Reflections on Chai Lifeline’s Wish at the Wall Trip

February 5

It´s hard to believe, but this is the 10th time I have led this trip. I think I have finally run out of adjectives to properly describe what this trip means for the 14 teenagers and the moms and dads who join them.

I may have run out of words, but I haven´t run out of tears that flow each and every year as I am given renewed strength by a group of the most incredible young people that I have ever met. No, they are not tears of sadness. They are tears of joy — the joy of learning to live everyday to the absolute fullest.

One can ask and I´m sure many would — What does it mean to live life to its fullest for a teenager that has cerebral palsy? What does it mean to live life to its fullest when a teenager lives a life where is she is fully dependent on their parents for daily functions? What it can possibly mean when you have to travel to Israel with oxygen and need a wheelchair to be transported down the aisle of a 747?

Wish at the Wall this year brought teenagers with MS, FD, CP, CF and a host of other illness initials that are by and large not known to most educated adults to Israel. But these kids know all too well what they mean and the daily ramifications.

Living life to the fullest means keeps your head high and not allowing the stares you receive from onlookers to bother you. In the words of one mother, “I´m tired of people´s sympathy and do not need the blessing of every person I meet at the supermarket.”

Chai Lifeline says, “Bless them back.” They need the blessing more than we do.

Living life to the fullest means not allowing”I can´t do it ” into your vocabulary. For some it means getting onto a camel knowing the risks involved. For others it means floating in the Dead Sea like any other teenager would love doing. And that is exactly how we spent the past few days.

The respect and admiration I have for this young group of men and women is beyond. They teach me what it means to live life to the fullest when they say, “I CAN and I WILL!”

On this trip I have the privilege of watching parents care for their children with love and respect that goes so far beyond how in 2017 one is used to seeing parents relate to their children. Our Chai Lifeline and Camp Simcha counselors deserve amazing praise. They are really beyond great. They are heroes in my mind!

But our Chai Lifeline parents are on call 52 weeks a year. I stand in total awe as they live life to its total fullest,raising kids with confidence and joy. Chai Lifeline is so honored to share this most precious partnership.

Over the past few days, we have sung together, cried together and just had fun together. Yes, we even ate a lot of food together. Most significant, we are living life to its fullest. We are doing it together not withstanding that we are a vey diverse group. Yes, we are all teenagers, but it is very evident we come from very different places on the Jewish spectrum. In the words of one mom this past Shabbos afternoon, “If I had the magic dust to take away my daughter’s illness, I wouldn´t do it if it would mean that I have to return all the beautiful relationships my daughter has built over the years.”

That is strength. That is living life to its fullest.

What is Chai Lifeline? What is Wish at the Wall? It is the renewed hope in the Jewish people and the gold standard of what chesed is all about.

What an honor it has been to take this journey with this amazing group of people. And it´s only day four of this amazing journey.

Thank you Hartman Family and Chai Lifeline’s many friends in the greater Chicago community for making this a reality.

February 7

Wish at the Wall is not only a tour of Israel for teens with disabilities. It is an educational trip that teens with physical limitations learn to face their challenges, and grow from them in ways never thought possible.

One important lesson learned over the past few days is how do you rebuild your life after a devastating illness and after great tragedy. Building your life back up after it was shattered was taught to our group by Nadav and Yitzchok.

We met Nadav and Yitzchok at Beit HaLochem, Israel Rehabilitation Center for Wounded Soldiers. Nine years ago in the war with Hamas in Gaza, Nadav´s unit was attacked and in an ensuing battle he almost lost his life. In the end, he survived, but not before one of his legs had to be amputated. Yitzchok was injured in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He lost one of his legs 40 years ago and is actually paraplegic today.

Nadav and Yitzchok are two of 51,000 injured soldiers that receive services from this wonderful organization.

We met Nadav and Yitzchok on a basketball court where we played wheelchair basketball. They taught us through actions and words how to rebuild.They are in a wheelchair basketball leagues in Israel, and Yitzchok is actually plays for Israelonits nationalteam.

Smiles and laughter accompanied our game. Some boys on the trip built up a sweat for the first time in their life playing basketball. They watched two disabled army veterans play ball. Nadav told us that he was far from a hero.He´s no different from any of his friends. We couldn´t agree more. He was not “disabled”. He was “Superabled.”

We also had the opportunity to meet active soldiers in the IDF. Yaakov, who served in the Givati unit, explained to our group the morality and uniqueness of the IDF. What separates the IDF from any other army in the world is our belief, trust and reliance in the Almighty.

We asked what inspires him and his fellow soldiers to put themselves in harm´s way and in great danger to protect every Jew inside and outside of the State of Israel. Simply put, he told us, it´s his heart. “They don´t pay me enough.That is for sure.”

We are connected. We are one people.Our group listened in absolute silence as the secular IDF soldier gave us a message that we all so needed to hear.

February 8

Another lesson learned on the Wish at the Wall journey is the story of heroes. Between superabled teenagers, superparents and superstaff, we are a group of almost 40 people. We may be the only 40 American and Canadians that were not focused on Super Bowl 51.

