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Taglit-BirthrightIsrael:Mayanot First Tour For Special Needs Visitors

By , Jerusalem, Israel

(lubavitch.com/LNS) Fragile X syndrome, a mental impairment that affects IQ, hasn’t stopped Scott Heyman, 27, from living in his own apartment or holding down a job at Publix supermarket. By joining Taglit-Birthright Israel: MAYANOT’s first trip for individuals with special needs, he’s overcome another barrier and is spending ten days in Promised Land.

He phoned his parents in Marietta, GA, shortly after landing at Ben Gurion Airport. Wishing Gail and Lyons Heyman "boker tov" good morning, he showed off one of the three Hebrew phrases he mastered for the trip, exclaiming, “Israel is awesome, I love it.”

Mrs. Heyman beamed. “I never imagined Scott would have an opportunity to go to Israel without us by his side,” she said. “He’s getting the support he needs to experience Israel just like his cousins have on Birthright. As a parent I am wowed by the whole thing. I feel blessed that I live in a society and am part of religion that supports children that are different.”

Thousands of young adults have seen Israel through MAYANOT, a yeshiva based in Jerusalem, but bringing 26 young adults with developmental disabilities from to Israel required a stack of extras. Doctors interviewed potential participants and their parents who applied from Colorado, New Jersey, Texas, Florida, Rhode Island, Ottawa, Manitoba and beyond.

“Every young Jew, regardless of ability, should have the privilege to see Israel,” said trip coordinator Ita Levine, R.N. “We’ve put a lot preparation and time and effort into this trip. Our main goal is to keep everyone safe and healthy and taken care of.”

In addition to the usual medical and security personnel who accompany every MAYANOT bus are two doctors, a social worker, nurse and extra counselors. There’s one staff member for every three participants, a number that allays parents’ worries. “If the ratio was any higher, there’s no way I could see Scott joining the trip,” said Lyons Heyman. “They’ve done everything right. I know he’s in good hands.”

Incorporating extras without compromising the spirit of the journey was also part of the planning. “We want them to have as normal an Israel experience as possible, and to experience as much of Israel as possible,” director of Taglit-Birthright Israel: MAYANOT, Avi Weinstein told Lubavitch.com.

So there will be hikes, camel riding, Bedouin campouts, visits to the Kotel and Tel Aviv, much like the trips that have college students falling in love with the land of Israel on their own Taglit-Birthright Israel journeys. College-age volunteers from the Israeli National Foundation for Autism will be spending five days with the group so they can get to know Israeli peers.

Compared to regular Taglit-Birthright Israel trips, the pace is slower, and there are more Plan B’s. “Our motto is to expect the unexpected,” said Levine.

Sheryl Tregerman of Phoenixville, PA, has high hopes for her 19-year-old son Matt. “Everyone I know has come back from Israel a changed person. I think it will raise his sense of being Jewish to a new level.”

Matt’s traveled before with summer camps that accommodate high functioning autistic young men like him. Although individuals with developmental disabilities generally hesitate to change their routines, Matt leapt at the chance to go to Israel with people he knows from the Friendship Circle, a Chabad-run program that buddies volunteers with people with special needs.

“If we can pave the way for other kids like Matt to do this trip, it would do my heart good,” says his mom.


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