Bus No. 195, the 'mishpocha,' in the citrus grove (photo credit: Courtesy)

Bus No. 195, the ‘mishpocha,’ in the citrus grove (photo credit: Courtesy)

More than 20,000 Birthright participants will have spent 10 days in Israel by the end of the 2012-2013 winter season, including 20 participants with Asperger’s Syndrome, now known as the “Mishpocha,” or Bus No. 195.

It’s not the first time that Birthright has included an Asperger’s bus — this one is a project of Shorashim/KOACH, the college organization run by the Conservative Movement — but for many of the participants, who range in age from late teens to mid-20s, it’s been a while since they’ve spent so much time with their own “population.”

“It’s an interesting dynamic — very enlightening to connect with one’s roots,” said Jason Shatz, who is studying at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and had a tough time deciding whether to go on Birthright with the Asperger’s group or with the Wesleyan bus. “In some ways it’s quite nice to be with such a population, even though I’ve developed socially in a significant way ever since I went to college.”

Birthrighter Jason Shatz (right) praying at the Western Wall (photo credit: Courtesy Birthright Bus No. 195)

Birthrighter Jason Shatz (right) praying at the Western Wall (photo credit: Courtesy Birthright Bus No. 195)

For the bus’s “other” Jason, Jason Cohen, a 21-year-old sports management major at Ithaca College, the trip felt like an opportunity to return to his “Asperger’s roots,” something he hasn’t done since his high school days.

Funny, smart and personable, and sometimes amusingly out of context, the Birthrighters and one of the three soldiers traveling with them sat in the lobby of their hotel on the last day of the trip last week, speaking about the “quirks” of fellow Asperger’s sufferers, favorite highlights of the trip and what it will be like to say goodbye at the end of their journey.

“It was great to be around other people I can identify with,” said Lauren Katz, a 19-year-old from Eureka, California, who is studying art at College of the Redwoods. “I’ve always been the kind of person who’s never really fit in; I never interacted with people I could really communicate with on the same level.”

Lauren Katz hails from Eureka, CA, where she has never had a large group of friends (Courtesy Birthright Bus #195)

Lauren Katz hails from Eureka, CA, where she has never had a large group of friends (Courtesy Birthright Bus #195)

Gathering together a sizable group of young people with Asperger Syndrome was one of the ideas of the trip, said group leader Howard Blas, who has run similar Birthright trips in the past. Despite the high-functioning level of many of the Asperger’s participants, they often feel socially bereft back in their home settings; this was one place where they could experience a particular social bond.

“It’s not common for me to meet other people with Asperger’s or higher-functioning special needs people in Albany,” said Beth Katzer, 25, who works as a teacher’s assistant and part-time administrative assistant. “This trip was so important for me, to make friends I could see myself being friends with for the rest of my life. Even though we all have challenges, we could all come together.”

The Birthright trip was much like any other, including camel rides and orange-picking, trying out Israeli snack foods, floating in the Dead Sea and jeep rides in the Golan Heights. But they also met with Israelis with Asperger’s at Shekel, an umbrella organization for Israelis with special needs. The two groups bonded over favorite television shows and the Birthrighters’ first tastes of peanut-flavored Bamba and chocolate-covered marshmallow Krembos, and there was comfort in the ingathering of fellow Asperger’s sufferers, agreed the Birthrighters.

“There are kindred spirits in this population, and we share the same zeal for sharing the things in which we have expertise and same enthusiasm,” said Shatz. “Regular life has been good to me and my experience with Asperger’s is somewhat of a moot point although I do visit it now and then…. I struggle socially more than other people, but I think I’m getting there.”

Tomer Daloomi (far right), was amazed by the forthright outlook and conversation on the bus (Courtesy Birthright Bus No. 195)

Tomer Daloomi (far right), was amazed by the forthright outlook and conversation on the bus (Courtesy Birthright Bus No. 195)

It was that kind of disarming honesty that charmed and humbled Tomer Daloomi, one of the three soldiers who joined Bus No. 195. Told just four days before the trip that he would be placed on a Birthright bus, he didn’t know what to expect, but has unexpectedly found himself seeing Israel through a very different prism.

“I’m usually cynical, like most Israelis, but these guys are just not sarcastic,” he said. “They were saying how they felt with no masks on at all. They’re just always themselves.”