Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 16.21.21Louisa Shulman meets the teens who thought Israel tour was a trip too far

For most Jewish 16-year-olds, summer signifies that long-awaited rite of passage – Israel Tour. But for teenagers with mild to moderate learning difficulties, such a concept is, well, mild to moderately difficult.

Maccabi GB doesn’t see it that way – their bi-annual Challenge Tour takes a group of 16-20-year-olds on a 10-day trip to Israel where they not only take part in all the same kind of activities that the Israel Tours offer, but, like the kids on the standard tour, have the chance to learn about the history and culture of the country and their own Jewish identity.

Some of the participants with learning difficulties have never travelled away from home, and certainly not on a plane or without their families.Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 16.20.39

The Challenge Tour offers them the chance to engage with others of their own age and take part in, as the Tour name implies, challenges which may well be out of their normal comfort zone. “Maccabi GB Challenge is a magical place where everyone feels safe to be who they really are, surrounded by support, encouragement, positive achievable challenges and laughter rather than discrimination, ‘no’s’ and barriers,” says Jessica Overlander-Kaye, who oversees the tour.

Some of the young people with these disabilities live with little or no access to Jewish activities.

Indeed one participant had never experienced a Shabbat dinner or mixed with other Jewish kids.

One of the best aspects of the tour is the chance to make a connection with Judaism. “On Shabbat morning last year everyone was dancing and singing together, even those who don’t engage in anything Jewish at all back home,” says Jessica. “This was just one of many magical moments.”

There are many special highlights on a tour like this.

Tour members have the chance to spend time with their peers – such as members of the Israeli army who also have special needs – and bowling with the Israeli Special Olympic Ten Pin Bowling team.

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 16.21.03Participants who would never normally get the opportunity are encouraged to do challenging activities such as abseiling, and they do it – even those who are terrified. “It was wonderful to see them not only taking part but also supporting and encouraging each other,” says Jessica.

Robert, aged 17 from Golders Green, had never been to Israel before and left the trip fascinated by the Kishorit community for those with learning difficulties. He also hosted the Maccabi GB Challenge Show on the final night, during which every single person joined in and performed.

Meanwhile Adam, 18 from West Hampstead spent the whole tour laughing with new friends and even had the courage to be one of the first to go abseiling down a mountain unassisted.

As the days went on and more and more barriers were overcome, confidence levels grew, friendship groups formed and boys and girls even coupled up.

These are kids who started the trip incredibly withdrawn, but developed so much over the course of the Tour. “Maccabi GB gave my daughter, Gemma the experience of a lifetime,” says Jody. “The trip was brilliantly organised, balanced and well thought-out. Gemma embraced every challenge and had the best time. She returned in wonderful spirits, proud of her achievements, more confident, sensible and expressive. The photos Maccabi GB sent daily were a highlight of every day Gemma was away.”Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 16.21.53

The Challenge Tour is a wonderful experience for the madrichim, too. “We created an environment where participants felt confident, ready and able to take on the world,” says Ben, one of the tour leaders. “Friendships were formed on a tour that bore little, if any difference to that which any 16-year-old without learning difficulties would have gone on.”

Jessica reflects on a special moment when it was time to leave Israel. “As we gathered at Ben Gurion airport waiting for our flight home we stood in a tight circle singing one of our tour songs in Hebrew quietly and beautifully, feeling the bond of what we had created – a safe, non-judgmental, normal space allowing the participants to be them for who they are and not for what they can’t do.”

• For details of the 2016 Maccabi Challenge Tour visit www.maccabigb.org