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Trump budget will devastate children with disabilities

“Trump Budget Guts Medicaid, Disability Programs” read the headline from Disability Scoop, the news service that covers children and adults with developmental disabilities, which accurately and without hyperbole summed up the full budget submitted to Congress by President Donald Trump’s administration.

In its unrealistic desire to simultaneously cut taxes for the rich, increase defense spending and make no changes or reforms of any kind to Medicare and Social Security, the Trump administration’s budget eviscerates multiple programs that help Americans with disabilities. Nowhere is that more evident than when  looking at the federal government programs that currently help low-income children younger than 18 who have developmental disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability and severe epilepsy.

Let’s take a hypothetical example — a child named Bobby, age 10, who was diagnosed with autism and an anxiety disorder at age 3. Bobby was born into a low-income household in Los Angeles and has two younger siblings. In California, he would likely qualify for assistance from the state’s Regional Centers, which provide care coordination and funding for vital services throughout a person’s lifetime. Paid largely by Medicaid waiver programs, the Regional Centers can pay for behavioral and social skills training for Bobby, as well as respite for his parents (typically the primary caregivers).

Once he entered the local public school system at age 5, Bobby would most likely be eligible for special education, which is based on each student having an Individual Education Plan that creates educational goals and outcomes, put together by a team of teachers, other professionals such as a speech therapist, and Bobby’s parents.

Although Bobby is very strong academically, he has trouble self-regulating his body, and is given to erratic mood swings, especially when his schedule changes or there is a substitute aide who accompanies him to mainstream classes. The only topic he really cares about is Disney movies, many of which he has memorized in their entirety. Because he doesn’t answer any non-Disney questions and has some strange mannerisms, the other children don’t play with him and he usually is alone at recess.

He sees a child psychologist to treat his anxiety, as well as a pediatrician, both paid by Medicaid.

Bobby’s mom is a high school graduate with health issues related to her being a breast cancer survivor, and she has never been employed at anything other than minimum-wage jobs. His dad works in construction on a gig basis, with some months good and others very bad.

The annual household income is at 110 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, so the family qualifies for Bobby to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This provides a monthly cash amount of $735 that helps to pay for the family’s rent of $2,000 a month for a modest two-bedroom apartment.

How would the proposed Trump budget cuts impact Bobby and his family? Because of Medicaid cuts, Bobby probably would see a reduction in his social skills therapy paid by the Regional Centers, and if his psychologist won’t accept reduced payments, then Bobby will no longer have access to mental health services.

SSI and Social Security Disability Insurance are slated for 10 percent cuts in the Trump budget, so that means less money for monthly rent. And the family already has been told that its rent is due to go up by another $50 a month. If Dad can’t get more construction work, it will be that much harder to make ends meet.

With the proposed special education cuts, Bobby could lose his one-to-one aide and be told that he should get by using “natural supports,” meaning same-age peers (this happened to my family).

Meanwhile, President Trump’s youngest son, Barron, age 11, is set to attend private St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Maryland in the fall. St. Andrew’s is a coeducational college preparatory school founded in 1978 and carries a hefty annual tuition of $40,000.

Its website says that its programs “are designed to serve students of varied interests and abilities capable of achievement in a challenging academic environment.” According to the Washington Post, “St. Andrew’s is known for its small classes, pioneering use of brain-based research to help students of all abilities to succeed and for providing extra support for students who need it.” In short, this is the perfect school environment for someone who is academically strong but may need help in other areas.

But not everyone can afford to send their child to a school with the very best programs and services that would meet the needs of children on the spectrum. The larger question is whether it is moral for the president to deny that to Americans like Bobby. 

Michelle K. Wolf is a special needs parent activist and nonprofit professional. She is the founding executive director of the Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs Trust. Visit her Jews and Special Needs blog at

Virtuoso Itzhak Perlman, on eve of Genesis award, slams Trump

Itzhak Perlman spoke out against Donald Trump a day before the Israeli-American virtuoso violinist is to receive a $1 million prize dubbed the “Jewish Nobel.”

In an interview with The Associated Press published Wednesday, Perlman said he is still upset at Trump, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, for mocking a disabled reporter last fall.

Perlman, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities, was referring to a November incident in which Trump flailed his arms to mock a New York Times reporter who has a congenital condition that restricts joint movement. Trump has denied he was mocking the disability.

The 70-year-old musician himself has a disability; he was diagnosed with polio at 4 and gets around with a motorized cart.

One of the best-known violinists in the world, Perlman is the third winner of the Genesis Prize. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg won in 2014; actor Michael Douglas was recognized in 2015. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will present the award to Perlman at a Jerusalem ceremony hosted by actress Helen Mirren.

Perlman told the AP he will donate the prize money to his two top causes: music and programs for people with disabilities. He said he would also promote the idea that “every person with a disability is an individual,” with their own sets of needs. He said society must do more to enable people with disabilities to use their strengths and realize their potential.

In November, Perlman received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. He has won 16 Grammys.

The reference to Trump was not the first political statement for Perlman. Last month he canceled a performance in North Carolina to protest the state’s new law limiting anti-discrimination policies for LGBT people.

Perlman told the AP he wants to be recognized as a great violinist, not as a musician with a disability.

“I don’t play the violin with my legs. I play it with my hands,” he said. “I’m supposed to be looked at according to my talent. … I’m sure that many people with disabilities who have certain talents would like to be looked at that way, not any other way.”

Ruderman Prize seeks nominees who excel at including people with disabilities

The Ruderman Family Foundation has opened the nomination period for its international Ruderman Prize in Inclusion, honoring companies and organizations that operate innovative programs and provide services that foster the inclusion of people with disabilities.

Five individual $50,000 awards will be awarded. Now in its fifth consecutive year of operation, the prize has been awarded to 25 organizations in Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Mexico, Israel, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Argentina.

Past winners include schools, houses of worship, a dance company, a university, a bakery and an employment service.


“Although people with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world, making up 20 percent of our population, they are amongst the most discriminated and segregated populations,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “In order to attempt to change this injustice, our foundation created the Ruderman Prize in Inclusion to recognize organizations across the globe who have led the way in including people with disabilities in all aspects of life.”

Nominating organizations for the prize can be 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations or companies with an American nonprofit fiscal sponsor. This year, priority will be given to innovations in the fields of technology, entertainment, art and fashion, media, social businesses and advocacy.

The prize is a signature program of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which believes that inclusion and understanding of people with disabilities is essential to a fair and flourishing community.

“Our foundation is constantly exploring new innovative ways to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in our worldwide society,” Ruderman said. “We strive to highlight the rights of people with disabilities as civil and human rights, and this year’s Prize is dedicated to the entrepreneurial spirit that changes life as we know it and makes us a fairer, more inclusive society.”

The first stage of the application is due Aug. 9 at 5 p.m. EST. Organizations that pass the first stage of the application process will receive an email inviting them to submit a second, more detailed stage of the application.  The second stage deadline is Sept. 12 at 5 p.m. EST.

JTA is a media partner of the Ruderman Prize in Inclusion.

For more information on how to apply for a Ruderman Prize, go to


Meet five Israeli companies driving disability tech

After a missile strike during the 1973 Yom Kippur War left Omer Zur’s father paralyzed from the chest down, his dad vowed to continue life as normal. But there was one Israeli pastime he couldn’t enjoy: hiking.

“He’d say, ‘I’ll go in the car and meet you on the other side,’” said Zur, a certified Israeli tour guide. “I said, ‘Why can’t he do this with us?’”

In 2008, Zur decided that he and his wheelchair-user father would complete a 300-mile trek in southern Turkey. With the help of dozens of friends who joined them on segments of the hike, Zur and his father were able to complete the trail, sleep in tents and cook meals over an open fire.

The hike sparked Paratrek, a startup Zur founded in 2014 that aims to make hiking accessible to people with paraplegia by outfitting wheelchairs with accessories that enable them to travel over rough terrain.

