JARC staff at southern steps

By Jenny Kabert

“Life-changing” is an understatement when it comes to describing Brooke Dunn and Jonathan Arens’ experiences participating in Jewish Federation’s Motor City Mission trip to Israel. As Detroit Jewish Community members, they were just two of 140+ people looking for a memorable trip to Israel, and that’s exactly what they got. The Mission was a trip for any member of the community and Brooke and Jonathan’s experience was not at all modified due to their disabilities and no accommodations were needed. Experiences like this are what JARC strives to make possible: providing adults with developmental disabilities the opportunity enjoy life to its fullest, just like any other person.

Jonathan and Brooke on the beach in Tel Aviv

While on the trip, Brooke and Jonathan each tried countless new things and pushed their own personal limits in a way that no one, including themselves, expected. With just a little bit of assistance from JARC staff Jacob Gottlieb and Shira Woodside who accompanied them on the trip, there was nothing that Brooke and Jonathan couldn’t do.

 In their daily lives, Jonathan and Brooke are very active. They both enjoy being out of the house, walking, and visiting different places. This trip was the perfect opportunity for them to walk to their heart’s content, as every time participants were given the choice to take the bus or walk to the next location, they always walked. 

Each of the 140 participants on the trip had different reasons for going to Israel. Some were celebrating milestone anniversaries and birthdays, some — like Jonathan and Brooke — had never been to Israel before. Regardless of their purpose for the trip, everyone was looking forward to seeing Jerusalem and the Western Wall.

Brooke samples some very fresh produce

The group spent a lot of time touring Jerusalem and visiting markets. Brooke and Jonathan were among many in the group that enjoyed experiencing the art and seeing knick-knacks in shops. Jonathan was very thoughtful in finding gifts for his JARC staff back home and for his beloved, long-term housemate, Richard. It was in the Old City that he found a beautiful kippa for Richard and bought a matching one for himself.

Brooke and Jonathan learned that Israel is a diverse country that has a little bit of everything to offer. In one day, you can be stuck in traffic in the international city of Tel Aviv, drive through lush greenery and farmland to the north of Israel, look onto Lebanon and Syria, and be immersed in holy sites of three different religions. From rain in Jerusalem to hot sun at Masada and the Dead Sea just an hour away, Israel felt like 10 countries in one to Jonathan and Brooke. Between the weather changes, various sounds, and foods, a trip to Israel was an experience for all five senses for them. 

Snack Time

The Mission took participants all over the country and they stayed in three hotels throughout the week. With a whole country to visit in only seven days, their schedules were filled to the brim with touring, activities, and travel. And still, there were many opportunities for participants to explore at their own pace rather than as a large group. While most of the group’s transportation was on buses and by foot, they also enjoyed some of the more unique experiences, like exploring the Golan Heights on ATVs.

At the top of Masada

After coming down from Masada, the group visited the Dead Sea. It was a part of the trip that many first-time Israel visitors were most excited to experience. The Dead Sea has changed significantly over the years, and has shrunk to the point that there isn’t enough mud for tourists to enjoy. Instead of “mudding up” in the natural mud by the water, tourists who want that experience must buy it and bring it with them for their photo opportunities. Nevertheless, Brooke and Jonathan had a great time floating in the water.

Brooke and Jonathan float in the Dead Sea

The entire trip was monumental for Brooke and Jonathan. Their independence excelled as they navigated a foreign country with new food and culture experiences. While Jacob and Shira were always there to assist and make sure they were comfortable, the trip allowed them to impress everyone with how much they could do on their own.
Brooke, who is normally shy in large groups, was truly being herself by the end of the trip. The last night featured a drum circle and dancing, and she had no hesitation about joining in to drum along and dance. Jonathan is sometimes uncomfortable speaking. However, he was able to make his likes and dislikes known, and showed many huge smiles to communicate that he was having the time of his life.

Not only was the trip incredible for Brooke and Jonathan, but their presence was also transformational for many fellow travelers who got to know them.

Both Brooke and Jonathan were able to pray at the Western Wall.

“There are a lot of pre-conceived notions about people with developmental disabilities and having the opportunity for community
members getting to see Brooke and Jonathan being just regular people was eye-opening for so many of them,” said Shira. Brooke and Jonathan continued to show they were just a part of the group like everyone else, like when many people decided to take a break, and Jonathan and Brooke insisted on continuing. There wasn’t a single time that they were unable to do something that others were doing.
“Everyone on the Mission was so happy and impressed that they could come on the trip,” said Jacob.

“Having Brooke and Jonathan on our bus was so special and they made our bus that much better,” said David Glass, who was the captain of their bus. “Their disabilities didn’t make any difference.”

Ilene Silverman-Abrin and Marty Abrin joined the Mission to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. Like Brooke and Jonathan, it was their first time in Israel. Sitting nearby on the bus, the group got to know each other.

“Brooke and Jonathan were welcomed by everyone. We happened to have a cohesive bus, and everybody welcomed them into their life. Which was very special,” shared Ilene. “It really warmed my heart to see how much they were getting out of the trip and enjoying themselves.”

Marty concurred and added that Jonathan’s smile and Brooke’s laugh were so authentic and that will stay with him long after returning home.