Lon Sober is developmentally disabled and doesn't hold a job. Aside from making trips to his parents' place a few minutes away, he rarely goes out alone.
But last month, Sober was working in a plastics factory on an Israeli kibbutz, contributing to communal life in a village designed for people with disabilities. He was dancing the night away in a Jerusalem club. His parents, without whom he had never traveled before, were thousands of miles away in Maryland.
And Sober, on the whole, loved it.
"The supervisor said I was one of the best producers there," he says proudly of his work in the factory. "I was just about perfect."
Sober was one of a group of nine Jewish adults from Baltimore -- each with some physical or developmental disability -- who took a two-week trip to Israel last month, a trip combining a pilgrimage to a religious homeland with personal journeys of independence.
Jewish Family Services, which works with disabled clients, organized the trip as part of Partnership 2000, an effort to pair regions of Israel with Jewish federations around the world. The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, parent agency of Jewish Family Services, is paired with the region of Misgav in Central Galilee, where the special kibbutz, Kishor Village, is located.
Clients were invited to apply for the trip, which cost each participant $2,900. They then began four months of preparation -- learning everything from the history of Israel to how to shop and travel.
Steve Solomon, executive director of Jewish Family Services, says people with disabilities have few opportunities to visit Israel on organized tours. Programs such as the one at Kishor Village, he said, "are virtually nonexistent."
Kibbutzim -- Hebrew for "communal settlements" -- have always encouraged people with disabilities to work, says Jerry Kutnick, associate professor of history and Jewish thought at Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pa. They date to the early 1900s, nearly 50 years before Israel was established as a state, with a goal of functioning as insular democracies in which residents toiled on the land, contributing and producing for the good of the whole.
Kishor Village, founded by a nonprofit organization, opened in 1997 as a place where disabled residents could take an active role. That's evidence of a larger trend in Israel, Kutnick says, in making communal homes easier for the disabled to navigate.
In the village, everyone had a job -- from milking goats to sorting plastic. Rather than earning wages, their labor went toward the food they ate each day and the quarters where they stayed with Israelis who were disabled, too.
"We worked for teamwork," says Jeffrey Chupnick, 46, who has Down syndrome and normally works bagging groceries at Seven Mile Market in Pikesville. "I love it," Chupnick says of his experience in Israel, "because it is part of my blood, part of me.
"I want to move there," he says.
Working on the kibbutz wasn't the only thing Chupnick did in Israel. He planted a tree to honor his father. He prayed at the Western Wall. He waded in the Dead Sea. He found a girlfriend.
For the families of the group, the trip meant taking a chance. Hilda Sober, Lon's mother, was worried at first. "I could just see Lon disappearing," she says.
And he did one day -- for about 15 minutes, staffers on the trip said. But on the whole, they say, Sober grew on his journey, becoming more social and less isolated.
"I have never seen Lon smile and laugh so much," says Staci Blas, a Jewish Family Services social worker who accompanied the group.
'Whole new world'
Says Gary Fisher, whose 25-year-old daughter, Melanie, went on the trip: "It gives her a whole lot more to talk to people about. It's something most people haven't done, and she's done it."
To Paul Liss, a Jewish Family Services client who is legally blind, Israel meant the smells of chicken and olives, the sensation of heat, and the rich sounds of Hebrew.
But the trip was so evocative that Liss describes it in visual terms, too.
"When I walk in Israel, it's like a whole new world," he says. "That place lights up like a firecracker."