Jesse Frankel, 21, recently returned from a trip he didn’t want to end. A participant in a Taglit-Birthright Israel project made possible as part of a partnership between trip provider Mayanot and the Friendship Circle – an international network of Chabad-Lubavitch programs that work with children and young adults with special needs – he spent 10 days touring the Holy Land with his peers.

Asked about his favorite part of the trip, he enthusiastically inquired if it had to be just one thing.

“I liked everything about the trip,” he said. “I told my dad I didn’t want to leave.”

But even though his time in Israel had to come to a close, the friendships he made and the memories he brought back with him, he said, are here to stay. And that’s not all.

“We learned a lot of new Hebrew words,” he said. “It was awesome.”

Trip participants, many of whom are high-functioning individuals with special needs, rode camels, visited the Dead Sea and stayed in Bedouin tents under the stars.

Yael Blasberg, a parent from Los Angeles, heard about the trip through her local Friendship Circle. She wanted her 19-year-old son, Jesse Blasberg, to get a chance to experience Israel. She herself is from the country, and they’ve got family there, but this experience was something different, she said.

Though she’s still waiting for the full report – Jesse stayed in Israel after the trip and returns on Monday – she said she was pleased overall in terms of its organization and social aspects. She added that she liked the fact that it was very similar to the less-customized Birthright trip her older son took a few years back.

“The core was exactly the same program,” she said.

So far, the snippets she has heard have been positive all around.

“Jesse was very eager to go,” she explained. “And he said it’s the best time ever.”

Lera Yavich, 23, staffed a similar trip last summer and went on this year’s program as a staffer as well. Her 24-year-old brother Dmitriy came as well.

“I heard about this trip, and my brother has special needs, so I thought it’d be fun if we could go together,” she said.

They rode donkeys and even milked a goat, she reported, with her favorite part being a party boat tour they took.

“Everyone just kind of let loose,” she said. “It was beautiful to see everyone dancing and having a good time.”

On a personal level, she said she was glad to have a chance to travel with her brother; it was their first trip together without their parents.

“It was awesome to get to know him on different levels, his likes and dislikes,” she said. “I think our bond grew stronger because we have this special connection – somewhere we’ve been together and our parents weren’t there.”

Participants talked of strong bonds formed during the trip.
Participants talked of strong bonds formed during the trip.

The trip’s adaptive nature and its attention to participants’ energy levels and various other needs made it possible for her brother to attend, she added. And more than that, he flourished and had a blast.

Dmitriy made meaningful connections with other staffers, she said by way of example, pointing to veteran trip member Bruce Sham.

“He wouldn’t do any activity unless he was with Bruce,” she said. “And Bruce, well he was constantly making sure my brother was having a good time.”

Only recently returned, they’re already keeping in touch, said Yavich.

“The Facebook group page is super active, with people commenting on things and saying ‘hi’ to each other,” she stated.

Karina Ponte, a nursing student who unexpectedly found a spot on this Birthright trip after being accepted on several others and having to postpone, said the days were packed with activities and fun.

“I was happy all the time. Yeah, we had to wake up at 7:30 in the morning, but we were going to Old Jerusalem,” she said. “So that’s okay with me.”

Spending time together from the moment they woke up until they went to bed helped build strong relationships and gave them a chance to get to know each other well, she said. “Everyone really become like one big family.”

Hindy Finmann, who helped coordinate the trip, said she hopes participants came home with 49 new friends, and something more: an extended family.

“I hope they brought back with them the knowledge that no matter what life throws their way,” she said, “someone out there will always love them and be there for them.”