The company is one of several startups focused on improving the lives of the nearly 1 million Israelis with disabilities.

A3I, a startup accelerator housed at Beit Issie Shapiro, an Israeli advocacy organization for people with disabilities, has helped launch 22 disability projects in the past two years. Tikkun Olam Makers, a three-day competition where tech entrepreneurs design projects for people with disabilities, had three events in Israel in 2014 and 2015.

“We very much think one of the missing approaches in the world of disability is the entrepreneurial approach,” said Shira Ruderman, director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which supports A3I. “We wanted to work with organizations that are not disability oriented.”

Here are five Israeli companies helped by A3I that are making the world more accessible to people with disabilities.


Zur and his co-founder, Ziv Demeter, saw no reason why people in wheelchairs should not enjoy a hike. So they outfitted a chair with oversize wheels, mountain bike-style tires and a wide rod in back for easier pushing. A U-shaped harness attached to the front allows it to be pulled like a rickshaw.

Zur and Demeter also act as hiking consultants for would-be hikers. Understanding their clients’ physical limits and where they want to hike, the company can set up a trek and even join in to make sure all goes smoothly.

The pair have set up hikes across Israel, as well as in France and, later this year, in Switzerland. They’re also looking into using rescue equipment to help people with disabilities climb mountainsides.

IC Touch

A pair of glasses normally would be useless to a blind person. But Zeev Zalevsky’s glasses don’t help you see what’s in front of you — they help you feel it.

Zalevsky’s startup, IC Touch, makes glasses that take and process a picture before sending a signal to a set of tiny mirrors that are millimeters from the wearer’s eyes. The mirrors then send a set of vibrations to the cornea that make the cornea “feel” objects in the space around it.
Instead of guiding themselves with a stick or a dog, Zalevsky says, blind people can feel their surroundings with the glasses, even identifying objects up to a half-mile away.

“It’s like if you close your eyes and feel your surroundings with your fingertips, you can imagine what’s in front of you,” said Zalevsky, an engineering professor at Bar-Ilan University. “Instead of reaching out in front of you, the picture comes to your head.”


The screen looks a little like the classic 1980s arcade game Frogger, in which an amphibian tries to cross a busy street. In this version, a red car has to maneuver through blue cars to reach an open lane — but instead of using buttons and a joystick, players move the car by raising a pole from one notch to the next. Sensors in each notch capture the motion and project the car’s progress on an iPad.

The game, the initial offering from the startup Gemon, helps strengthen the upper back of people with disabilities or those recovering from an injury. The company aims to “game-ify” rehabilitation to relieve the tedium of staring at an exercise machine all day. Co-founders Tomer Yannay and Ohad Doron are also creating a sensor that can be attached to any workout machine to transform the exercise into a game. Eventually, Yannay says, the games could even appear in health clubs.

Easy Stroll

Adira was eight months pregnant and about to become a single mother, but she had a problem: She couldn’t take her baby for a walk.

Adira is in a wheelchair and can’t push a stroller. So she contacted Dana Yichye-Shwachman, a designer with Jonathan Bar-Or Industrial Design. Yichye-Shwachman responded with Easy Stroll, an aluminum attachment to the wheelchair’s footboard that latches on to a stroller.

Yichye-Shwachman posted a video of the product online and received 30 emails for new orders. She is now creating a prototype that will fit a variety of wheelchairs and strollers.

Siman Shenagish

Few children have to accompany their parents to the bank and explain to them that their account is in overdraft. But for Tal Bousidan, days like that were routine.

Bousidan was born to two deaf parents. With sign-language interpreters in short supply in Israel, he would fill the role for his parents, explaining to them what bank tellers and shop clerks were unable to communicate on their own.

Now a professional sign-language interpreter, Bousidan has created a startup that provides instantaneous Hebrew sign-language translation via tablet computers.

The startup, Siman Shenagish — Hebrew for “accessible sign” — has a pilot running at a health clinic in the southern city of Ashkelon. Deaf patients tap on the iPad, and a full-time translator appears on the screen ready to translate for the doctor. The startup has plans to expand to Tel Aviv, and Bousidan hopes to provide translation in other languages in the future.

This article is part of a series tied to Jewish Disability & Inclusion Awareness Month that is part of our partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation. Guided by Jewish values, the foundation advocates for and advances the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the Jewish community. To learn more, visit the foundation’s website.

Advocates brief White House on barriers for the Jewish disabled

Jewish advocates for the disabled briefed Obama administration officials on barriers to Jewish life for those with disabilities.

The two-hour event Thursday was organized by the White House and held at the neighboring Eisenhower Executive Office Building as part of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, an initiative of a number of local and national Jewish organizations.

Matt Nosanchuk, associate director and liaison to the Jewish Community at the White House Office of Public Engagement, and Maria Town, associate director and liaison in the disability community in that office, moderated the discussion.

Judith Heumann, the special advisor for International Disability Rights in the Department of State, cited tikkun olam, the ancient rabbinical imperative to repair the world, and said: “The Jewish community has an obligation, I believe, to be leaders.”

When a building is not accessible and there are no braille reading materials or sign language interpreters, those with a disability get the message they are not welcome, said panelist Ruti Regan, co-founder of Anachnu, a group promoting inclusion within the Jewish community.

Along with Regan, the panel included Sheila Katz, vice president for social entrepreneurship at Hillel International; Aaron Kaufman, senior legislative assistant at Jewish Federations of North America, and John Winer, the executive director at the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities.

In attendance among others were representatives of RespectAbility, an advocacy group that has been canvassing presidential candidates about how their platforms address the needs of the disabled.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, RespectAbility’s president, said the event was an opportunity for networking and sharing best practices for a cohort scattered throughout the country.

“It’s an ingathering of the leaders around the country doing exemplary work but who don’t get enough time to network,” said Mizrahi, whose group advocates for greater inclusion within the Jewish community.

The panelists addressed the need for inclusion not just in programming and services but also in Jewish social life.

“No individual wants to feel like they are a chesed project,” Winer said, using the Hebrew word for charity.

Kaufman said inclusion is important, but added that events designed for the disabled can also be salutary. Kaufman, who is in a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy, said he had a great experience on a recent Birthright trip to Israel designed for disabled people.

He urged everyone working on inclusion to include people with disabilities in their meetings. “Nothing about us without us,” he said. It is also important to realize the costs of making a synagogue, organization or event totally inclusive, he said.

“Everybody can say, ‘Oh, we are all created in the image of God,’ and that’s wonderful, but if they are really serious, they have to be willing to put money to it,” Kaufman said.

Katz of Hillel said she would like to see more Jewish leaders talk about their own disabilities and become role models. It’s important to reach out to those with disabilities and “meet you wherever you are on your Jewish journey. We have a responsibility,” she said.

“The best mosaics are made up of the most beautiful pieces,” Winer said, noting, that should be “the fabric of our Jewish life.”

How synagogues can prioritize disability inclusion this High Holy Days season

With the High Holy Days just around the corner, Jews all over the world will be asking themselves how they can lead more meaningful and moral lives. Synagogue communities, too, will be asking how they can become more holy and inclusive communities.

In my years of involvement with disability inclusion, I’ve observed that change often occurs when a rabbi, a professional or a lay leader understands the value of inclusion of all people and makes it a priority. If there ever was a time for leaders to step up to the plate and help their synagogues become more inclusive — to welcome diverse people with varying abilities and find a place for them in the community — it’s during the Days of Awe.

Liz Offen, director of New England Yachad, an Orthodox Union-affiliated organization that works toward the inclusion in Jewish life of people with disabilities, said the High Holy Days seem almost designed to raise awareness of people with disabilities. “Every aspect of the High Holiday experience is infused with rituals that draw on the senses,” she said. “From the food we eat to the sound and vibrations of the shofar, we are reminded of the varied ways people experience life.”

So how can congregations take advantage of this calling to become more inclusive communities?

