Birthright Israel trip focuses on special needs, brings joy to Tucsonan

Birthright Israel staff member Jeremy Lichtman, left, with Tucsonan Peter Ruiz at the Western Wall

It wasn’t easy for 24-year-old Peter Ruiz to venture to Israel with other young adults, but it was more difficult for him to leave. Ruiz, who has cerebral palsy, toured Israel from June 13 to 23 on a Taglit- Birthright Israel trip. His parents, Berna­dette and Joaquin Ruiz, were in Israel at the same time as back-up in case any serious issues arose.

Ruiz didn’t want to go home, says Bernadette. “Peter has been very quiet about the trip. He refused to look at us or talk to us at the airport” in Tel Aviv when they left, says Bernadette, noting that she and Joaquin visited with their son for 10 to 15 minutes a day except during the last three days when they didn’t see him at all.

“I liked having my independence on this trip,” Ruiz told the AJP, with the help of Hannah Shenfeld, special needs services coordinator at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. Jessie Michaud, the volunteer assistant who accompanied Ruiz on the trip, was on the phone from Colorado during the interview. Michaud had previously been on a Birthright trip, and spent a semester studying in Israel. More important, she knew Ruiz, having first worked with him as part of his special needs support staff at the JCC.

“I prayed at the Western Wall. I was so happy,” says Ruiz.

“He knew all about the history of the Wall because we had talked about it every day” as preparation for the trip, adds Michaud.

Ruiz was part of the National Jewish Council for Disabilities Yachad Birthright Israel trip. With this Orthodox group, he wrapped tefillin daily. “Peter got to experience a very different stream of Judaism than he’s used to” as a member of Tucson’s Congregation Or Chadash, says Michaud. “It was very insightful for him to learn about Orthodox traditions.”

As are all Birthright trips, this one was free for Ruiz, although his parents paid for Michaud’s flight and expenses. Twenty-four participants aged 18 to 26, with varying special needs, took part. Two of the young men were from Phoenix and have already reached out to Ruiz, says Bernadette.

In addition to the 15 Birthright staff members in Israel, an American physician, a physician’s assistant, nurse and physical therapist were on hand. “The ratio of staff to participants was nearly one to one, which was very important,” notes Bernadette. Ruiz had traveled once before to Israel with his parents around 15 years ago.

At one point on this year’s trip, when Ruiz went swimming in the Sea of Galilee with the other young men, his parents were staying at a kibbutz that was close by. Since it was an Orthodox group, men and women were separate but staff members allowed Bernadette to observe. “It was very different for a mother to see her son guarded by someone with an Uzi submachine gun, she says.

Ruiz’s parents relaxed more as the trip went on, says Michaud. “It was a great gift to see Peter so happy, so comfortable, with nearly all strangers except for Jessie,” says Bernadette. “To have Jessie there was enough of a bridge for his stability, but Peter had never been away from home or us like this before.”

Ruiz was able to camp out in a Bedouin tent with camels nearby, rub mud on his skin at the Dead Sea, and spend Shabbat in Israel. “We kept the holy feeling of the day, and made an effort to keep it in the Orthodox manner. We didn’t use electricity,” says Michaud. “I think Peter really enjoyed it. It was a very spiritual day, a very calming day.”

“Learning more about Israel and Judaism is what touches his soul,” affirms Bernadette. “Now that he’s back [in Tucson] how do we make his religion come alive for him?”

Toward that end, Ruiz’s parents are arranging for him to visit with a young child who has a chronic condition but isn’t hospitalized. Rabbi Thomas Louchheim will teach Ruiz a short prayer to recite with the child, and Ruiz will also learn about the child’s interests, says Bernadette.

“Peter is very empathetic and kind,” says Shenfeld. Adds Bernadette, “We thought this would be a good way for Peter to give back to the community that’s been so wonderful to him. Peter is very familiar with illness and is fighting hard to live well. This was a huge step for Peter, both emotionally and intellectually.”