Mar 1, 2015  By Jewish National Fund  Category: Special Needs,

Dad of special-needs child visits Israeli haven for the disabled: 'Every emotion was triggered'

Michael Perman and daughter Emily (right) spent a day at the LOTEM - Making Nature Accessible in Emek HaShalom with Alisa Bodner of the Jewish National Fund. 

Michael Perman of San Francisco shared the below story for Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Michael is the father of a son with special needs.

On my maiden voyage to Israel last year, I found my way to Jerusalem just as Shabbat dusk settled in and cast its lavender glow upon the golden stones. I'm a novice to this Israel thing but I couldn't help but be quietly elated and naturally high by the mere presence of being here. Not just for the spiritual and geographic significance of my presence, but for the excitement of meeting up with my 18-year-old daughter Emily, who was midway through her gap year between high school and college. My little girl had grown up and found harmony and independence as she voyaged into adulthood, and we were about to spend 10 days together in Israel and Italy.

After a brief hamotzi at the King David Citadel, I wandered to the Western Wall and stuck the traditional rolled-up note between the crevices of the stones. Even though I was disoriented and generally have no sense of direction, it was easy to navigate and feel the wonder of it all. I watched people daven and wandered the old streets, bought a teal and purple silk scarf in the shuk, and marveled at the accessibility of this spiritual vortex. Then I wandered back to my room and waited for dawn.

Emily arrived around noon the next day, and I was struck by the joyful reality that my daughter -- my little girl who just yesterday it seems was a toddler -- made plans to show me around Israel. I mean, my daughter made plans to show her dadaround Israel! What an epic moment for me to see that level of independence, confidence, and street smarts. She was in love with everything around her. And so was I.

After a couple of days in Jerusalem we prepared for our trip north, stopping for trail snacks and fruit at the shuk. At noon, we were met by Alisa Bodner of JNF who would be taking us to LOTEM - Making Nature Accessible nature site outside of Nahal HaShofet, near Yokneam. JNF helped fund the creation of a magical place in Emek HaShalom (the Valley of Peace) where people with special needs can interact with the natural world. We found out about the site through Aaron Parker, a staffer at Jewish National Fund in San Francisco.

What impressed me most about LOTEM were the opportunities for interactivity that stimulates a variety of senses and therefore activates different aspects of our brains. As the father of a son on the autism spectrum, I understand how important it is to make experiences safe, calm, methodical, and understandable for those with such conditions. 

LOTEM has taken these factors into consideration in designing its accessible education facility. Shortly after arriving, we picked flowers from its garden, crushed them with a mortar and pestle as if living a thousand years ago, added olive oil, and made them into perfume. 

Next we tried out the olive press, a giant stone wheel designed to be at wheelchair height so anyone can participate. We observed the accessible wine press that was designed for people to crush grapes with their bare feet, but also with the tires of wheelchairs, while the juices flowed into terra cotta cisterns. We then toured the mile-long accessible trail in Nahal HaShofet designed not only for people who are physically disadvantaged (the trail surface is smooth and contoured) but also for people who are blind (the trail changed surface texture when there was a special place to sit and listen to wildlife). Every sense was covered. Every emotion was triggered. Every person welcomed and accommodated.

Emily continued to escort me around more places in Israel, including Safed, down the coast and then to Tel Aviv. She made travel look easy. But this also caused me to reflect on how much more difficult a trip like this can be for someone who is physically or intellectually disadvantaged. My mind wandered to a darker place that parents feel where some special-needs kids don’t have an opportunity to do everything they wish, like playing sports, going to a dance, having a night out on the town, or just walking on a nature trail.

JNF and LOTEM are changing that paradigm. And they are invoking principles of great empathy. Unconditional love. Extraordinary patience. Enabling access to all life has to offer.  

Everything on LOTEM's nature preserve in Israel's north is meant to be accessible to those with emotional, intellectual,
and physical disabilities.