Focus on Families

Special Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel sparks Tucson-Phoenix romance

Rachel Goodman and Zakhary Khazanovich (Sheila Wilensky)

Before she left on Mayanot Israel’s 2010 Friendship Trip, a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip for young adults with special needs in late July, 20-year-old Tucsonan Rachel Goodman was satisfied with her professional life but not her personal life. “I was fretting about not having a future that I wanted,” she told the AJP, “until I met Zak.” She and Zakhary Khazanovich started sending each other instant messages on the Mayanot Facebook page a month before the trip.

Goodman, who has Asperger’s disorder, which she describes as “high-functioning autism,” didn’t know until three days before she flew to New York to meet up with the other participants that Khazanovich lived in Phoenix.

“My mother diagnosed me with cerebral palsy,” says Khazanovich, whose fine and gross motor skills are impaired. He uses a walker. But the medical community has had difficulty categorizing him, he says. “My neurological exams come back completely normal.”

Goodman notes that “Zak talks more slowly when he gets nervous or excited.” Before meeting him, she says, “I never asked him if he used a wheelchair or a walker. It didn’t matter.”

Two days prior to departing, “Zak asked if I had a crush on him. I wanted to be honest and told him that I did,” says Goodman. When she asked if he had a crush on her, “Zak replied, ‘I have to meet you first.’” They hit if off immediately. Having communicated online, they say they already knew a lot about each other. During the interview with the AJP, Khazanovich often deferred to Goodman and she affectionately touched his knee to offer additional comments.

Khazanovich is a student at Paradise Valley Community College and intends to pursue graduate study in counseling. “I want to help bring families together because I’ve had my challenges,” he says, adding, “I like to be on the cutting edge of absolutely everything I do and all that happens in my life.”

Goodman is majoring in early childhood studies at Pima Community College, but is only able to take two classes per semester, she says. Before leaving for Israel, Goodman passed a test to become a substitute teaching assistant.

Goodman’s previous travel included visiting Spain and Portugal with her grandparents. “I wanted to visit Israel because I’ve never been very religious but I wanted to know more about my culture and its traditions,” she says. Khazanovich was born in Toronto, but this was his first trip out of the United States. He comes from a more observant family; his parents are members of a Chabad Friendship Circle and the Chabad congregation in Phoenix. Both of his grandmothers were Holocaust survivors.

“I wanted to learn more about who I am as a person through a cultural perspective, through a Jewish lens,” says Khazanovich.

Mayanot Israel has been coordinating a friendship trip to Israel for the past three years, catering to high-functioning 18- to 26-year-olds from across the United States with a range of disabilities, including autism, Asperger’s and Down syndrome. This year’s program took place from July 26 to Aug. 6 with 19 participants, six staff members and eight volunteers.

Visiting Yad Vashem was one of the highlights of the trip for Goodman and Khazanovich. “I was there for myself but I was also watching him,” says Goodman. “There was so much beauty there even though it was a sad place. I cried.”

Being accepted with his disabilities and for being Jewish, “not having to deal with any anti-Semitism among a group of young people” was paramount for Khazanovich.

“There were only a handful of Jewish kids at Tucson High. I had to explain what kugel was,” says Goodman. “On the trip I could say, ‘I love lokshen kugel’and I didn’t have to explain.”

Another trip highlight for the couple occurred at the Kotel: “Both of us were touching history, the thousands and thousands of Jews who had come before us,” says Khazanovich. Goodman was one of three young women who became a Bat Mitzvah there, which “was very important to me,” she says. “When I was 13 my disabilities interfered too much. And being there with Zak made it more of a coming-of-age experience.”

But clearly the supreme highlight came on Aug. 3 after dinner in one of the Bedouin tents at Chan Hashayarot. “Zak proposed to me under the stars,” says Goodman. “We exchanged promise rings that we had picked out in Sfat.”

Back in Tucson, Khazanovich is living with Goodman and her parents. “I’ve always wanted to get married and have a family,” says Goodman, who adds that “social interaction with people my own age has been difficult.”

Their wedding will take place at the Reid Park Zoo — under a chuppah, with a ketubah — on April 17, 2011, the night before Passover, making it a good time for relatives to come from New York, Toronto and Edmunton, Alberta.

“We both have been struggling with how it would be to be more observant after our marriage,” says Goodman. “We can’t walk to services and it’s not easy for us to follow certain traditions. But Zak wants to get called to the Torah before the wedding.”

On their wedding day, says Goodman, “I’m pretty sure I don’t want an Orthodox ceremony. I want to dance with my husband.”