GA / Etgarim Group Promotes Sports for Disabled Israelis

When the Yom Kippur War broke out in October 1973, Yoel Sharon returned from his film studies in England to join his paratroopers unit. On the last day of the war, an Egyptian ambush exacted a high price on Sharon: the lives of all but two of his comrades, and the use of his legs.

While Sharon was eager to return to as full a life as possible, he discovered that other disabled people he met appeared to have given up "on their life, friends and dreams."

So in 1995, Sharon, now a film director and a father of three, founded an organization meant to integrate people with disabilities into the wider society via sports, including hand-bicycling, kayaking and rappelling. The organization, called Etgarim, or "Challenges," serves 5,000 people a year and was one stop on a GA trip yesterday called "Solutions for challenged populations."

Representatives and participants of the Tel Aviv-based group gathered at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem to describe, and demonstrate, some of the sports they have adapted to the needs of people with disabilities.

Inna Zusman, 22, was paralyzed in her lower body by the bomb that exploded at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem a year and a half ago. After spending eight months in the hospital for rehabilitation, she joined Etgarim in June and has been increasing her arm strength with hand-bicycling. Sitting in a low-slung metal contraption with one wheel in front and two in back, she used her hands to "pedal" the bicycle while her legs were stretched out in front of her, fastened to the machine.

Zusman, who has resumed her study of computers and cognitive science at Hebrew University, said her involvement in Etgarim gets her out of the house, helps her meet new people, and encourages her to set goals for herself. The physical activity also helps Zusman increase her self-esteem, she said. "As soon as you succeed in doing something that you couldn't do before," she said, "it definitely [raises your confidence]."

But Zusman didn't have much time to talk; she was running late for class. She pulled up the bicycle next to her wheelchair, and two Etgarim volunteers lifted her feet from the stirrups and placed her inside.

Several GA participants said they would share with their hometown community an impression of what they had learned on their trip, and two said they may try to convince others to donate money to the cause.

Euni Balanoff, a member of the Syracuse, New York federation who works with special-needs high school students, said she would try to educate the Jewish community in her area about Etgarim and ultimately encourage community members to raise funds for the group.

Balanoff said she planned to show Etgarim's promotional video, which documents its participants in action, to other educators and Jewish organizations to show them the "drive to succeed" she saw on film and in person.

Daniel Chejfec, executive director of the Lexington, Kentucky federation, said he appreciated the "determination to move forward against any obstacle" that he saw Etgarim participants exhibit. His federation will discuss all the projects the 14 members of his GA delegation are observing, he said, and will then see what the community wants to do.

Directly funding a specific project would be a big step in itself, said Chejfec (pronounced Chefetz), adding that all his federation's funding for Israel goes through the United Jewish Communities at the moment.

One participant made a small donation on the spot. Lisa Sandler, a social work student at the University of Maryland who currently has an internship at the JCC of Greater Washington, gave NIS 20 to the visitors center for people with special needs in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The center was founded in 2002 by Pnina Mossek, a tour guide who noticed how difficult it was for people with special needs to tour the ancient narrow alleyways and multitude of stairs in the Old City. A special path was designed for wheelchair use in the Jewish quarter, which became wheelchair-accessible in 1995.

The center also takes blind and mentally challenged groups on tour, and has created small-scale, three-dimensional models of such sites as Zion Gate and the Hurva Synagogue to help give blind people a feeling for their relative size and structure.