their first trip to Israel, free of charge, so they could experience what Jews all over the world are automatically entitled to.”
And for Jessica, the name “No Limits” was far more than a mere marketing slogan - it was a promise that was made good on.
“Think about it, I actually got to go to Israel, and I even got to go rock-climbing, something else that I always wanted to do, but didn’t know if I’d ever be able to,” she explains. “There we were, a group of physically disabled people, climbing up Mount Gilboa with no constraints, feeling totally free while looking out at the magnificent Israeli landscape. It was an incredible experience; one that, like the trip itself, I will never forget.”
An English major and aspiring writer, Silver was so inspired by her trip to Israel, she wrote a poem based on the experience. The poem is called Sacred City of Chalk and includes a reference to her unforgettable rock-climbing experience. “Climbing Gilboa’s red rock, my body and mind in a state of numb-like shock, as the rhythm of my heart chimed in, I began to realize where my foot had been.”