For the 26 young adults with special needs who traveled the Holy Land on a Taglit-birthright israel tour provided by Mayanot, what made the trip special was that it really wasn't any different from what thousands of others have experienced over the years.

The pace may have been a bit slower, but the trip's participants did it all, from hiking through the Tel Dan nature reserve in Israel's north to celebrating Purim in Jerusalem. Organizers of the tour – which drew its travelers from North American branches of the Friendship Circle, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization that pairs teenage volunteers with children with special needs – say that the first-such trip to be provided by Mayanot is sure to be replicated in the future.

"It's an important thing that people with special needs have the opportunity to go to Israel just like any other student," said Noach Pawliger, one of the trip's tour leader's. "It's a very worthy assignment, a worthwhile endeavor."

Rabbi Zev Baram, the Philadelphia-based co-director of Friendship Circle of the Delaware Valley South, and Rabbi Avi Weinstein of Mayanot also coordinated the trip.

As a provider of birthright israel's free trips to Jewish men and women aged 18-26, Mayanot specializes in bringing groups of college students to the Holy Land. Program coordinator Ita Levine explains that the 12 staff members and two volunteers who accompanied the Friendship Circle contingent made especially sure that the itinerary followed as close as possible the standard Mayanot offerings.

"The differences were only in pace and timing," says Levine. "It's not a watered down experience. It's experience with additional support. We have the staff so that they can do all the typical things."

As a result, trip organizers focused not only on incorporating activities that would capture the students' senses in an experiential way, but also on making the trip about abilities, rather than disabilities.

Participants made pita and cheese, dressed as ancient Israelites, rode donkeys and milked goats at Kfar Kedem, a recreated biblical village in the Galilee region. They also volunteered in Jerusalem by making the traditional Purim gift baskets known as mishloach manot, and visited the Yad Vashem Holocuast museum and memorial.

The 10-day tour culminated with bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies for those who had not yet celebrated the Jewish milestone.

"It's unbelievable. I can't even put it into words," says Pawliger of some of the participants' reactions. "Any Jewish person that comes to Israel is inspired, but for them, it seemed to be on a whole different level."

"To experience Israel together with peers is something that everyone should be able to do, regardless of their ability," says Levine. "No one should be denied the opportunity because they need extra support."

Powerful Experiences

A young adult with special needs, left, and a volunteer enjoy a trip through the Holy Land.
A young adult with special needs, left, and a volunteer enjoy a trip through the Holy Land.
Atlanta native Rachel Gray, 20, says that meeting others like her was powerful.

"I've never had such beautiful friends before," she relates. "The trip was totally phenomenal, amazing and beautiful. This was the best time of my life."

Other participants had similar experiences.

"I'm connecting to a whole bunch of people with similar problems to me," says 23-year-old Ron Karov. "I think we'll keep in touch through the Internet."

Karov celebrated his bar mitzvah on the trip. At the ceremony, attended by some of his Israel-based family members, he and some of the other young men put tefillin on for the first time.

"I wanted to know about my heritage," says Gray. "I really learned a lot."