The Bagel Club will volunteer at Shalva, the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, when they are in Israel. (photo from shalva.org)
The mission of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s inclusion services is “to educate, engage, train and support members with diverse needs and their families in our community.” One of the ways in which they do this is with the Bagel Club, described as “a social club for adults with diverse needs” that promotes Jewish heritage and education. In just over a week, 11 club members will experience the ultimate Jewish heritage and educational experience – a trip to Israel.
As part of its overall mission to “enhance positive identification with Jewish life and Israel and to develop good citizenship and a sense of community and belonging through various partnerships with communities in Israel,” JCC inclusion services coordinator Leamore Cohen told the Independent that, over the last 15 years, “the JCC has arranged for various cohorts, including counselors-in-training, dance troupes and specialty interest groups to experience Israel, sometimes for the very first time. Unfortunately, many of the people with diverse needs, accessing programs through inclusion services at the JCC, had never been to Israel, and many of them are older adults.”
The idea of an inclusion trip – “to allow for this group to travel in a cohort of peers, semi-independently, for a first-time trip, much like young adults do with Birthright or Taglit” – had been percolating for awhile. “We knew we wanted it to happen. It was just a matter of timing,” said Cohen.
The group leaves on Feb. 26, and will be in Israel for 10 days.
“Visiting Israel, including sites that define Israel and the Jewish people, is such an important rite of passage for Jews living outside of Israel,” said Cohen. “The potential for self-discovery and Jewish cultural connection through a trip to Israel is immeasurable. Such trips are essential to our social, cultural and religious preservation and should be shared with all members of our community – that is why the JCC is so fully invested in this trip.”
The trip is being funded by a number of sources, she said, including “the participants, the JCC, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and Partnership2Gether – an initiative that pairs Diaspora communities with regions in Israel to strengthen ties between Canadians and Israelis – and incredibly generous community members.”
Accessibility was, of course, a main consideration in the trip’s planning. In addition to the programming, Cohen said the cost also needed to be accessible.
“The reality is that this population lives on fixed incomes and has limited income-earning capacity. We wanted to correct for that,” she said. “The trip is highly subsidized so that no one who wanted to come would be priced out of the opportunity. We wanted to do things differently and make this an inclusive trip in every sense of the word.”
What makes the Bagel Club’s 10-day trip unique, said Cohen, are “the opportunities we have developed for cross-border community-building, collaboration and disability advocacy. The programming is intended to create friendships across borders and to show an Israel that is inclusive of each individual and yet supportive of individual differences. Our intention is to empower travelers and support their agency through semi-independent travel, while at the same time emphasizing and strengthening community connections through learning collectively, exploring collectively and even volunteering collectively in the Jewish homeland.
“During our time in Israel,” she said, “we will volunteer at Shalva, the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities; meet with the Access Israel disability advocacy organization; visit the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and meet with Knesset members. We will join an established theatre group of adults with diverse needs for a drama workshop. We will visit Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park for Dig for a Day and take part in an active dig. We will pray at the Wailing Wall and remember at Yad Vashem.
“We will also be spending part of our trip in the Galilee Panhandle, which is our partner region in Israel. During that time, we will participate in an arts and crafts workshop at [the] inclusion occupational centre Ma’arag, together will local residents. We will visit Beit Israel and meet with Krembo Wings youth group (a youth group that works with children with special needs). Also on our itinerary is a visit to the Bereshit apple factory to learn about agriculture and the production process.”
Cohen said she is “honoured to be able to experience Israel with this group.” The 11 participants are David Benbaruj, David Berger, Frederick Dexall, Marc Estrin, Mark Fugman, Julie Huber, Harriet Kositsky, Alisa Polsky, Clark Levykh, Evan Lipsky and Gail Rudin. Joining Cohen in the support-staff capacity are Kathleen Muir, assistant coordinator, inclusion services and youth services at the JCC; Shannon Gorski, managing director of the Betty Averbach Foundation and JCC board member; and Alex Krasniak, community support worker with 26 years in the field.
Cohen noted that February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, “a unified effort amongst Jewish organizations worldwide to raise awareness and foster real and meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities and those who love them community-wide.”
She said the JCC is holding a traditional Birkat HaDerech (Blessing for the Way) ceremony for the Bagel Club travelers on Feb. 19, 11 a.m., at the JCC.
“The invitation is wide open,” she said. “We want to share this simchah with the whole community. It is going to be such a joyful sendoff. We’ll have the Orr Vancouver Israeli Dance troupe performing to commemorate the occasion. Can you imagine a better way to celebrate this month than helping these Jews exercise their birthright?”