International Day of Persons with Disabilities is Both a Celebration and Business as Usual for One Israeli Organization

By Bea Carter



Recently, as part of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Jewish National Fund-USA supported workshops and events across Israel for individuals with disabilities and their supporters.


Facilitated by the organization’s affiliate, LOTEM-Making Israel Accessible, a leading organization supporting individuals with disabilities in Israel, it was celebrated that awareness relating to disability access was becoming the norm, rather than the exception.  


“The activities included experiences for individuals with various disabilities, as well as discussions about how society can improve life in Israel for people with disabilities,” said Gaylee Schif, LOTEM’s Resource Development Manager.



At JNF’s Aminadav Forest and the Jordan River Park, visitors of all ages and abilities did craft projects, learned about plants, and experienced the beauty of nature and the joy of being outdoors. 


Approximately 1,200 people visited these two forests during this learning, play, and awareness-building day. 


In the spirit of driving greater awareness about people with disabilities, the organization’s In-Service Training Center held a seminar for employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem and a workshop for students at Tel-Hai College in Kiryat Shmona. This arm of the nonprofit trains professionals on how to integrate employees with disabilities into their workplaces. Every year, they host workshops that teach more than 6,000 professionals how to make workplaces more inclusive for people with disabilities. 


“The participants described the experience as exciting, special, and educational. They also vowed to change how they operate,” Schif noted. 


In many ways, the events of International Day of Persons with Disabilities were not out of the ordinary for LOTEM. Throughout December, for instance, the organization held training sessions in museums throughout the country, instructing staffers on how to make experiences adaptable for diverse audiences. And all year-long their accessible sites welcome more than 60,000 visitors to enjoy experiencing nature together.


Indeed, LOTEM’s mission has expanded since it was founded in the early 1990s. The organization began operating an accessible farm where individuals with disabilities could experience a teaching garden, a bakery, and even an accessible olive press and water wheel. 


The organization continues to welcome visitors to this farm, however LOTEM’s mission has grown far broader over the past three decades, thanks to Jewish National Fund-USA. 


Roni Wolk, from Atlanta, the national chair of Jewish National Fund-USA’s LOTEM committee, discussed the organization’s holistic, expansive mission of “making Israel accessible.”


She explained that through Jewish National Fund-USA’s philanthropic support, national parks, heritage sites, and cultural institutions have become more friendly and inclusive for people with a wide range of disabilities. Wolk shared several examples of ongoing projects, such as widening and paving pathways that were not comfortable for individuals who use canes or wheelchairs. LOTEM also hang interior signage at various exhibits that feature simplified language; and provide headphones with verbal explanations to enable a guided auditory experience.


The organization also expanded its projects during the COVID-19 pandemic. When students with disabilities could not physically attend school during the lockdown, Jewish National Fund-USA helped to provide laptops and tablets with software specially designed for each student’s unique needs. 


This project, now called “Computer for Every Child,” was so successful - and necessary – that the initiative plans to continue. 


“LOTEM started handing devices out for children whose parents couldn’t afford them during the pandemic, but some kids have so many physical and emotional challenges that they still need to learn virtually. This is the way of the future,” said Wolk. 


LOTEM also connected with patients at the youth psychiatric ward at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital during the lockdown. The hospital asked if LOTEM staffers could safely and securely take these young people on field trips, which the organization does for over 40,000 students yearly. They agreed and started hosting short trips for these young people that broke up the isolation of lockdown. 


These trips turned out to be so popular and well-received that LOTEM has decided to continue offering them for the foreseeable future - and a partner has fully funded these outings for all of 2023. 


Over 1,000 individuals with and without disabilities came to appreciate LOTEM’s mission during International Day of Persons with Disabilities. But for the organization itself, the day was business as usual. And thanks to Jewish National Fund-USA, people with disabilities in Israel will continue to be supported as the organization drives greater inclusion for all.

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