Before the car accident — before two years of rehabilitation in a Jerusalem hospital, before the breathing machine and the wheelchair, before the new life — Raz Rutman loved nature.
The Yokneam Moshava native spent his days on the Nahal Hashofet trails near his home, tramping around with his family and his youth group. When Rutman became paralyzed, the idea that he would resume hiking through Israel’s green spaces seemed distant.
But through LOTEM, a Jewish National Fund-USA affiliate that happens to be headquartered near his family home, Rutman didn’t just get back on the trails again, he’s become a sought-after tour guide for hikers with physical impairments and special needs, leading thousands of tours since 2014. Many of those tours have traced the same path that he took on the Nahal Hashofet trails as a child. For Rutman, working with LOTEM is the mission of a lifetime.
Rutman has delivered countless lectures on his story, speaking to audiences about accessibility, disability and his work with LOTEM.
“I’m just lucky,” Rutman said. “I’m lucky and happy to be a part of LOTEM and to know that I’m able to be in contact so many people through LOTEM.”
Rutman, 27, will be the featured guest speaker at JNFuture Philadelphia’s “Investing in Inclusion” event on Feb. 21, intended to highlight JNF-USA’s work with disabled Jewish communities. February has been Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance & Inclusion Month since 2009.
Speaking from his home in Israel, Rutman will address young professionals via Zoom in an event organized by JNFuture Philadelphia.
“Raz exemplifies the idea that being disabled does not prevent someone from leading an active, fulfilling life, especially with the support of organizations like LOTEM,” said Danielle Hankin, president of JNFuture Philadelphia.
JNF-USA has marked JDAAIM for a few years now, joined by the regional offices.
Samantha van Adelsberg, the Eastern PA director of JNF-USA, explained that this year’s JDAAIM event will be a chance for JNFuture Philadelphia members to think more deeply about disability, get inspired and be reminded that JNF is “not just the tree people,” as van Adelsberg put it. The work done undertaken by LOTEM, a JNF-USA affiliate, made the group an obvious candidate for this year’s JDAAIM event, van Adelsberg said.
For Rutman, LOTEM has become like family.
Unable to fulfill his national service duties with the IDF, Rutman decided that he would volunteer with LOTEM. An employee ever since then, Rutman is known and loved by everyone in the office. They’ve seen him go from teenaged client to office helper to tour guide.
Gaylee Schiff, director of development at LOTEM, said they’ve been inspired by Rutman at each stage.
“Raz is an amazing human being. He is now a friend,” Schiff said. “Every person that comes to LOTEM gets Raz as part of the package.”
As a seasoned tour guide, Rutman has his shtick down pat. Rutman sees his ability to connect with his groups on a personal level as especially crucial to those who aren’t able to go on too many tours.
“I have a sense of humor, just like you. I love to learn and to study about nature, just like you,” he said. “Even more because I’m a complete nerd.”
LOTEM offers tours in English, Hebrew and Arabic to hikers with disabilities and special needs all over Israel — wherever trails have been made accessible, and in the city of Jerusalem. They provide multiculturally focused educational events, delivered in Hebrew and Arabic.
In addition to the tours, the organization offers nature education to those populations as well as at-risk children and families in domestic violence shelters. LOTEM is able to connect with more than 30,000 participants each year, taking them from the trail to its ecological farm in Emek HaShalom.
Rutman and LOTEM both came into the world in the same year, 1993, and each hopes to be in the other’s life for quite some time.
“It’s the best way for me to see nature, to experience learning about nature, to meet new people and to bring the messages of accessibility, inclusion and equality to other people,” Rutman said.
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