Letters to the editor: Disabilities in the Jewish community, rain and saving Judaism

One Man’s Disability, A Community’s Responsibility

Thanks, Rob Eshman, for making this issue more salient (“Jews Without Harvard,” Feb. 14). My three children tested as “gifted” or “highly-gifted” and I’m glad I pulled them out of the specialized highly-gifted schools, and out of a culture that worshiped such a narrow part of the skills necessary to build a full life and a healthy culture. Some of the most loving and socially fluid people I have met had some form of a learning disability. Often, they can teach us what we have lost in our intellectual frenzy.

Orli Peter via jewishjournal.com

Thanks for your article on the Jewish community needing to develop more post-secondary options for its disabled adults. I am the mother of an 18-year-old young woman with high functioning autism, and her options post high school were quite limited, especially as she is intelligent for college, but in no way able to navigate a campus on her own.  Just as most parents — Jews included — would be looking for financial aid for their Harvard-bound children, we also need affordable or subsidized options for our special-needs children. Even if they are able to obtain employment and be moderately self-sufficient, it will most likely not be at the level of a typical child. We need to save every dime we can for a future without us there to help them.

My daughter is currently enrolled at Valley College and is also enrolled in the NEXUS program through the non-profit Tierra del Sol.  The goal of NEXUS is education and employment, and they coach her through all the mazes involved in college and post-high school life. Tierra del Sol has served the disabled adult community for over 40 years and for us, is totally covered by Regional Center. Why hasn’t the Jewish community in Los Angeles, with its vast reach and resources, been able to replicate such a program?  

I am so pleased to see you address these issues in the Jewish Journal. Please continue to do so.

Gail Field, Encino

Thank you for writing about the under-served needs of the disabled in the Jewish community.  It is woefully missing and the few efforts being made don’t scratch the surface.

But I want to add that there are other gaps in our community. What about Jewish high school dropouts? What about those in the Jewish community who decide to learn a trade or those who have no skills and no opportunities? What about Jews who come out of jail or prison and need an opportunity to lead a better life?  

There are many groups focused on young Jewish professionals … whether Federation sponsored or synagogue sponsored. What about those who aren’t professionals? Even the articles in the Jewish Journal focus on the stars of our youth … but what about the average Jake?

We have much to do and need many more people focusing on a broader view of those who will make the Jewish community of the future.  

Fae Hoffman-Buckner, Studio City 

Praying for a Rainy Day

Thank you, David Suissa, for quoting Victor Davis Hanson’s article and citing Israel’s can-do attitude (“California Needs Israel,” Feb. 14). As a longtime Los Angeleno and current Yerushalmi (Jerusalemite), I can attest to our daily concern for more rain. Each morning in our minyan in Jerusalem, we recite prayers against the stoppage of rain, invoking the Almighty to bring rain to Israel. However, we first do our best, and then, and only then, leave the rest to our Creator.

Gershon Weissman via jewishjournal.com

Taking a Page from the Book of Mormon

The Dennis Prager story “Yair’s Norwegian Girlfriend” (Feb. 7) reminds me of how Jews feel about our religion. 

But Dennis does not provide a solution to the problem of the lack of attachment to Judaism. I think that the solution will come only from faith. What we need is an educational program that begins right after a bar/bat mitzvah. We need to instill a binding faith in our young people that provides them with enough faith that they would be willing, with their parent’s approval, to go on tours to find converts to Judaism. The Mormons do it. Are we Jews willing to send our children out into the world bringing the message that Judaism is the best religion in the world?

Masse Bloomfield via e-mail


In the issue of the Jewish Journal dated February 14-20, 2014, we published an article about the grand jury indictment of Aviv Mizrahi and Aryeh Greenes on charges of alleged fraud. In one of the paragraphs of our article, we also noted a 1990 Los Angeles Times article about a dispute between Star Club and Canon USA, and we referenced Alon, the brother of Aviv Mizrahi. We are now noting that the 1990 dispute was a civil matter and did not involve any criminal prosecution and is also unrelated to the recent indictment covered in our article.”

Israeli NGO to advise UN on disabled kids

The UN Economic and Social Council has named an Israeli NGO as a special consultant on assisting disabled children.

The inclusion will allow Beit Issie Shapiro to “provide Israeli expertise in the field of disability rights and represent the innovations coming out of Israel,” according to the organization’s website.

The Council has 54 member states, including Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Qatar. Israel is not a member.

Beit Issie Shaipro was founded in 1980, and is now helping 30,000 children in Israel, according to its website. The organization also helps train thousands of therapists in Israel with its new therapies, and conducts research and shares best practices internationally.

The Israeli weekly Yedioth Hasharon quoted Noa Forman, an Israeli delegate to the UN on human rights issues, as describing the nomination as “a tremendous achievement.”

“The fact that an Israeli NGO made it past hurdles set by countries that are not exactly friendly toward Israel shows that no one can object to Beit Issie Shapiro’s work,” she saod.

Beit Issie Shapiro has a center in Kalansawa, an Arab city in Israel. Children from the West Bank also are regularly brought to Beit Issie Shapiro for treatment, Jean Judes, the NGO’s executive director, told the Israeli weekly.

Yang Sam Ma, South Korea’s Ambassador in Israel, gave the “initial push” to have the organization registered, Forman is quoted as saying. Sam Ma has sat on the committee in the past.

“The ECOSOC family is very happy about the nomination of Beit Issie Shapiro to Special Consultative Status,” Andrei Abramov, chief of the NGO branch of ECOSOC, said.

