Almost three dozen U.S. young adults with special needs wrapped up a unique tour of the Holy Land, the second time in as many years the Friendship Circle – a Chabad-Lubavitch network of programs that pairs teenage volunteers with children with special needs – has worked to make the free tours provided by Taglit-Birthright Israel available to its constituents.

Founded in Michigan more than 15 years ago, the Friendship Circle has garnered international attention for its home visit programs, workshops, and other initiatives that help individuals with special needs maximize their potential. Providing an outlet for Jewish learning and expression is a strong part of the Friendship Circle, explained Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, director of the Friendship Circle of MetroWest, N.J., so it was only natural that as the Birthright family of tours continued to grow, staff would look for ways to include the special-needs population.

“The mission of the Friendship Circle has always been to enable those with special needs to fully participate in the Jewish community and enjoy the same experiences that are available to the mainstream population,” said Grossbaum. “Why should the Israel experience be any different?”

Several years ago, Rabbi Zev Baram, director of the Friendship Circle in Philadelphia, Grossbaum and the directors of several other U.S. chapters approached Rabbi Avi Weinstein, director of the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Study’s Birthright programs, about organizing a trip specifically for young adults with special needs. The institute embraced the idea, planning an itinerary sensitive to participants’ needs and based on Mayanot’s high-intensity 10-day whirlwind tour.

In March 2008, 25 participants traveled to Israel as part of the first-ever Friendship Circle trip. The pilot group, as did this year’s contingent, made candles at a factory in Safed, rode camels in the desert and prayed at the Western Wall.

“On the day he left, I burst into tears of happiness that he could have this opportunity,” said Linda Kaye, whose son was part of the pilot group.

Steven W., from Great Neck, N.Y. – who had traveled to Israel once before as a child with his family – said that his first foray in the Holy Land just didn’t compare to the experience he had as part of the Friendship Circle tour.

“I would give this trip 10 stars,” he said, adding with a laugh, “even if it is out of 5 stars. It deserves 10 stars. I spent today dancing at the Western Wall with the people and putting on tefillin, and I loved it.”

He was equally excited about having the chance to see “something from each part of Israel. Israel is not just one kind of place; it has everything.”

Changed Perceptions

Jay, a 19-year-old native of Massachusetts who joined this year’s trip, said that for him, the best part of the trip was “just meeting everyone and hanging out together. I loved every place we went, but what I love the most is the people.”

For many involved in the trip, the project dovetails with a larger dream: Finding an equal place in the Jewish community for people with special needs.

“There were a few of us who had been dreaming about this for years,” said Noach Pawliger, who led this year’s tour. “We really wanted to give the special-needs participants and the volunteers a chance to see Israel through each other’s eyes; we wanted people to really understand why the special-needs population has the same right to come here as anyone else, that they have their own strengths and they have so much to give back.

“That’s happening,” he added. “Because the more the volunteers spend time with them, the more they see their strengths. They are so full of love, they have such a sensitivity to the spiritual. They say things in ways that are deeper and more powerful than anything I could ever have expressed.”

Jaimie Wilson, a 21-year-old student at Western Washington University who volunteered on the trip, concurred.

“The participants on this trip are all so inspired and inspiring,” said Wilson. “They say things so much more beautifully than I could, and I am really learning from them.”

While some of the volunteers have been involved with Friendship Circle in the past, others, like Wilson, were recruited especially for the trip.

“I had no experience working with anyone with special needs before,” said the student. “My experience was just with Birthright, but I definitely want to do something like Friendship Circle when I go back home.”