Reflections on Parashat Shemot
By Daniel Olson, 2014 Rosh Atzmayim
This week we read Parashat Shemot, marking the beginning of the grand narrative from Egyptian enslavement to freedom in Israel–a land flowing with milk and honey. We are introduced to Moshe, the person responsible for leading the Israelites on that journey. Moshe, at first glance, may not have seemed appropriate for the job. After all, his speech impediment would have made speaking to Pharaoh more challenging. God, who is able to see past Moshe’s limitation, makes an accommodation for him, sending his brother Aharon as spokesperson.
Two weeks ago I had the privilege of staffing a Birthright trip for Jewish young adults with disabilities. This trip began as an outgrowth of Ramah’s Tikvah and Atzmayim programs and continues to have a large Ramah contingent staffing and participating. This year two Tikvah and Atzmayim alumni, Ari and Austin, came as participants. Just like in Parashat Shemot, we did not see any participant’s needs as a limitation. We made sure that they had the same opportunity to visit Israel that all Jewish young adults have.
Together we did everything other Birthright groups do. We climbed Masada, remembered Yitzchak Rabin in Tel Aviv, and prayed at the Kotel. We were joined by three Israeli soldiers, learning from them firsthand about life in Israel. We took Israel in with all our senses from tasting chocolate in the Golan Heights to smelling the various aromas of Machane Yehuda (Jerusalem’s outdoor market). A major highlight in this land of milk and honey was milking goats, and then turning that milk into a fresh cheese.
We also made some accommodations to the typical trip itinerary. We visited places other Birthright groups do not visit. At a Mifgash at Shekel, an organization that offers employment and support for people with disabilities, our group heard about housing and vocational opportunities for Israelis with Asperger’s Syndrome and swapped stories of experiences as Jews and people with disabilities in Israel and America. At the Israeli Children’s Museum the group encountered deaf culture in Israel, performing a series of tasks using non-verbal communication only, all under the guidance of a deaf museum worker. We had fewer hotel transfers and slightly less hiking, though our climb up Masada did take a lot of energy and group support!
Traveling to Israel and taking in its sites is only one part of why this trip is so special. Just as important is the chance to form relationships with Jewish peers, overcoming some of the isolation Jewish young adults with disabilities might feel at home. For Ari and Austin, the trip was a chance to re-connect with one another during the year. Seeing friends in the “off-season” is a cherished experience for all Ramah campers. For Tikvah campers and Atzmayim participants, who live all over North America, those moments come less often. Participating on this Birthright trip is one way to maintain their relationships with each other midyear. Another way is through weekly video chats for Tikvah campers and Atzmayim participants. We’re particularly excited for the Tikvah/Atzmayim Shabbaton in Chicago next weekend, which will give many more campers and participants the chance to see one another face to face.
Making accommodations is a major lesson of Parashat Shemot. Accommodations helped the Israelites, under Moshe’s leadership and Aharon’s support, achieve freedom and make it to Israel. What the Birthright trip and upcoming Shabbaton demonstrate is that today, with the right accommodations, every Jew can participate meaningfully in Jewish life whether by celebrating Shabbat as a community or visiting Israel.