The words “Asperger syndrome” do not define Matthew Nieporent of Westwood.
This autism spectrum disorder does not keep him from working, volunteering, and learning about his Jewish heritage. It most certainly does not limit his love for Israel. But it does limit his opportunities for group travel to the Jewish homeland.
Thanks to Mr. Nieporent’s suggestion, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey has partnered with New Jersey Yachad to organize the first Israel4All Northern New Jersey Special Needs Trip. It’s for people from 25 to 37 years old, and it’s set to take place next year, from February 19 to 26.
There are 10 slots available for high-functioning northern New Jersey residents with social disabilities; applicants will be screened by Yachad, an organization dedicated to enhancing the opportunities of people with disabilities to participate in the full spectrum of Jewish life.
An informational session for potential participants and their parents will take place this Thursday evening. (See box.)
“I was on the first Asperger Birthright trip to Israel in 2007 and I was on another trip in 2015 with Israel4All,” Mr. Nieporent said. “I always wanted to go back again because I am a proud Jew. But a lot of people with Asperger’s are locked out of these trips.”
Mr. Nieporent is facing a double obstacle because at 34, he no longer is in the age bracket for typical group tours like Birthright. “Last year I saw a trip advertised, but it was for people in their 20s,” he said.
While volunteering at a JFNNJ Super Sunday event earlier this year, Mr. Nieporent mentioned his frustration to JFNNJ staffers and they decided to do something about it.
“Next thing I knew, my staff came to me and said we need to do this,” Jason Shames, the federation’s executive vice president and CEO, said. “They said, ‘We’re sure there are many others who could benefit from a trip like this, and if we don’t do it no one is going to do it.’”
Kimberly Schwartzman, the federation’s manager of outreach and engagement, took the responsibility for making Mr. Nieporent’s dream come true. Her research revealed that tours to Israel for adults with special needs are infrequent; moreover, they are run nationally rather than regionally so it can be difficult for people who would like to travel on those tours to secure a seat.
Ms. Schwartzman learned about Israel4All, the Kfar Saba-based tour operator that had coordinated the small trip Mr. Nieporent joined two years ago, and she got in touch with the company. “They didn’t have a tour coming up for someone of Matthew’s age so I asked them about creating an itinerary for us,” she said. “They are handling the logistics and coordination.”
Chani Herrmann of Teaneck, the director of NJ Yachad, worked with Ms. Schwartzman to plan the trip. She will provide experienced staff members who will accompany the travelers.
“We’ve been doing inclusive special-needs trips to Israel for many years, including Birthright trips twice a year,” Ms. Herrmann said. “We wanted to give a slightly older group the opportunity to travel the land and form new friendships.” The goal is for participants to continue meeting after the trip, perhaps at Yachad social and vocational programs, she added.
“We run a lot of adult services at Yachad and are always looking for ways for people to meet each other and experience new things,” Ms. Herrmann continued. “We’ve never done a trip with federation before, and we’ll see if this is something parents are interested in, or if they know other families in their network who may be interested.”
The federation will offer $1,000 subsidies for each participant. “We were fortunate to be able to find some financial subsidies for this because the staffing needs changed the economic model for doing a trip of this nature, and we did not want to let finances be a barrier,” Mr. Shames said. “We decided that if we had enough participants we would just do it.”
“Our role is to match innovation with needs and create a stronger Jewish community locally and abroad. For me, the excitement is to be able to fund this trip and make sure it happens.”
The itinerary includes some of Mr. Nieporent’s favorite sites — the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem, Masada, and the Dead Sea — as well as sailing on the Mediterranean, staying on a kibbutz, milking cows in the Galilee, hiking, jeeping, bird watching, touring Tel Aviv and Jaffa, visiting the Nahariya Fire Station, and even a volunteering opportunity at a home for adults with special needs in the Western Galilee.
Participants also are to meet with clients of Effie, a nonprofit group that offers services to families of Israelis with Asperger Syndrome.
Amy Nieporent of Tenafly is excited about the opportunities the trip presents for her son, who lives independently in housing run by the National Institute for People with Disabilities and regularly scans the Jewish Standard to find opportunities for community volunteering.
“Matthew is our resident Zionist,” she said. “He’s always had an affinity for everything Jewish and he really wanted to go back to Israel again. I hope that through this federation trip he will expand his friendships with others and increase his independence while deepening his connection with Israel.”