The obvious answer is that they can implement best practices in making their physical spaces more inclusive for people with disabilities. They can print books with larger text, embrace hearing loop technologies to assist people who are hard of hearing, train ushers to recognize and assist people with disabilities, make every part of the building wheelchair accessible and establish an inclusion committee to continually expand inclusive practices.

The broader answer is that they can demonstrate leadership and work to create a powerful culture of inclusion among congregants so that inclusion pervades all aspects of congregational life, and thereby change basic attitudes toward people with disabilities.

Ed Frim, an inclusion specialist at United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that true inclusion goes much deeper than making synagogue life accessible. 

“Inclusive congregations are mindful of everyone who is part of the community,” he said. “They establish a culture that takes for granted that all, including those with disabilities, have the right to fully participate as part of the congregation.”

“It’s not just about training ushers to be welcoming to people with disabilities and helping them find their way. It’s about turning the entire congregation into ushers who seek to create a welcoming environment,” he said.

Just as important as building a culture of inclusion is effecting a shift in attitude about how we think of disabilities. Rabbi Noah Cheses of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto recalls a moment when his perspective on disabilities changed from seeing only the disability to seeing the whole person.

A senior in high school had come to speak at a retreat Cheses was attending. The student had a muscular disorder that required him to use a wheelchair. It was clear from the moment he began speaking that this charismatic young man was not defined by his disability.

“He asked us to take out a piece of paper and make a list of [perceived] personal shortcomings,” Cheses said. “We were then instructed to introduce ourselves to the person next to us in the following way: “Hi, my name is X, and I have such and such …

“For a moment, I felt what it was like to be identified by my personal limitations … as if my passions and talents were being overshadowed and pushed aside by something beyond my control.”

It was that realization, among others, that motivated Cheses to seek change in his congregation. The congregation made physical changes — such as building an accessible ark, among other things — but the rabbi also sought to make spiritual changes and help his congregants experience the same moment of recognition that he had at the retreat.

Indeed, it is these spiritual changes — viewing all of God’s people as bringing unique contributions to the world — that can turn a congregation from a collection of people to a holy community. This time of reflection and renewal provides the perfect moment for such a shift to take place. 

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities in our society. The foundation is holding the 2015 Ruderman Inclusion Summit Nov. 1-2 in Boston. He’s on Twitter @jayruderman.

Tips for hosting a disabilities-friendly seder

I knew when we got to the drawing of the sad-looking lamb that I had exactly one page before showtime.

As the youngest daughter and cousin on both sides of my family, reading the Four Questions was always my job at the Passover seder. Since my severe obsessive-compulsive disorder compelled me to recite everything exactly right, the job was so nerve-racking to me that I often started panting days before.

For some children, the seder means delicious jellied candies and afikomen hunts. For others it can mean terrifying public reading and unbearable amounts of sitting still at the table. And for those disabilities – whether psychological, developmental or language-based – it’s clear this night is different from all other nights. But can somebody slow down and please explain why?

According to the U.S. Census, 18.6 percent of Americans (approximately 1 in 5) have a disability. Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which promotes and funds inclusion in the Jewish community, estimates that 2 million Jews are among that 18.6 percent. Many disabilities are undetectable to the naked eye, but whether it’s a child with Attention Deficit Disorder who finds it hard to sit still at the table or an adult in a wheelchair who cannot get to the table, guests with disabilities often require some modifications in order to feel welcome and included at the seder.

Fortunately, such modifications are not difficult and can make the seder more enjoyable for everyone. After all, who hasn’t at least occasionally experienced seder table boredom?

Meredith Englander Polsky, co-founder of Matan, a New York nonprofit that advocates for Jewish students with disabilities, says the seder is “the perfect opportunity for inclusion” because it involves multiple senses and learning styles: “taste, touch, acting things out, singing, speaking and listening.”

Here are some tips:

1. Give a sneak preview!

Talk to children beforehand about what exactly the seder will look like. They can also help prepare the seder plate: a great opportunity to sniff the bitter herbs, taste the charoset or even crumble the matzah.

Both Matan and and Gateways, a Boston program that helps Jewish day schools and congregational schools be inclusive of students with disabilities, have numerous downloadable materials on their websites, including “seder trackers” and Passover Bingo cards that spell out the order of events in bright pictures. Gateways has just published a colorful new Haggadah designed specifically for children with disabilities. Another possibility: Passover toys, like matzah juggling balls or plague finger puppets, which can be found in many online outlets and Judaica stores.

On, an educational website she started, Devorah Katz suggests on her site creating your own family Haggadah with your favorite photographs. Whatever you choose to bring to your seder, make sure everyone feels welcome to participate.

2. Set the mood

Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, founder and head of The Shefa School, a pluralistic Jewish day school for children with language-based learning disabilities, suggests conducting the first part of the seder in the living room. It’s a much more relaxed environment than sitting at the table, and guests can get up and walk around if they need to, or even have a few snacks. Matan’s Polsky says it’s also good to set aside a “quiet space” to relax for guests who become overwhelmed by crowds or noise.

3. Lights, camera, action!

This seder tracker is one of many free downloadable resources available from Gateways and Matan. (Matan)

The maggid (recitation of the Hagaddah) is the longest stretch of time for children to be at attention, so it’s imperative to make it exciting and interactive. Some suggestions from Polsky and Ruskay-Kidd:

Pyramid building: You can set up stations in your home or on the table. Use Legos, Lincoln Logs, MagnaTiles or any other building materials you find. A delicious option: try mini-marshmallows and toothpicks. Everyone gets to build a pyramid that can later be gobbled up for dessert.

Schlep: Ask children to act out being a slave by carrying a heavy bag of books over his or her shoulder and pretending that it is bricks.

Split the sea: Hold up blue sheets and have children walk through them.

Play out the plagues: Act out the plagues such as jumping like frogs or falling over like cattle. Download Matan’s visual Ten Plagues so everyone can see them and debate whether they’d rather be a grasshopper or a locust. You can “paint” the doorways with a paintbrush and water so the Angel of Death knows to pass over.

Cut to the chase: If guests are getting too hungry or restless, it’s best to skip a few pages or cut to the songs. The maggid can be two minutes or two hours, but the message will only resonate if people are engaged.

4. Intermission

Giving everyone a break is vital to the seder experience. Ruskay-Kidd says, “We don’t want our kids to experience enslavement during the seder.” After the intermission (and before things start getting messy with the Hillel sandwich, etc.) is a great time to get people seated at the table.

5. Invite questions

The Passover seder is full of timeless questions, and there is no one right answer. Encourage everyone to pose a question.

Polsky points to the maror as a jumping-off point. She asks everyone to name something “bitter” they would like to fix in the world and how they plan to do it.

6. Get loud!

Whatever makes everyone join in singing is the way to go. Polsky notes that“Who Knows One” can be difficult for people with disabilities because there are so many verses and it is frequently sung fast.

Download Matan’s visual version of “Who Knows One” so everyone can follow along; percussionists and yodelers encouraged. Shouting is a form of singing, too.

In fact, Ruderman, of the Ruderman Family Foundation, says there’s an old story about a boy in Eastern Europe who couldn’t read or write. He came to the High Holidays services and kept on shouting in the synagogue while people were trying to pray. Many of the congregants wanted to have him kicked out but the rabbi stopped them and said, “Just listen. He’s expressing his prayer in the purest way.”

I think of this boy and his direct connection to faith.

I think of my younger self, trembling in my seat, reciting Mah Nishtanah under my breath.

I think of the 2 million Jews estimated to have disabilities who will hopefully be participating in the seder this year. And I promise this: I won’t be the youngest at the table this year, but I do intend to be the loudest.

Most likely off-key too.

(Abby Sher is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. She is the author of “Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things)” and “Breaking Free: True Stories of Girls Who Escaped Modern Slavery.” Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Elle magazine, among other publications.)

Start-up Nation takes on disabilities

Voiceitt, an Israeli start-up developing voice-translation technology for people with disabilities, was named recently the audience favorite at a Wall Street Journal-sponsored international technology conference.

