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Leaving no one behind this Tu B’Shvat

LOTEM and JNF-USA’S Emek Hashalom “Valley of Peace” Sensory Path is making nature accessible for the disabled as they experience the majesty and beauty of Israel’s forests.

Participants use a disability-accessible olive press at the Emek Hashalom Farm (Credit: Chet Stein Photography)
Participants use a disability-accessible olive press at the Emek Hashalom Farm (Credit: Chet Stein Photography)

For most of the population who enjoy full vision and hearing, the needs of those who may be vision impaired or hard of hearing isn’t always top of mind. While advancements have been made to make daily life more accessible for people with disabilities, one area that hasn’t received significant attention is nature and the great outdoors. Until now.

Supported by Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA), LOTEM: Making Israel Accessible (LOTEM) is the largest Israeli association working to make nature accessible to all. With three logistic centers in Emek Hashalom (“Valley of Peace”), Jerusalem, and Be’er Sheva, LOTEM works to include children and adults with vision impairments and hearing loss, as well as intellectual, physical, learning, behavioral, and emotional disabilities in recreational and educational nature activities.

“Too often, children with special needs lack access to parks and other recreational activities, limiting their desires, imaginations, and possibilities,” says LOTEM director and liaison to JNF-USA, Gaylee Schif. “Once you increase the space in which people with disabilities can become better integrated into society, you expand both their confidence and their capabilities.”

The Sensory Path enables people with disabilities to experience nature by utilizing different natural materials (Credit: JNF-USA)

“LOTEM is an amazing example of a very strategic and unique NGO in Israel,” says Yoel Rosby, project manager for JNF-USA in Israel. “With the support of JNF-USA, they are always developing more initiatives that will serve their mission statement, and they never ‘leave behind’ anybody they made a pledge to help.”

As the country’s only accessible educational center, LOTEM’s “Valley of Peace” nature park attracts 40,000 visitors each year. “This beautiful place is entirely accessible and holds workshops that are inclusive for everyone. Everything in the valley is natural: we create electricity using solar panels, harvest our own water, and use natural pesticides,” explains Schif. “All of our activities are hands-on sensory workshops related to nature education, from harvesting wheat to create personal pitas to picking grapes and making their own wine.”

The “Valley of Peace” also features “The Path of Creation,” supported by Susan and Ben Gutmann (NJ), which is Israel’s only hiking trail built and designed for wheelchairs, with each stop along the trail representing a day of creation and an element in nature: light and dark, animals, water, the cycle of day and night, etc. That’s where JNF-USA and LOTEM teamed up to create the sensory path, one of the most recent initiatives built in the “Valley of Peace.”

The Sensory Path is an immersive experience that empowers people with disabilities to use various senses to experience nature (Credit: JNF-USA)

In addition, and Ecological Pool located in the center of the farm, which was generously donated by Gloria Feldman (MO), and Rita & Chet Stein (MD), serves as an educational project that promotes values of sustainability and caring for the environment. The breathtaking complex contains an ecological pool, into which flows water stored in winter and is even home to seven different habitats for migratory birds. The pool also contains an outdoor classroom and unique vegetation, which forms part of a collaboration with a company that preserves seeds of ancient biblical plants that have become extinct in the area.

“As someone who managed the project and worked with the non-governmental organization (NGO) to create what we believe is a truly remarkable initiative I can say that this is yet another beautiful piece added to the conversation-changing tapestry that the “Valley of Peace” symbolizes and that LOTEM, together with JNF-USA and all its partners (donors), is creating,” says Rosby.

Supported by JNF-USA, LOTEM helps people with disabilities experience nature throughout Israel. Here, a group explores Jerusalem’s surrounding parks (Credit: JNF-USA)

“The sensory path was built in the last two years thanks to a generous gift made by Atlanta donor Sheryl Blechner,” says Schif. “The path is stunningly beautiful and is made up of different textures found in nature, so that you can walk barefoot on pebbles or sea soil, wood chips, water, and more.”

Blechner first supported LOTEM through JNF-USA by funding the Atlanta Garden in LOTEM’s Emek HaShalom “Valley of Peace” park, designed to provide children with disabilities a hands-on opportunity to appreciate and connect with nature. Her next project has become the organization’s Emek HaShalom Accessible Education Center’s flagship project. “The thing I love about it is that it’s such a great equalizer,” said Blechner. “It allows everybody to be stimulated by sight, sound, and touch, and everyone, regardless of ability, can experience nature.”

LOTEM helps people with disabilities partake in the age-old practice of wine making (Credit: JNF-USA)

Schif also notes that the sensory path is completely wheelchair accessible. “There is one path for people who are able to walk barefoot on it and a parallel path for those who are in wheelchairs and can feel the textures in their hands as they pass by,” she says.

To further increase engagement, LOTEM runs school trips for people with special needs in Israel, with 51,000 individuals participating each year. “We have a large team of tour guides who have been trained to work with people with all types of special needs, and we cover all kinds of functional levels,” explains Schif. “Not only do we take them on trips, we also fund them, including the guides and transportation, something schools unfortunately aren’t able to do.”

As Tu Bishvat, JNF-USA’s unofficial “High Holiday,” approaches, Rosby also notes the importance of the park’s impact on Israel’s environment. “Not only does JNF-USA believe in helping this community, we also believe in sustainability, preserving nature, and eco-friendliness. Being able to put these values together is why it’s such a natural affiliation between LOTEM and JNF-USA.”

A LOTEM participant experiences the wonders of nature through touch. (Credit: JNF-USA)

With JNF-USA’s support, LOTEM also hosts an accessible training program for over 6,000 people each year. “We’ve had training sessions on the sensory path for the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, all Egged drivers (the largest transit bus company in Israel), the JNF foresters, as well as the army (Air Force),” says Schif.

The sensory path as well as the entire “Valley of Peace” helps bring LOTEM’s mission to fruition: to reach inclusion, which is much more than accessibility. “With accessibility, we’re referring to stairs, ramps and physical accessibility. Inclusion, on the other hand, is the concept that everyone should be part of the population, that no one is left behind.”

“It’s such an impressive and incredibly well-run organization,” says Blechner. “They are normalizing a lot of people’s lives to the best of their abilities, and I think that’s something we can all get behind.”

To support people with disabilities in Israel, visit jnf.org/disabilities or contact Yossi Kahana at ykahana@jnf.org. To plant a tree in honor of Tu BiShvat, visit jnf.org/trees

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