Ancient Chanukah Practice Made Accessible for People With Disabilities

November 1, 2022

Israeli children are busy making fresh olive oil on a bright winter’s day just before Chanukah. The press (pictured) is modeled after the ancient presses found throughout Israel, however, with a few important differences. The long beam used to turn the crushing stone has been made more accessible for a person in a wheelchair. The floor is marked by rough patches of rubber to indicate to the visually impaired when they are getting close to the press, and baskets of olives at various stages of pressing are on hand to demonstrate how the process works by touch, taste, and smell.

As the group finishes pressing their olives and claiming small bottles to take back to their school, one boy cannot contain his excitement. Smiling widely, he tells Naama, a young soldier-educator, “I have always seen olive presses and dreamed of being strong enough to turn one myself.  And I just did it!”

This is what making Israel accessible for all looks like, and it is being made possible through Jewish National Fund-USA’s affiliate, LOTEM.

The children participating in the ancient olive oil-making process come with various degrees of Cerebral Palsy, a neurological disorder that affects muscle tone, movement, and motor skills.

It is well known that Chanukah in Israel is a feast for the senses. In every Jewish neighborhood in the country, one can find lights flickering in windows, brightly decorated sufganiyot (doughnuts), the scent of latkes frying, and the sounds of festive children’s songs. Children are on school break, and families spend time hiking and touring the country.

For people with disabilities, however, Chanukah celebrations can pose a hurdle, with limited mobility, sensory issues, and other challenges curbing their holiday experience. One tradition in particular is rarely experienced by people with disabilities – the seasonal pressing of olives into oil, an agricultural activity that typically falls during the Chanukah season.

On farms and in oil factories throughout the country, recently harvested olives are pressed for their golden oil. Many of these sites invite the public to take part in the process with hands-on demonstrations of both modern and ancient olive presses. Yet very few are wheelchair accessible, and virtually none have educational programming geared toward people with mental or sensory disabilities.

Jewish National Fund-USA has ensured that innovative programs are created to bring this Chanukah tradition to children and adults with special needs. At an ecological farm in Emek Hashalom (Valley of Peace), a unique Chanukah program is reaching individuals with visual and hearing impairments, physical, intellectual and emotional challenges, and children on the autistic spectrum.

Prior to working the press, the children spend half an hour in the farm’s modest olive orchard learning about different harvest techniques and collecting olives. Their wheelchairs and walkers move easily along accessible trails as they make their way to the olive press.

Shining Their Own Lights

After the olive press, the group headed to the “Bakery,” where they prepared traditional pita in a mud and stone oven. Like the press, the area is designed to accommodate people with disabilities, including wheelchair-height surfaces, an easy-to-open oven, and measuring cups marked in braille. While they waited for the bread to bake, the staff patiently helped them create traditional oil lamps out of clay. Participants also learned how olive oil was used in daily life – in lamps, medicines, perfumes, and more.

Naama explains the metaphor of light to the group: “You are each a unique vessel, like the ones you have just made. Every vessel is different – some are smooth, some rough, some big, and some small. But each one is filled with pure, good things, like the oil. When you light it, it creates warmth and light that you can share with everyone.”

As the children eat the bread they made, now drenched in fresh olive oil, it’s clear that a special light, ignited by Jewish National Fund-USA and LOTEM, has cast away a few shadows this Chanukah by making this special agricultural experience accessible to all.

To support people with disabilities in Israel, visit