The company’s new app, called Talkitt, converts the utterances of people with various speech disabilities into more easily understandable elocution. It is slated for release in the middle of 2015.

But Talkitt is hardly the only Israeli tech innovation for people with disabilities. Last year, three Israeli organizations – PresenTense, Beit Issie Shapiro and the Ruderman Family Foundation – teamed to launch what they say is the world’s first “accelerator” focused on addressing the needs of people with disabilities. Called AI3, for Accelerating Inclusion in Israel, the Raanana-based program has enrolled 15 start-up initiatives, such as Sesame Enable, which has created a smartphone that can be controlled with facial and head movements instead of touch for those who are unable to use their hands.

Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation – which has been a leader in promoting inclusion in the American Jewish community and Israel – praised Israel’s tech sector for developing solutions that “help people with disabilities and enable them to become part of society.”

However, he said, the Start-up Nation’s government is lagging behind on the disabilities front.

“What it supports is antiquated in terms of housing, employment and the right legislation,” Ruderman said, adding that while “the tech sector’s way ahead in Israel,” its inventions don’t “trickle down to everyone.”

“I’m not sure it’s helping the average person with disabilities yet,” he said.

Bronfman Prize goes to leading disability rights innovator Eric Rosenthal

Eric Rosenthal, founder and director of Disability Rights International (DRI), who has focused world-wide attention on the inhumane institutionalization of children and adults with disabilities, has been awarded the 2013 Charles Bronfman Prize for his global leadership in the field of human rights, advocating for those most vulnerable to abuse.

The prestigious Chares Bronfman Prize, accompanied by a $100,000 award (a portion of which Rosenthal will donate to DRI) is given annually to a humanitarian under the age of 50 whose work is informed by Jewish values and has a global impact that changes lives and inspires future generations.

For the past 20 years, Rosenthal, 49, has traveled around the world, documenting abuses against children and adults with disabilities in two dozen countries in North and South America (including the United States), Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Asia.

He and his team have been first-hand eyewitnesses to horrific abuse, such as in Hungary, where adults with disabilities who had behavioral challenges were placed into cages and left there, naked, for days on end. DRI has documented children with disabilities tied down in cribs or beds for years, often malnourished, denied medical treatment and exposed to filthy, freezing conditions. Many of the children don’t survive. During a phone conversation, he said that some of what he’s seen done to people with disabilities is “out of Auschwitz.”

A key focus of DRI is stopping institutionalization of children with disabilities, who are often placed in orphanages even though they have loving parents who are alive and want to care for them at home but lack the resources to do so.

As DRI says on its website: “There is now ample evidence that all children – including children with mental disabilities – can thrive in the community where family support programs are established. Despite this, many international charities continue to fund placements in orphanages, psychiatric institutions, and nursing homes at the expense of needed programs in the community.”

The son of a career diplomat, Rosenthal was raised in Washington D.C. and in Africa. His time in Africa gave him a global perspective and a connection to the Jewish community that motivates him as a human rights activist and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

Story continues after the video.

His interest in this field first started with mental health issues because his grandmother was diagnosed with manic depression, and then grew to human rights more generally. While at Georgetown University in the early 1990s, he learned that many people with disabilities were still living in shameful conditions in institutions.

“Segregation is by itself a violation of human rights,” Rosenthal said in a telephone interview. This was unfortunately not the prevailing public policy when he first began his pioneering work, but one that has grown into acceptance, both in the United States and internationally.

The 1999 landmark United States Supreme Court Olmstead decision requires states to eliminate unnecessary segregation of persons with disabilities and to insure they receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to the their needs.

On the international front, Rosenthal’s work has helped create a new United Nations Disability Convention ratified by 130 countries. This convention details the rights of persons with disabilities and creates standards for implementation. It calls on all nations to recognize “that all persons are equal before the law, to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantee equal legal protection.”

“Throughout his career, Eric has taken action to bring an end to one of the greatest human rights tragedies taking place in the world today: the abuse of millions of children and adults with disabilities in closed orphanages and state institutions,” wrote Norman Rosenberg, former executive director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, as well as  former director of the New Israel Fund and Rosenthal’s nominator for the Charles Bronfman Prize.

“The impact of Eric’s work is real and tangible, and has created a new field of international human rights advocacy for a population that had been entirely overlooked.  Eric’s exposés and the international media coverage they have garnered have forced countries to undertake drastic reforms.”

Rosenthal hopes his selection as the 2012 recipient of the Charles Bronfman Prize will increase public awareness, and that more will be done to end institutionalization and segregation of people with disabilities. He hopes that the Jewish community will help lead the charge.

“As Jews one generation from a Holocaust, we should understand why we must not allow any group of people or any person to be excluded or be dehumanized or be put away and allowed to die,” he said. “The promise I made my grandmother to remember is very much core to the work that I do.  We must not only remember the six million who perished in the Holocaust, we must also act to protect the 10 million children left behind in orphanages and other custodial institutions.”

Opinion: Step up for civil rights treaty for people with disabilities

Several important Jewish organizations are standing behind a critical international treaty to support civil rights, dignity and hope for people with disabilities. However, grass-roots help is urgently needed to get it approved by the U.S. Senate before the political season overtakes the ability to get things done in Washington.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is under consideration by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It is already supported by the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Rabbinical Assembly, The Jewish Federations of North America, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Women’s Rabbinic Network. But you can make a difference by calling your senator at (202) 225-3121.

The convention realizes an international effort to achieve global goals of economic self-sufficiency, equality of opportunity, full participation and independent living for people with disabilities. These goals are enshrined in our own Americans with Disabilities Act, a model for the convention. The convention will enable Americans with disabilities working or traveling abroad, such as veterans or members of military families with disabilities, to access the same protections as they enjoy in America.

No new legislation will be required by U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, nor does the convention impose any new costs. In fact, as noted, much of the treaty is grounded in American laws. However, American action is needed for international leadership in this area.

America must move quickly to ratify the treaty, and we need to do our part. The CRPD treaty was launched under President George W. Bush and sent to the Senate by President Obama. Already there is some momentum created by the announcement of bipartisan support of Senators Durbin, McCain, Barrasso, Udall, Coons and Moran.

Ratifying the treaty during this Congress will enable the U.S. to participate in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Committee, an advisory group that is a forum for idea sharing related to disability policy. The committee represents a valuable opportunity for continued American leadership and influence on this issue. Only those countries that have ratified the convention can serve on the committee, and American leadership in this arena is critical to the ultimate success of the treaty.

The American disability rights community has united behind ratification of the convention. It’s time for us to say “hineni”—here I am—and stand to ensure full participation and access for people with disabilities the world over.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the parent of a child with special needs, is the founder and president of Laszlo Strategies.

$2.5 million grant will place young adults with disabilities in jobs

A $2.5 million grant to Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston will fund a groundbreaking program that places young adults with disabilities in jobs.

The Ruderman Family Foundation provided the grant to fund the “Young Adult Transitions to Work” program, which provides young adults with disabilities customized training, placement and ongoing support services, representing a new approach to providing work for the disabled.

The program will be run by Jewish Vocational Services as part of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ “Pathways” program for people with disabilities.

Young Adult Transitions to Work is part of a pilot project with Hebrew SeniorLife to identify jobs and develop customized training and support that match those positions. It also combines comprehensive training to fully integrate life, work readiness and vocational skills, and ongoing case management once individuals have been placed in jobs.

Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. called the program “a testament to what partnerships between the private sector, non-profit world and advocacy community can achieve, and a real breakthrough for the disability community.” He said there are some 25,000 disabled young adults between in the ages of 18 and 30 in Boston’s Jewish community who are capable of working in the proper jobs.

Calabasas evens playing field for special-needs kids

For children with physically limiting conditions like cerebral palsy or spinal muscular atrophy, something as simple as playing in a park can seem impossible. Swings can be unsafe, and climbing equipment is unaccommodating to many children reliant on wheelchairs and walkers for support and mobility.