We met Shimon, a modern day hero living presentlyin Nitzan, not far from Ashkelon. Until 11 years ago, he was living in Gush Katif. He told us of the personal challenges he endured when he was evicted from his home. He worked hard and gave decades of to literally building the Land of Israel. Twenty-one communities and 8,600 people were living in Gush Katif when the Israeli army entered and forced people from their homes. Today, 11 years later, Shimon continues to fight serious depression. Not withstanding one’s personal political affiliations, one couldn´t help but to feel the pain, and see the tears of a 65 year old man who was told that he had to leave his home. He explained that he has found it therapeutic to cry as keeping it all inside was causing him much deeper pain.

“We cry and they cry.”Some of us cry when our team loses. Others of us cry when our home in Israel is stripped from us.

We also had an amazing opportunity to meet another heroine. Nina, who is blind, led us for 75 minutes in total darkness at the Israel Children’s Museum’s Dialog in the Dark exhibit. She would not allow us tocarry our cellphones into the pitch black room. In that hour plus, we learned that seeing with clarity happens not just with our eyes, but with our hands, our minds and maybe, most importantly, our hearts. Nina taught us — a group of disabled teens better known as the superabled mishpacha of Wish at the Wall 2017 – to truly appreciate the gift of our eyesight. Undoubtedly, we all will think twice the next time we say the tefilah thanking the Almighty for our ability to see.

We learned that true heroes are the ordinary folks who live heroic lives. While it might be the super athletes that have the fame, wealth and attention of the masses, it is the people of conviction, and values — people who face personal and national challenges and rise from them — that are true heroes and heroines of our time.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I have surrounded myself on this trip amongst an amazing group of heroes and heroines.

We are grateful to the Hartman family and the people of Chai Lifeline Midwest for taking this incredible trip from idea to reality every year.

February 11

Final Refections on Wish at the Wall 2017

Written to members of this special group

Dear Mishpacha,

It´s hard to believe the days have passed. It was only 11 days ago that we all met in JFK. Between teens, parents, our medical team and staff, we were 35 strangers. And now 11 days later as we gather in Ben Gurion airport, we are returning as mishpacha, family. I am certain that anyone who did not share in our journey will have a very difficult (if not impossible) time understanding that sentence, and will discount my words as rabbinic exaggeration. But you all know the truth. It was you who said last night as Shabbos ended, “I left the states with 6 siblings and I´m returning with so many more.” How does it happen?

We were strangers and we did the impossible. We rode camels. We climbed Masada. We floated on the waters of the Dead Sea. We met with wounded soldiers of the IDF, and even played basketball with them. We went to the Kotel, crying and singing, sometimes simultaneously. We went off the main road into the hills of the Galilee and rode jeeps to see the most astonishing and gorgeous views. We visited Tzfat, Meron and Tevarya. We received blessing from great rabbinic leaders, sometimes planned by us, and sometimes planned by the Almighty, as we found ourselves in the right place at the right time. Roles were reversed as we were guided by the blind in darkness. We learned we all need each other.

We come from very different backgrounds. We go to different schools. To the eye, we don´t look like we belong together and we certainly are not your typical tourist group. Some of us can´t walk on our own. Others are shorter than peers our age. We all have our medical and physical challenges. We all have spent a lot of time in the hospital with our parents at our side.

And 11 days ago, we were strangers. Chai lifeline and the Hartman Family Foundation Wish at the Wall brought strangers together, and turned us into mishpacha. It´s hard to say how it happened. Is it being in Israel or just being with each other? Hard to know. But one thing I can tell you – it happened. We are returning to JFK as different people than we were when we left.

With all that, I often wonder,“What the point of it all?” What do we have to show for it? Yes, we all took pictures and videos and the sweatshirts are really cool. We also have some great memories and we made some new friends and feel like family. Yes, we also learned we can do things we thought were impossible. It is true that we also didn´t allow illness to define us, and we smiled more than we have in a long time.

Now that we are all going back to our homes with all our problems and challenges, I ask you, what was the point of it all?

I believe the answer to that question has little to do with the pictures or memories. Picture we will lose and details of the trip will fade. To me the single greatest benefit of Wish at the Wall is that we became different people. We broke barriers! We will never be the same as we were before.

That is the power of this most epic trip.

But now, I most challenge each and everyone one of you. Become the teacher. Teach the world kindness, tolerance, love and simcha. We really are a simcha-making machine.

Take the message of Chai lifeline. Spread it wide and far.

What did I like best about the trip? As someone said, “I liked me.” And today, “I am a different me.”

Although we are returning to the life we left behind in the USA and Canada, please remember, there is no going back to who we were. We made the trip. We are different people. Hold the memories and smile as you sing “Wish at the Wall, Yerushalayim!”

Like all Chai Lifeline programs, Wish at the Wall is offered free of charge to participating. We are grateful to the Hartman Family Foundation and the many friends of Chai Lifeline Midwest for taking this program from dream to reality.

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