Nechama (Niki) Zakroff is visually impaired, but she did not let that prevent her from seeing the world. This summer, Nechama participated in a Birthright Israel trip which caters specifically to people with physical handicaps that make it difficult for them to travel.
Zakroff is a Denver native who graduated from George Washington High School. She joined more than 700,000+ young Jewish individuals who have participated in a wide variety of Birthright Israel programs over the past 20 years. Founded in 1999 Birthright Israel’s mission is to ensure that every eligible young Jewish adult around the world is given the opportunity to visit Israel on an educational journey.
Over the years, the organization has evolved and incorporated new programming to meet and exceed the needs of its participants with specialized offerings such as trips for professional development opportunities, those with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, culinary trips, thrill-seeking trips and much more.
BJN obtained this 4 Questions interview with Niki about her experience:
Q) How did you get connected with Birthright Israel for this particular trip?
A) I’d wanted to go to Israel for some time, but for the last couple of years, I just wasn’t ready to participate in a program. I had my doubts about attending a trip that was so structured — I guess I felt a lot of it would be out of my control. I’d heard about Birthright through some friends and family though and I really began to consider it after the rabbi at my shul told me I should look into the programs Birthright offers. I decided to look into it and started researching different programs that were available and along the way, Birthright staffers were really helpful. Birthright eventually suggested I consider attending with trip provider YALLA, which was an excellent recommendation.
Q) What experiences on the trip were most meaningful for you?
A) As this was my first time going to Israel, the entire trip was amazing. Being able to finally step foot in the Holy Land was such a spiritual experience. You can truly feel the history and significance of Israel once you are there. I’ll never forget visiting some of the Israel’s holiest sites — including the Western Wall — as well as going for a boat ride on the Kinneret and spending Shabbat in Jerusalem with my group as we all played music and enjoyed each other’s company. Another part of the trip that was meaningful to me was when the tour guides provided us with 3-D models of the land and terrain so that we could feel they exact layout of where we were. It was incredible.
Q) What would you say to others considering participating in Birthright Israel?
A) I would say don’t be afraid to try something new. While it might seem scary at first, I would recommend that everyone push themselves outside of their comfort zone. I would also say to cherish every moment and everything; the food, the friends, the experiences. I’d also say to trust that Birthright will be incredibly accommodating and adaptable. The trips are amazing at meeting different needs to ensure that it is a place where everyone can feel comfortable and enjoy their time in Israel.
Q) What other ways can the Jewish community be more inclusive/how has your local community helped you feel included?
A) My family and my local community have always ensured that I get the absolute best out of this world and to make sure that I have a normal life. When I told my friends and local community that I would be attending a Birthright trip, they were ecstatic for me. They were so supportive and so excited and I thank them all for that. I’d say to anyone that believes their community can be more inclusive that usually, you get out what you put in. I’d encourage people to get involved and to help drive change forward. If there’s something that you believe can be improved as it relates to accessibility, go make it happen!
Q) What was your favorite location on the trip?
A) That’s so hard to say because I loved so many different places. While it’s almost impossible to choose a favorite, I’d say that my two were the Dead Sea and Jerusalem. Floating in the Dead Sea was an absolutely unforgettable experience and experiencing first-hand the rich history of Jerusalem — one of the holiest places in the world — was something that I will cherish forever.
Q) What was your favorite food on the trip?
A) That’s another difficult question! There were so many interesting foods that I enjoyed but I think the ones that stuck out the most to me were the falafel, shawerma, some chocolate crepes that I had and the malawach, which is a type of flatbread that is so delicious. I also loved the fresh fruits and vegetables that we had every day. Finally, one of my favorite foods I had on the trip was my birthday cake! I celebrated my birthday while I was on the trip and the organizers got me a strawberry shortcake cake, which was so delicious and so thoughtful.
Q) Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A) I hope that people who have disabilities or medical issues very seriously consider going on a Birthright Israel trip. Everyone should have the opportunity to go to Israel. It helped me connect with myself and learn about myself as well as about other people and the world. My trip helped my open my mind to who I want to be and I know if can do the same for others. My experience helped me understand that I can do anything I want. I can travel, I can challenge myself — it truly opened my eyes to new experiences and people. No one should ever put a barrier on what they believe they can or cannot do. I’m glad that Birthright Israel helped me understand that.