Most slides, swings, forts and crawl spaces are designed for kids who can run, jump and climb. But when parks don’t factor in the limitations of special-needs children, it denies them a fundamental childhood experience.

Now the city of Calabasas is preparing a play area where the thousands of special-needs children living in the Conejo and West San Fernando valleys can play alongside all children their age. Brandon’s Village, the area’s first universally accessible handicapped playground, is scheduled to open on Oct. 28 at Gates Canyon Park on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, just east of Las Virgenes Road. Brandon’s Village is aimed at children with special needs, but the equipment is designed to be fun for everyone.

The opening of this playground — and others like it — reflects a movement spurred by parents of special-needs children who want to see their kids mainstreamed in all areas of life, from playgrounds to school to shul.

Brandon’s Village is the result of a partnership between the Las Virgenes Special Education PTA, the city of Calabasas, the Talbert Family Foundation and the Friedman Charitable Foundation. But at the center of it all has been Dina Kaplan.

Her passion to make the world accessible for her 12-year-old son, Brandon, who has multiple physical and developmental disabilities, has been the catalyst for a fundamental shift in how Calabasas looks at the children who play in its parks.

“In order to be an ADA-accessible playground, all that [cities] have to provide is access to get to the playground, like a ramp from the parking lot. They don’t have to provide access to the equipment,” said Kaplan, referring to the Americans With Disabilities Act. Fully accommodating equipment has not been the focus of playground planning, she pointed out, because most people don’t understand the need. “They don’t have kids with disabilities. It was just something they didn’t think about or know about,” she said.
Brandon’s Village joins eight other universally accessible playgrounds in the Los Angeles area, including Shane’s Inspiration in Griffith Park, Neil Papiano Play Park at the Los Angeles Zoo, Aiden’s Place at Westwood Park and Parque de los Suenos in East Los Angeles. Another playground for the East San Fernando Valley is currently under construction at El Cariso Park in Sylmar.

However, it was the Griffith Park playground, which opened in 1998 and was the first of its kind in Los Angeles, that inspired Kaplan’s vision for Brandon’s Village.

“Brandon had gone to Shane’s Inspiration when he was 5, and I’ve always wanted to bring that kind of playground to my community,” said Kaplan, a special-education attorney and executive director of The K.E.N. Project, a nonprofit that helps explain laws designed to protect special-needs children to parents and professionals.

Such playgrounds allow children with limited physical abilities to enjoy playing by themselves alongside typical children. Park features include high-backed swings; wheelchair-accessible modular play areas; a spongy, wheelchair-friendly ground covering; and low-lying slides and crawl spaces. Additional traditionally sized forts, slides and climbing opportunities make these mixed-use destinations popular among all children.

Kaplan and Joann Melancon, both cofounders of Las Virgenes Special Education PTA, first approached the city of Calabasas with the Brandon’s Village idea more than three years ago. The two mothers, both Jewish, took Jeff Rubin, the city’s community services director, on a field trip with other parents to visit Shane’s Inspiration.

Melancon said that she and Kaplan laid the groundwork together slowly, taking their time and building support.

“It ended up being a huge community building project. All over, people would ask what they could do to help,” she said. “People would be on the golf course talking about the project.”

While approval from the city was easy to come by, funding for the project initially proved more difficult. After Brandon’s Village was turned down for a grant by the state, Kaplan was despondent. Her brother-in-law, mortgage banker Bruce Friedman, asked her how much she needed.

“I said ‘I need a million dollars’ really flippantly, like it was 50 cents, and he said ‘OK.’ I was shocked,” she said.

Last January, Friedman and his wife, Wendy, donated $1 million from their Friedman Charitable Foundation, which funds children’s programs and scholarships for college-bound seniors. The donation is the largest in the history of Calabasas.

Once the money was in place, officials broke ground in May.

Brandon’s Village was created by Shane’s Inspiration, the nonprofit that established the eponymous Griffith Park playground in 1998 to honor Shane Williams, son of organization founders Catherine Curry-Williams and Scott Williams. Shane died from spinal muscular atrophy a few weeks after birth. Had he lived, he would have spent his life confined to a wheelchair.

Shane’s Inspiration has completed 10 playgrounds and has 55 in development around the world.
Tiffany Harris, executive director of Shane’s Inspiration, said that park planners need to put themselves in the body of a child with disabilities as they consider designs.

“I think they really need to stop for a minute and consider giving able-bodied children the opportunity to socialize with [special-needs children],” she said. “It really does become a wonderful opportunity to integrate these two populations and dispel some of the myths.”

For Calabasas, the addition of the playground to Gates Canyon Park is a source of pride.

This playground is “going to stand for the way this community and this region reacts toward kids with special needs,” then-Calabasas Mayor Barry Groveman said during a ceremony to honor the Friedmans’ donation in January.

“What I found so thrilling about the project is not simply what it does to enhance kids with special needs, but what it does for able-bodied kids” when they all play together, he said.

PowerPoint Purim


Sometimes it’s hard to hear the reading of the Megillat Esther over the raucous screeches, foot stamping and grogger spinning that come following the reading of Haman’s name on Purim. Often the reader of the megilla has to wait until the noise subsides before continuing.

But for the deaf and hard of hearing, the opportunity to even listen to a megilla reading is often simply not even a possibility.

Given that fulfilling the mitzvah of Purim requires that we hear the reading of Megillat Esther, the Orthodox Union (OU) has come up with a unique way for the deaf and hard of hearing to participate in the mitzvah.

Our Way for the Jewish Deaf and Hearing Impaired, the OU’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities Program, will provide a PowerPoint megillah reading to some 50 synagogues across the United States and Canada.

How does a PowerPoint megillah reading work?

The program is distributed on a CD-ROM, and projects visual graphics onto a screen, along with the text of the megillah in both Hebrew and English. And when Haman’s name is read, special graphics appear, giving the cue to go wild.

The program, which was implemented last year in 20 synagogues nationwide, has also proved popular with the elderly, those with poor eyesight who have difficulty reading the text of the megillah and with young children. As a result, some Jewish day schools have begun incorporating the program as a teaching aid in the lead up to Purim.

Any synagogue can participate in the program by providing a $100 donation to Our Way. The money goes toward developing resources for the deaf and hearing impared.

For more information, visit

Hope Is on the Menu at Cafe Ezra

It’s Thursday night at Camp Ramah in Ojai, and after most of the campers have gone to bed, more than 100 staffers squeeze into the staff lounge. Their hosts for the evening — all clad in red T-shirts — are the nine participants in the camp’s Ezra program, a unique vocational education program that serves young adults with special needs.

Cafe Ezra, as it is known, is the highlight of the week for Ezra’s members, who do everything from baking cookies and serving drinks to greeting visitors at the door. On this particular Thursday, July 15, one Ezra participant is particularly excited: Daniel Kamin, 22, is welcoming his older brother, Aaron, 26, as the night’s featured entertainment.

The brothers, who grew up in Studio City, have always had a close, supportive relationship, but success has always come easier for Aaron. With longtime friend Alex Band, he formed the rock band, The Calling, which has enjoyed considerable success since the release of its first album, "Camino Palermo," in 2001. The album reached multiplatinum status with the hit song, "Wherever You Will Go," which topped Billboard’s charts for 23 straight weeks.

The pair released their second album, "Two," in June and recently returned from a sold-out tour in Europe. However, for Aaron, nothing could be more important than a night spent at Camp Ramah — one of the first places where his brother has found a comfortable, happy place in the Jewish community.

Growing up, Daniel had frequent seizures, which caused some speech delay and significant learning disabilities.

Aaron did most of his schooling at Steven S. Wise Temple, but "there was really no program in the Jewish community for kids like Daniel," said their mother, Marlene Kamin, a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

She found the best options for Daniel in public schools. Last year, at age 21, Daniel graduated from Grant High School in Van Nuys, where he took special life-skills classes in a program for students with learning disabilities.

