Dec 10, 2015  By Jewish National Fund  Category: Special Needs,

'I just did it!': Making the sensory wonders of Hanukkah accessible to all

Using the wheelchair accessible olive press at the Emek Hashalom Farm. 

On a bright Israeli winter's day that just happens to be the second day of Hanukkah, children are busy making fresh olive oil. But the press they're using, modeled after the ancient presses found throughout Israel, is subtly different. 

The long beam used to turn the crushing stone is exactly the right height for a person in a wheelchair. The floor is marked by rough patches of rubber to indicate to the visually impaired when they are getting close to the press. Baskets of olives at various stages of pressing are on hand to demonstrate by touch, taste, and smell how the process works.  

As the group finishes pressing their olives and claiming small bottles to take back to their school, one boy cannot contain his excitement. Smiling widely, he tells Naama, a young soldier-educator, "I have always seen olive presses and dreamed of being strong enough to turn one myself. I just did it!"

LOTEM-Making Nature Accessible is hosting a group of children with various degrees of cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects muscle tone, movement, and motor skills. 

It is well known that Hanukkah in Israel is a feast for the senses. In every Jewish neighborhood in the country, one finds lights flickering in windows, brightly decorated sufganiyot (doughnuts), the scent of latkes frying, and the sounds of festive children’s songs. Children are on school break, and families spend time hiking and touring the country.

Inspecting the olives!
For people with disabilities, however, Hanukkah celebrations are often less than festive, with limited mobility, sensory issues, and other challenges curbing their holiday experience. One tradition in particular is rarely experienced by people with disabilities -- the seasonal pressing of olives into oil, an agricultural activity that typically falls during the Hanukkah season. 

On farms and in oil factories throughout the country, recently harvested olives are pressed for their golden oil. Many of these sites invite the general public to take part in the process with hands-on demonstrations of both modern and ancient olive presses. 

The olive harvest, made 
Yet very few are wheelchair accessible, and virtually none have educational programming geared toward people with mental or sensory disorders. LOTEM, a JNF-supported organization, has found a way to bring this Hanukkah tradition to children and adults with special needs. At LOTEM’s ecological farm in Emek Hashalom (Valley of Peace), a unique Hanukkah program is reaching individuals with visual and hearing impairments, physical, intellectual and emotional challenges, and children on the autistic spectrum.  

Prior to working the press, the children spend half an hour in the farm’s modest olive orchard learning about different harvest techniques and collecting olives. Their wheelchairs and walkers move easily along LOTEM’s accessible trails as they make their way to the olive press.

After the olive press, the group heads to the "bakery," where they prepare traditional pita in a mud and stone oven. Like the press, the area is designed to accommodate people with special needs, including wheelchair-height surfaces, an easy-to-open oven, and measuring cups marked in braille. While they wait for the bread to bake, LOTEM’s staff patiently helps them create traditional oil lamps out of clay. Participants also learn about the ways olive oil was used in daily life -- in lamps, medicines, perfumes, and more.

Naama explains the metaphor of light to the group: "You are each a unique vessel, like the ones you have just made. Every vessel is different -- some are smooth, some rough, some big, and some small. But each one is filled with pure, good things, like the oil. When you light it, it creates warmth and light that you can share with everyone." 

As the children eat the bread they made, now drenched in fresh olive oil, it is clear that LOTEM's special light has cast away a few shadows this Hanukkah by making a special agricultural experience accessible to all. 

During the rest of the year, LOTEM provides a variety of seasonal experiences geared toward people with special needs, including wheat harvests and bread-baking for Shavuot; stomping on grapes in Israel's only accessible winepress; and spice-gathering for Havdalah bundles. For additional information about LOTEM’s programming, please contact Alisa Bodner at