Traveling to a country with strong ancestral ties can evoke a wide variety of emotions. But when going with people who share those sentiments, the trip can turn into a life-changing, unifying adventure. This unity characterizes 21-year-old Jesse Frankel’s experience in Israel.
Amid the hustle and bustle at a local Starbucks, Jesse and his parents, Diane and Danny Frankel, discussed his 2010 trip to Israel .
Because Jesse is mentally disabled, his parents are devoted to helping him pursue his various interests.
Some of Jesse’s interests include “Jewish camping and sports,” Diane said.
“He’s been to overnight camp since he was 12,” Danny added.
Jesse said he’s interested in basketball, football, wrestling and bowling. Also, he enjoys listening to classic rock.
“We helped schedule (activities) he was interested in,” Danny said. “We pretty much organize his life for him.”
After learning about a special-needs trip to Israel sponsored by the Birthright Israel organization, Diane signed Jesse up for the program.
Birthright Israel is an organization in which young Jews can sign up for an all-expenses-covered trip to Israel for 10 days to bask in the contemporary culture and establish a sense of strength in Jewish heritage.
Jesse’s parents wanted to send him with the Birthright group to provide him with more opportunities as well as allow him to understand and explore his culture. They said thousands of Jewish kids go every year .
According to its website, the company has had 300,000 participants from around the world and its focuses include the narratives of the Jewish people, contemporary Israel and foundational values of Judaism.
At age 18, Frankel participated in Birthright Israel’s Mayanot program for people with special needs.
A ccustomed to traveling for long periods for camp, Jesse was comfortable traveling to Israel without his parents.
“They had soldiers accompany the group, and they had a slightly higher ratio of chaperones to young adults than the normal group,” Danny said. “But as far as his abilities, physically he has no disabilities — he can do anything that people his age can do.”
Jesse said the activities began as soon as the plane landed in Caesarea, on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. Jesse traveled with 20 kids and chaperones .
“When I first got there, I went to Caesarea, and we were just walking around,” Jesse said. “We saw camels.”
Jesse added that his schedule was packed with lots of exciting activities including tea with Bedouins.
“We went bowling and to the zoo,” he said. “We had a bar mitzvah at the Wailing Wall (at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). One day, we had Shabbat at the hotel and got dressed up.”
Danny said, “It was just a marvelous experience all around.”
Also, Jesse had the opportunity to meet relatives in Israel. Danny said the Birthright program contacts family members in Israel and allows the participants to meet with them. In Jesse’s case, they all met at a hotel.
Jesse said his favorite part of the trip was seeing his relatives who “I haven’t seen in a long time.”
“We have a lot of family and one of the people from the group said to me that she has never had so many people come to visit,” Danny said.
Jesse also befriended other kids from across the U.S. who share similar disabilities.
“Jesse is still in contact with some of the kids he traveled with,” Diane said. “I know it’s going to be a lifelong bond even though they don’t see each other often. They email, and Facebook, and send pictures — those are the kinds of things that last.”
After spending time in Caesarea, which is between the port cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv, Jesse and his group traveled inland to visit Jerusalem. In addition to visiting the Wailing Wall and other sites, Jesse met Israeli soldiers who had accompanied the group.
During the trip, Jesse experienced a way of life that was filled with intense safety procedures and military activity.
“There are soldiers everywhere,” Diane said. “Imagine walking into a movie theater here and having to have your bag searched and go through metal detectors. To (Israelis), it’s a way of life. … But they don’t let any violence stop them from living life.”
The Frankels say their son has benefited from his Israel experience.
“It was another avenue for him to become aware of his identity, and he was fully accepted there,” Diane said. “He continues to talk about it and feels very comfortable with his Judaism. He sings Hebrew songs in his room and loves celebrating holidays. He has a much better understanding about what’s going on in Israel.”
Danny said the trip has had a lasting effect on Jesse’s life.
“These experiences enabled him to grow, and I think it’s important,” he said. “People with disabilities don’t get the opportunity to do what everybody else does.”
Diane praised the local Jewish community for supporting her son.
“The Jewish community here, including the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas, have been very helpful with opportunities that benefit Jesse and other special needs kids here in the valley,” she said.
Jesse may not be finished with his overseas adventures.
“I really want to go to Italy,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to visit Ecuador, too.”