Daniel did well, but his social situation in a mainstream high school was less than ideal, Kamin said. He spent the past year in a state-funded work-training program in the San Fernando Valley, which helped him learn work and social skills.

All the while, Kamin, who with husband David has been active in survivor organizations such as the 1939 Club, searched without success for a way to help Daniel make a connection in the Jewish community. It was an administrator at his grandfather’s convalescent home who pointed Daniel toward Camp Ramah, which started the Ezra program four years ago to accommodate young adults like him.

"The whole thing was beshert," Kamin said, using Hebrew for "meant to be."

Ezra operates as a sequel to Ramah’s Amitzim program, which serves children and teens with special needs. Both programs run under the umbrella program Ramah calls Tikva (Hebrew for "hope"). Kamin said hope is an understatement for what Ezra has done for her son this summer.

Ezra helps young adults with disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, autism or slower mental capacity to learn to function as independent adults. Through a type of work-study structure, each participant is given a job at the camp. (Daniel has received rave reviews for his work in the infirmary.) The program also teaches basic life skills, such as maneuvering at a supermarket or depositing a check in the bank.

The participants put many of these skills to work each week in planning the Cafe Ezra event.

"They get a feeling of responsibility," said Tara Reisbaum, Tikvah program director. "The experience of being at camp adds to their personal growth and allows them to see how much potential they have."

Daniel’s mother, who is also a special guest at this evening’s Cafe Ezra, said she "can’t even describe in words" how proud she is of Daniel, who has written many letters home reporting how much he loves camp and how independent he has become.

A way to celebrate that success is to have Aaron, honor him with a performance. To the enjoyment of an eager audience, Aaron opens his performance with his most popular song, "Wherever You Will Go."

But this night, he lets his younger brother have the spotlight and the microphone. Daniel sings, dances and plays the harmonica, while Aaron plays the guitar and sits back to admire his brother.

"Daniel is able to maintain his beautiful spirit," Aaron said later. "Everyone should be jealous of him for that."

Daniel makes no secret of his admiration for his brother, saying with a big smile: "I like being a genius when it comes to music. I like being smart like my brother."

The love that fills the room is felt by more than just the brothers. Rabbi Daniel Greyber, Ramah’s executive director, sums up the event’s sentiment: "Evenings like this give us a sense of what is true in the world, what is faithful, what is possible."

On this Thursday night in a crowded room tucked into the quiet hills of Ojai, that hope resonates for all.

Looking for Love?

JDate is the largest Jewish singles site, but for those interested in swimming in smaller ponds, below is a sampling of some of the other offerings on the web.  — A dating service exclusively for Orthodox singles.   — Like JDate, but replying to messages is free. This site prides itself on being a human-based company, and it makes matchmakers available to its members.   — A Web site aimed at Jewish singles with disabilities.   — Chabad’s matchmaking site. Members need a “sponsor” in the form of an Orthodox rabbi or the wife of an Orthodox rabbi who can vouch for them.   — Generic Jewish dating site. Users fill out a basic profile (name, age, physical appearance, etc.) and then write a short essay on “About Me.”   — Another generic Jewish dating site. Users check off answers on a multiple-choice profile that includes questions like “If I had the talent … I would choose to be a: 1. Scientist, 2. Philosopher, 3. Musician.”   — Not an exclusively Jewish site, but one where users fill out a very long questionnaire, and then the site matches them up based on their personality profiles.

L.A. GOAL Opens ‘Doors’ at Skirball

Sherrie has cerebral palsy, which causes her hands to tremble. So when she was hired to work as an artist for L.A. GOAL in Culver City, she was concerned.

"I can’t paint a straight line, because my hands shake," Sherrie told Susan Wilder, L.A. GOAL’s art director.

"Well, then don’t," Wilder replied. "Use the shaking in your paintings, because that will be part of your language. Rather than fighting it, you can incorporate it."

A door that was closed suddenly opens.

The key? An extraordinary program for adults with developmental disabilities, many of whom haven’t had much success in a job before, let alone one where they are paid as artists.

Forty L.A. GOAL members will be demonstrating their artistic success in "The Drama of the Door," a unique exhibit opening April 30 at the Skirball Cultural Center’s Ruby Gallery. The intention of the exhibit is to provide an opportunity to understand how the doors we open every day determine the lives we live.

The artists have worked diligently on the Skirball exhibit for the past year, exploring and discussing the theme of doors — doors in their lives that are open for them, doors that create barriers, doors that leave them feeling isolated and doors that give them freedom.

The discussion opened the way for the artwork that emerged: brilliantly colored paintings, black-and-white photographs, richly symbolic, hand-painted boxes and intricately designed wall hangings. Each piece tells a story.

The painted boxes have a door that opens and closes. The outside for some represents what is seen and known by others, while the inside depicts a more private self that can be hidden when the door is closed.

"I never thought that I could be a professional artist," said Lisa, who though visually impaired, has always enjoyed drawing. "My artwork has taken a new direction because of this job. It gave me a whole new life. I was very happy when I discovered I could paint."

Unlike workshops for the handicapped, the employees at L.A. GOAL must adjust to high expectations: to be on time, to do quality work and to negotiate with the staff when something upsets them. According to Wilder, this isn’t easy for many people with developmental disabilities.

"They have been ignored or coddled by society," she said," probably because that’s the easiest way not to deal with them."

Elaine, another artist who has her work in the show, accepts the responsibility and sees the payoff. "L.A GOAL has meant a lot to me," she said. "I’ve never been able to do something I really liked before and not fail at it. I do what they ask. I don’t always like it, but I do it anyway, because it’s a job."

On a typical day in the art studio, Sherrie, Lisa and Elaine sit at a large table covered with works in progress, bottles of bright paints, drawing paper and assorted books. The room is alive with the exciting artwork created here: vibrant designs for note cards, baby blankets and hand-painted furniture.

There are eight artists working at the table, and as they draw and paint, they chat, sometimes about the content of their work or techniques the staff has shown them. Though they’re hard at work, laughter often fills the room — a response to a joke or to someone sharing a recent life challenge met in an amusing way. It’s clear that this is a work setting where ideas blossom and creative juices flow, and where disabilities are not the focus of attention.

"I usually painted flowers and pretty things," Lisa said. "For this exhibit, Susan said, ‘Why don’t you paint something that’s hard for you, something that you haven’t done before?’ I decided to do a trapdoor and paint something I don’t like to talk about. I call it my Worry Box."

"I get very frustrated sometimes, and carry things around inside," she added. "I represented that with a dragon, because a dragon breathes fire and fire is very hot, and can burn you. My worries can burn me and hurt me."

The artists at L.A. GOAL often work collaboratively on projects. For this exhibit, a painting by D’Marcus, titled, "The Boxer Rebellion," was also made into a quilt.

"It makes me feel recognized to have people noticing my work and the things that I have done," D’Marcus said. "It’s a new feeling. It feels really good."

D’Marcus said that the door in his painting opens to another world, one that is relaxing and away from pressure.

"My art is the strongest passion I’ve ever had since I was little," he added. "It helps my fear. I feel calm coming here every day and I try to help other people here to be more relaxed. I feel like part of a family."

L.A. GOAL’s "The Drama of the Door" exhibit will be at the Skirball Cultural Center, April 30-June 29. For more information about the exhibit, call (310) 440-4500. For more information about a reception and silent auction hosted by Sean Penn, Thursday, May 8, 5:30pm, call (310) 838-5274.

Something Special

When Brianna Ross passes by Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, she signs one word to her mother over and over again: "School, school."

"She just loves going there," said Adrienne Ross, Brianna’s mother.

Brianna, 9, has cerebral palsy and developmental delays; she is also a kidney patient. For the past three years, Brianna has attended Aliyah’s religious school with the help of a one-on-one aide. But her abilities are now lagging significantly behind those of the other children and Ross was afraid this past year might be Brianna’s last one at Aliyah.

