Max Zwain, 23, is getting ready to go to the Holy Land. His free Birthright Israel trip leaves Monday from Newark Liberty International Airport, and like other members of his diverse group, Zwain’s been posting on Facebook for weeks.

“We’ve been connecting and talking about how excited we are,” he says. “And I’ve been posting [how many] days to go on my page. I’ve been looking forward to swimming in the Dead Sea, and about the places we’re going to be seeing.”

While thousands have gone to Israel over the years on similar free trips, Zwain’s trip is a little different. Made possible as part of a partnership between trip provider Mayanot and Friendship Circle – an international Chabad-Lubavitch program whose local branches pair teenage volunteers with children with special needs – this particular journey is primarily for young adults with special needs. The itinerary is tailored to address each individual’s abilities, and the entire group is travelling with a higher staff-to-participant ratio and their own doctor.

For Zwain, who will celebrate his 24th birthday on the trip, the excursion will be the first time really travelling without his mom and dad, save for a couple summers at sleep-away camp. His mother, Jodi Zwain, said she was nervous about his going at first, but was reassured by Birthright Israel staff.

“They seemed so organized and supportive and didn’t really seem to be bothered by his medical needs,” she said.

Her daughter, who is 26, will also be joining the trip, as it’s her last chance to take advantage of the Birthright Israel program before she passes its 26-year age cap.

The Zwains found out about the trip through their local Friendship Circle. And while the trip is slightly different from the typical Birthright Israel program, Jodi Zwain hopes her children come back from their 10-day tour with the exact same feeling of connection to the Holy Land that has become Birthright Israel’s hallmark.

“I want them to see Israel. I’ve been there twice on UJA trips, and my husband lived there for two years,” she explained, adding that she’s looking forward to her children experiencing the places their parents have been to and continue to talk about. “We want them really just to feel connected and learn more about this place that we call Israel which they hear about on the news and pray about when they go to services.”

As her son seeks out his Jewish identity – he’s already an active part of the Chabad community in their town of Livingston, N.J., and relates well to the rabbis and community at the Friendship Circle, she said – his parents want him to experience all that Israel has to offer.

“It just sounds like he’s going to have a little bit of everything there,” said his mother. “And we want him to be as independent as he can be. This is a good way for him to feel what it’s like to be on his own.”

Zwain said she appreciates that the focus is working around limitations, treating the participants like regular teens and 20-somethings.

“We’re just so thankful that they run something for kids with special needs, that they look at them as individuals and as real people and try to make things as normal for them as they can,” she said. “That’s the kind of life we want Max to have.”

Karina Ponte unexpectedly found a spot on this Birthright trip after being accepted on several others and having to postpone. When she got an email saying she could join the Friendship Circle trip, she jumped at the opportunity. She’s studying nursing in school, and said she appreciated the coincidence and is looking forward to the opportunity.

Birthright Israel trips for the Friendship Circle feature itineraries tailored to address each individual’s abilities.
Birthright Israel trips for the Friendship Circle feature itineraries tailored to address each individual’s abilities.

“I’m upset I didn’t apply for it sooner,” she said, explaining that she “can’t wait” to experience Israel for the first time ever, and with a group of people she’s sure to grow from. “It’s just awesome to know that I can help them with anything to better their experience and my experience too. We each will grow in this.”

Even the air is supposed to be different there, marveled Ponte, whose plans include going to the Dead Sea and riding a camel.

“Everyone’s like, ‘Birthright is amazing’, and I can’t wait to have my own amazing experience,” she said.

Neither can Max Zwain, who has already started sorting out what he’s going to take with him to make sure the time spent is Israel is well-documented.

“I’m packing a travel journal and I’m also packing a camera, because my other friends on Facebook want me to take lots of pictures,” he said. “And I’m also going to bring my phone, just in case something happens to my camera.”