Josh Toch, 16, a junior in Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, California, has just returned from a month-long summer program in Israel. The program provided him with a chance to experience Israel through an advocacy perspective.
"I didn't know what to initially expect, but it's been an amazing experience learning and experiencing all the different narratives that Israel is comprised of," says Toch, who took part in "I Speak Israel", a program run jointly by the Young Judaea youth organization and the David Project, an Israel campus-advocacy group. Their program is geared towards promoting Israel advocacy and leadership while experiencing Israel first-hand and traveling throughout the New-Jersey-sized country.
"I have enjoyed learning about Israel beyond the headlines, discussing the internal problems, and I hope to bring my ideas and stories to the table."
Josh, however, differs from most of his peers, including those on his trip, in one dramatic manner. Josh was born with Cerebral Palsy.
Cerebral Palsy is a non-contagious motor condition that causes physical disability in human development, chiefly in the various areas of body movement. To overcome his disability, Josh has engaged in years of speech and occupational therapies. Growing up with a disability was very challenging, especially since "he didn't understand why he was different from other children."
When he entered high school, Josh decided to participate in cross country running. He points to his coach as a person instrumental in changing his life. From the team Josh adopted a motto that he still follows to this day, "anything is possible."
"I joined running to work towards being as normal as I possibly could be, so no one could ever know I have cp… being different can be a good thing, when you choose to be different."
Four days into the "I Speak Israel" trip, Josh decided to share his story with other participants "I share my story to show people that whatever is happening in one's life, it could always be more difficult, and if I can do it, so can they.
Toch is an active member of his small, 200 member Jewish community in Morgan Hill. He described his peer-group in the community as "a very close knit group of teens who have stuck together since they were young children."
Toch was raised in a mixed-faith home, both Jewish and Christian. His father is Jewish while his mother is what he calls a "Christmas and Easter Christian." Both of his parents were very supportive of his choice to participate in "I Speak Israel." Josh mentioned how his father also visited to Israel as a high schooler.
Toch is also currently an advocate for children and teens against bullying. He speaks at various public schools about raising awareness to help cope with being bullied. Toch has dealt firsthand with the effects of being bullied at school which "motivated me to stand up for myself and educate people against bullying." "I want to let people know that anything is possible, and help them become aware that they can accomplish their goals. Nothing is impossible."
While participating in the "I Speak Israel" trip, Toch wanted to create an event with Beit Galgalim, or the House of Wheels, a non-profit organization devoted to the development and integration of physically handicapped children in Israel. "I wanted to bridge the gap between American children with disabilities and Israeli children with disabilities—because at the end of the day we are all the same." Toch said. "For just one day I wanted us to forget our disabilities and just focus on having fun."
Toch is grateful to have participated in the pilot trip for "I Speak Israel."
"I want to thank Young Judea as well as the David Project for giving me the opportunity to participate in such an inspirational journey. One of the best chooses I have ever made was to go on ISI, I had the time of my life and made lifelong friends. It has given me a greater understanding of what Israel is like, and what it means to be Jewish. I had the basics, but I have learned about being Jewish in a new way."