"It was OK when the children were listening to stories and coloring, but now they’re going to be learning Hebrew and she would have been lost," Ross said. "It would have caused frustration not only for her but for the teachers and the other children as well."

Ross figured the family had no choice but to enroll Brianna at Valley Beth Shalom, which for years has run Shaare Tikvah, the only religious school program in the San Fernando Valley specifically designed for children with special needs.

Then administrators at Temple Aliyah decided to create their own program, Otzar, aimed at children with severe learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and developmental problems. The synagogue requested and received a $10,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation for the program; that, plus a generous donation from members Steve and Ellen Sevran, made it possible to organize two small classrooms with an adapted Judaic curriculum with the goal of including the children in general religious school activities, such as assemblies, tefillah (prayer) and concerts.

So far, six students in grades two and three have enrolled in Otzar, which means "treasure" in Hebrew. The synagogue hopes to expand the program to include younger children whose parents have expressed an interest in enrolling them in religious school.

"We’ve started to see a growing need of children coming in through the preschool who are going to be needing this kind of program," said Pamela Rooks, Aliyah’s religious school director.

Rooks said the school already offers "pull-out" sessions with two on-staff specialists, but that not everybody "can be mainstreamed like that and so those children are not here. Their parents enroll them other places. We want those children to be here."

Rooks’ experience is not unique. Over the past several years, school administrators at synagogue religious schools and preschools have noticed an increased number of children with developmental problems, mostly autism, plus learning disabilities and ADHD.

While children with learning differences and ADHD can sometimes get along in regular classrooms with extra help, many more children are coming through school doors with serious handicaps — and with parents whose burning desire is to see that their children, like all Jewish children, receive a Jewish education.

Bonnie Vorspan, preschool director for Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, said preschool administrators and teachers are usually the first to notice a child is developing atypically.

"We’ve talked about it in directors’ groups. We’re noticing more and more children coming in and we’re having to tell parents their child has to be evaluated. It’s very difficult — both to tell them and to help them through the process," Vorspan said.

The increased need for helping such families is part of what fueled the creation of a new organization, the West Valley Consortium for Children with Special Needs. The group is comprised of Jewish agency leaders like Joel Baker of United Synagogues for Conservative Judaism, Sally Weber of Jewish Family Service and representatives from four synagogues: Temple Aliyah, Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, Shomrei Torah in West Hills and Temple Judea, which has campuses both in West Hills and Tarzana.

Weber said the idea for the consortium occurred earlier this year.

"I staff a committee called ‘The J in JFS’ committee and had invited Rabbi Mark Diamond [of the Board of Rabbis], Rabbi Alan Henkin [of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations] and Baker to come and talk about some of the needs synagogues have and the ways Jewish Family Service could be helpful," Weber recalled. "Joel had this enormous laundry list and I asked him, ‘Out of this whole list, what is most burning issue?’ and he said, ‘Special-needs families.’ He said he had no personal connection, he just sees the need of families and said the Jewish community was not doing what needs to be done."

Baker was unavailable for comment.

So far, the consortium has met twice to brainstorm and share ideas that will boost one another’s programs. Ironically, each synagogue involved works with a different age group: Judea has a preschool program for children with special needs, Kol Tikvah a weekly chavurah/support group for parents of children ages 3 to 5, Aliyah’s new program is for children in first and second grade and Shomrei Torah’s class is comprised of children in three through sixth grade.

"I’m just hoping that we can really be a support for each other," said Vorspan, who has run Kol Tikvah’s Shalom Chaverim program for the past five years. "If I can in some ways help synagogues to incorporate a parent component [in their programs], it will be a phenomenal thing for the families."

Ross said she is grateful the issue is finally gaining attention and support from the synagogues.

"Consistency is very important for children with special needs, like being able to go to school at the same place the family goes to synagogue and not having to drive a half-hour away," she said. "I have four children including Brianna. She should be able to go where her sisters go — and now she can."

A Question of Need

As a young boy with a serious disability, Frank Wexler spent most of his first 10 years in the hospital, undergoing 22 operations. Upon his release, Wexler was anxious to make up for lost time. One of the first things he did was to get a driver’s license. Wexler’s mother, who was overprotective and could not believe he had the ability to do anything quite that daring, almost did not let him obtain one.

"It’s understandable," Wexler says. "Most parents with a kid with a bad disability are overprotective. It’s extremely difficult to handle, it’s expensive, there’s a number of hospitalizations. That’s why no matter what the family constellation, it’s beneficial to the child to have a mentor who is also disabled."

Wexler, who not only learned to drive but went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from NYU, is the coordinator of Jewish Big Brothers of Los Angeles’ (JBB) Disabilities Services. The disabilities program matches disabled men with disabled boys, regardless of whether the child has both parents at home.

This little-known offshoot of the larger JBB program has been in existence for 11 years. Since its inception, between 40 to 50 matches between disabled men and boys have been made.

Unlike the larger JBB program, which matches men with boys who have no father in the home, the disability program is unique in that each disabled child will be matched with an adult with a similar disability. Wexler believes that only with a personal insight of that disability can the big brother serve as an appropriate role model.

"Someone like me, who has lived in a wheelchair, knows what it’s like to be in a wheelchair and has gone through so much stuff that it’s very easy to make a connection with the kids," Wexler says.

"Someone who isn’t disabled and who doesn’t understand — for instance, what it’s like to go to the bathroom in a wheelchair — can hurt the kid by trying to be helpful. The issue has been finding an individual interested in doing that."

Judith Miller, director of social work services at JBB, says that JBB is short 48 matches in the regular program — with disabilities services it’s even tougher to find a match. For one thing, it’s very important to find someone who isn’t angry or bitter due to his disability, in order to make the match the healthiest one possible for the little brother. And, two, society doesn’t always look favorably on the disabled.

"This small component of a larger program was developed to also give the opportunity to disabled men, because often they aren’t seen as being appropriate mentors, but why not?" Miller asks. "They can role model behaviors as they have moved through some of these experiences."

Wexler gives an example of the benefits of role modeling by talking about one of his most successful matches, between big brother Jeremy Newman and little brother Adam Lawrence.

When Wexler read an article about Newman in the Los Angeles Times a few years ago, he immediately called him. Here was a man confined to a wheelchair after falling 100 feet to the ground during a parachute stunt gone wrong. Newman was a triathlete — swimming, biking and running — motivational speaker and personal trainer. Wexler could see that he already had the key ingredient for a good big brother: a positive attitude. Perhaps he would be interested in being a big brother for Lawrence, a boy with cerebral palsy, who was also in a wheelchair.

Newman was delighted with the idea. When Newman met Lawrence, they immediately hit it off. Newman started taking Lawrence to places he had never been, and started doing things with him that Lawrence was never allowed to do before. For instance, when they went to Disneyland, Newman made it clear that he wasn’t going to help Lawrence navigate around Toontown.

"There were things at Disneyland that were difficult, like going downhill. Of course Adam was fearful — he had never been there before. But I told him, ‘I’ll see you at the bottom,’ and he knew I wasn’t going to come and save him. Of course, he did it. By giving him an opportunity to do that on his own, it made him stronger."

The match between Newman and Lawrence has been so successful that Newman eventually moved into a guest house behind Lawrence’s home in Encino, in part to make it easier for the family to attend some of his sporting events, and in part to make it easier for Newman to be with Lawrence two to three times a week, sometimes just to hang out. Usually, though, Newman is thinking of new challenges for Lawrence, like attending Earth Day, which was held at a park, on grass, where navigating a wheelchair is a huge challenge.

"I’m trying to instill the mental attitude that there are no obstacles, only challenges. I try to give Adam an opportunity to do as much as he can on his own in order for him to feel empowered by his own ability."

Not all big brother matches are this successful, but Miller explains that many, in the regular program, as well as this one, go beyond the required commitment — at least a year and up until the age of 18. She believes that this is due to the carefully screened assessments JBB employs.

