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Despite Disabilities, A Young Couple Finds Love at Mayanot Birthright Israel

By , Jerusalem, Israel

(lubavitch.com) When Zak Khazanovich was in middle school, he once drew up a list of goals he planned to reach in the future. Included were many things that other kids might also wish for, but conspicuously missing was the prospect of marriage.

Khazanovich, 20, who lives with cerebral palsy, had a life changing experience last summer that put marriage back on his list. Rabbi Mendy Levertov, Chabad representative in Khazanovich’s hometown, Phoenix, AZ, recommended that he sign up for the 10-day Taglit Mayanot Birthright program and experience Israel for the first time.

Rachel Goodman, also 20, has Asperger’s syndrome. Like Khazanovich, she had unsuccessfully signed up for various Taglit Israel programs before, but now both finally found themselves enrolled in the summer program. Goodman, who lives in Tucson, first connected with Khazanovich on the birthright program’s Facebook page.

Coordinated by Rabbi Noach Pawliger, the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies began this program for young adults with special needs three years ago. Pawliger says the premise is simple: Taglit Israel provides free trips for Jewish teenagers so they can learn about their heritage, and special needs adults deserve an equal opportunity that would allow them to enjoy the full tour, not the abridged version usually offered them.

“The trip draws young adults from many states across the country. For the most part, people find out about us through a local Friendship Circle or Chabad representative. When we found out that two of the participants had already established a firm friendship over the phone and online, we tried to have them fly to NY on the same flight.”

Although Zak and Rachel didn’t make it onto the same flight, Rachel says that when they met in JFK airport, she felt like she had known Zak for years. Over the next leg of the trip and throughout the whirlwind tour of Israel, the two were inseparable.

“We were in the Negev desert on the eighth day of the trip,” Rachel recalls. “It was a beautiful, starry night, and Zak and I were relaxing after dinner near a cluster of Bedouin tents. Then he asked me to marry him, and I said yes.”

Chloe Lipp was one of 10 volunteers who accompanied the 21 special needs travelers. With no experience interacting with special needs as a group, Lipp felt a little nervous when she enrolled for the trip. But her fears quickly dissipated when she saw the excitement and happiness the kids radiated over the course of the trip.

“For some of them, being able to ride a camel was really tremendous. The look on their faces when we would lift them up on the camel was priceless,” Lipp says.

Though the program caters to high functioning individuals, Pawliger says that over time he has been able to “stretch the spectrum a little to allow for more to join the trip.”

On April 17, Zak and Rachel will become husband and wife. Until then, Zak is working on his culinary skills – he now cooks supper every day – and is also studying hard for his degree. Rachel does the laundry too. More than anything, notes Wendy, Rachel’s proud mom, the trip empowered the pair to lead their lives with more self-confidence and independence.

“For many years, we tried to find a program that would fit, but never found the social network that truly catered to Rachel’s needs. With Chabad’s trip to Israel, my daughter’s fiancé, for example, who walks with a walker, was able to participate in so many regular activities. Zak gained the physical stamina to do so much more than before, and Rachel, who used to have a lot of social difficulties, found a new confidence here. She is continuing the friendships she made on the trip. This program is a model for others to learn from.”

Lipp, who was invited to the wedding along with many of the participants and staff of the trip, will be present when Rabbi Pawliger marries them off.

“This is one wedding I’m not going to miss. I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she says.


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