"We hire only professional social workers, thus, we make good critical assessments — background checks, FBI, DMV, a series of five interviews, on average; we talk to them about their childhood, use of drugs, sex lives, etc. Usually guys who want to do bad things are put off by this process."

Wexler makes it clear that above all they are looking for healthy, positive role models for the child.

"If a parent of a disabled child calls and asks for a big brother, we will work hard to find a match for them, regardless of their disability. It’s a question of need."

Enabled Kids

It’s the high point of the week for Adi Maloul: an art session with friends at Beit Hagalgalim (House of Wheels) in Herzliya. The innovative support project for disabled youngsters lights up the face of the dark-skinned, short-haired 18-year-old.

Her high-tech wheelchair is parked at the end of a long table strewn with paint, pencils and huge sheets of white paper. A group of artists from Tel Aviv is working one-on-one with Maloul and her friends amid a high level of chatter and laughter.

Maloul, born with cerebral palsy, is a thoughtful 12th-grader from Netanya. She has been coming to after-school programs at Beit Hagalgalim for the past six years. The casual, relaxed atmosphere and activities with her peers help Maloul let her hair down in a supportive environment.

Maloul is one of 130 young people who belong to Beit Hagalgalim in Herzliya. Scores of others are served by three other smaller houses in Jerusalem, the Galilee and in the Negev Desert.

Most of the students attend many hours of physical therapy every week, affecting both their academic and social lives. Because of this, the goal of each house in the Beit Hagalgalim framework is the same: to develop social skills and foster independence for the youngsters, and to provide a respite for their families from the emotional and physical demands of caring for a physically challenged child.

Students come to Beit Hagalgalim through referrals by social workers or school principals and by word of mouth, leading to waiting lists for all four houses.

On a recent balmy evening in Herzliya, the specially equipped vans that transport the teens from home to the house disgorged their occupants, who quickly made themselves at home in the pleasant, spacious rented facility. Some teens moved to the kitchen, others hung out schmoozing in the shady garden, and a few wheeled over to the art tables, eager to begin.

Over the din, administrator Laura Kurten explains that students can take part in different activities almost every night of the week. Drama, video, music and journalism are some of the activities offered to the group, which includes people with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other physical limitations.

Every six weeks, a group of 15 youths of the same age spend Shabbat together at the house, which is equipped with pleasant dorm rooms and wheelchair accessible bathrooms. In an atmosphere of tolerance and respect, observant and nonobservant youngsters come together for a weekend of singing, eating and games.

Kurten, a tall, slim, energetic immigrant from Argentina, is especially proud of Beit Hagalgalim counselors who enable the labor-intensive programs to take place. Because of their physical limitations, Beit Hagalgalim participants need one-on-one help, so about 185 volunteer counselors provide assistance.

Coming from all walks of life, the volunteers forge long-term personal relationships with their young charges. “Some of them start out with the kids who are 11 years old and stay with them through high school,” Kurten says. A few graduates of Beit Hagalgalim return as counselors, acting as role models for the younger students.

Graduates and participants eagerly anticipate summer. The highlight of the year, according to Kurten, is the weeklong summer camp. Groups travel with their counselors all over the country and experience challenging recreational activities, such as kayaking, surfing and jeep rides, along with more sedate things such as swimming and bus tours. “It’s a great opportunity to cement friendships and trust and stretch everyone’s potential,” Kurten says.

Committees that include participants, counselors and administrators plan the weekend and summer programs. The whole idea is to encourage responsibility and foster independence, Kurten explains. “This is one place where these kids don’t have to worry about a social worker running after them taking notes for a report.”

Beit Hagalgalim, itself, strives to be as independent as possible. While the 20-year-old program does receive some minimal funding through the National Insurance Institute, most support for its $1 million annual budget comes from private donors. Families pay around $25 a month, which barely covers the cost of transportation.

Today, some former counselors are successful professionals who serve on an advisory committee and help with fundraising. “But it’s a constant struggle,” Kurten notes.

The warm, family atmosphere and long-term student-counselor relationship is unusual in programs for the physically challenged in Israeli society. The quality of special education schools varies widely from city to city, but in general, life for the disabled in Israel is decades behind most Western countries.

Despite a large number of disabled war veterans, public transportation is not wheelchair accessible. There are no laws on the books regarding accessibility in public buildings or places of entertainment.

Most synagogues feature entryways with staircases and no ramps. In parking lots and streets there are designated handicapped parking spots, but few streets have wheelchair-friendly curb ramps, and many apartments built before 1990 have no elevators.

These challenges are set aside for a few hours as Maloul and her friends become absorbed in their art projects. Maloul, who returned from a special trip to Poland a little more than a month ago, has painstakingly transformed the white paper in front of her into a depiction of an embracing couple. She beams as several counselors come over to look at her work and praise her creativity.

Across the room, another young woman maneuvers her wheelchair with its mountain bike wheels closer to the table to finish off her drawing. A counselor comes over to give her a hug and whisper a few supportive words in her ear.

The scene is repeated at several spots around the bright room. Maloul looks around approvingly and remarks, “I love this place — it’s my second home.”

To find out more about Beit Hagalgalim e-mail .

Sound Advice

Two recent conferences held in the Jewish community — one on autism, the other on a wide scope of disabilities — demonstrated the difficulties of reconciling research and reality when it comes to helping individuals with special needs.

The University of Judaism (UJ) held its second annual symposium on autism March 2. About 150 people, from both inside and outside of the UJ, attended the conference which emphasized using behavior modification as the most effective response to autism.

Keynote speaker Gina Green, Ph.D., president of the Association for Behavior Analysis, devoted much of her speech to dismissing other popular and controversial treatments, including facilitated communication, where severely autistic individuals are helped to communicate via typing on a computer, and dietary interventions such as gluten-free and milk-free diets, as bunk.

Taking a different tack, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) sought to address the challenge of educating parents as well as teachers with the Special Needs Information 2000 held Feb. 6 at Stephen S. Wise Temple. More than 400 people, mostly parents, attended seminars on such subjects as evaluating a school for the child with special needs, getting the most out of state-funded service centers, and how to include the developmentally disabled in a yeshiva setting.

The all-day seminars attracted popular local speakers like Dr. Susan Schmidt-Lackner, medical director for the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute’s early childhood partial hospitalization program, who spoke on new trends in medicine for treating people with autism. Like Green at the UJ symposium, Schmidt-Lackner advised her audience to be cautious about falling under the spell of untested or unreliable treatments.

“You have to be very careful because there is going to be a ‘cure du jour’ out every week. We do not want our children to become guinea pigs,” she said.

In another session, representatives from the Westside Regional Center outlined the services available for parents and how to develop a good relationship with a child’s caseworker.

“What is so overwhelming for parents is that it feels so difficult to get the services you need,” said Soryl Markowitz, a WRC quality assurance specialist. “But the more knowledgeable you become, the more you will be able to access those services.”

Dina Kaplan, an attorney whose six-year-old son has multiple disabilities, agreed that knowledge is power when it comes to helping children with special needs. Kaplan is executive director of the K.E.N. Project, a parent training and advocacy organization.

“I tell parents all of the time it is very important to educate yourself regarding your child’s rights, the services they are entitled to and how to get them,” she said.

The Information also featured booths hosted by special needs schools, support groups and other resources including the Julia Ann Singer Center, Vista Del Mar, the Autism Society of Los Angeles, the UCLA Family Support Community Program, Etta Israel and the Chai Lifeline for children with catastrophic illnesses.

“There is a great need for ongoing seminars of this sort,” said Kenneth Schaefler, Ph.D., director of the BJE’s Department of Special Education and Psychological Services. Schaefler is looking for “angels” to help fund seminar speakers and pay for substitutes so schools do not have to close for their teachers to attend special needs in-services.

The BJE, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has a special education department that holds ongoing forums for parents and educators. For more information call (323) 761-8629. Those interested in joining the field of special education graduate programs are urged to call (310) 476-9777.