Lessons from Israel’s programs for the disabled

In a crowded living room in the dilapidated suburbs of Jaffa, the delegates from the Special Needs Study Mission from Los Angeles gathered closer to hear the testimony of an Israeli woman with severe disabilities tell the story of how proper intervention changed her life in countless ways. The program, which is subsidized by the State of Israel, provides Etty S. with home visits from a social worker, an emergency button to contact round-the-clock medical help, and perhaps most importantly, organized excursions with other disabled people in the vicinity.

After one teenager with autism had been calmed down from a terrible fright after he collided with Etty’s enormous blond Labrador in the bathroom, the group listened in respectful silence to her personal story. After she decided to divorce an abusive husband and raise her two children alone, she lost 60 pounds and spent six months in a psychiatric institute. Shortly after her release, she began to suffer from physical ailments that prevent her from accomplishing even the most menial tasks. Despite six doses of morphine a day to ease the pain, she can barely walk and is incapable of cleaning, cooking or shopping. Etty isn’t strong enough to open the front door of her apartment.

“Until I went out a few months ago for a visit to the sea, I hadn’t even seen the trash bins at the bottom of the stairs in six years,” she explained slowly. “I even went to see a film with the group recently after not being in a movie theater for 30 years.”

The home visits have given Etty a new sense of security. She knows the push of a button will summon help, and she no longer feels so alone.

“Even my dog loves Eli,” she said with a big smile as her Labrador nearly squirmed out of her arms upon hearing the social worker’s name. “He’s not just someone who buys me medicine, he also comes to fix things around the house and help me arrange dog walkers. Sometimes I call him just to talk and no matter how busy he is, he makes time for my chatter.”

This program was one of dozens that the Los Angeles delegates were introduced to on their whirlwind weeklong mission to Israel at the end of July. Sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the trip was designed to introduce participants to a wide variety of solutions that are considered cutting-edge in meeting the needs of those with developmental disabilities. Another goal of the trip was to provide opportunities for fact-finding and exchange.

“We’re here to look at what is being done that we can replicate when appropriate, but we’re also here to forge relationships that will help us learn from each other and collaborate in the future,” said Lori Klein, the Jewish Federation’s senior vice president of Caring for Jews in Need.

Participants included an impressive array of well-known activists (many of whom are also parents of children with autism and other disabilities), therapists, program directors, lawyers, film producers, rabbis, teachers, social workers, parents and three young adults with autism. 

According to Andrew Cushnir, the Jewish Federation’s executive vice president and chief program officer, one of the most pressing social needs in the United States at the moment is the dramatic rise in autism. “We are going to see a 600 percent increase over the next 10 years of young adults who are diagnosed with autism, and we need to start creating a new batch of programs that will meet the needs of the new era,” he explained.

Josh Erenmark and Wyatt Isaacs with soldiers with special needs serving in the IDF. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Federation

Although some similar programs do currently exist in Los Angeles in a different format, the vast majority does not. “We don’t have socialized medicine in the United States, so we are working with a different system entirely,” Cushnir said. “Once we get home we’ll have to evaluate whether what we’d like to accomplish is possible and then we’ll have to decide if it’s economically feasible.”

Without governmental funding, many programs aren’t viable without philanthropic support. And that, according to some delegates, is an extremely limited resource compared to the financial backing Israelis can access.

“Israel is really a leader in special needs work because they care about all sectors of society here — from early intervention to teenagers to army service and beyond. We’re looking at all of the programs here but we’ll have to see which pieces of each program are applicable at home and could work well,” explained Sarah Blitzstein, the director of HaMercaz, a collaborative program that includes The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, among other agencies. But beyond the exposure to innovative Israeli programs and being inspired by many Israelis with special needs who are productive members of society thanks to integrative models, Blitzstein also noted that the trip created bonds between the delegates, many of whom did not know each other previously.

“I can go home now and e-mail people or direct my clients to an ally in the field,” she said. “I’ve already set up tentative meetings with people at home about collaborating. Sometimes we get in our own little bubble and it’s hard to see the big picture, so this kind of trip really gives us all an opportunity to see what’s going on in Israel and meet each other to find out more about what’s right in our own backyard.”

One of the most pressing issues on the table for groups with special needs is housing — not just within the Jewish community but also among the entire population. Many older disabled people are forced to get by on their own and cannot thrive as active members of society without a proper environment. As their parents die, some are left to fend entirely for themselves. Israel has come up with many different ways to approach this problem but the modus operandi is always the same: focus on what someone can do rather than what they cannot.

The dinner and ensuing play at Café Kapish was a great example of this policy. After being served a meal in the dark by blind waiters, the group watched a play with actors who are deaf, blind or both.

“The play was extremely powerful. It really showed us the resilience of the human spirit,” Elaine Hall said. “This is a great example of the community coming together and believing that the impossible can be made possible. If we value those with disabilities and give them the best rather than the crumbs, nothing is beyond our reach.”

Hall, founder of the Miracle Project (a theater and film program for children of all disabilities) and the director of the Vista Inspire Program, cited the theatrical, creative activities at the Nalaga’at Center in Jaffa to be a wonderful example of Israel’s positive outlook and appreciation for those with disabilities. In fact, Hall’s career path changed dramatically from being a leading child acting coach to a creative therapist after her adopted son Neal was diagnosed with autism 15 years ago. When traditional therapies failed to help him, she turned to alternative paths to bring him out of his isolation.

Members of the delegation celebrating the end of the mission at the Western Wall. Photo courtesy of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

Many delegates agreed that instead of looking for a miracle cure, society would be better off practicing acceptance and they were pleased to see the Israeli spirit of inclusion almost everywhere they went. The more personal stories they heard, the more evident this became. Reuven, a soldier with autism who completes organizational tasks for the IDF and is able to serve his country in a meaningful way despite his disabilities, was a source of great inspiration. The group also heard from a 35-year-old man with epilepsy who was homeless at the age of 15 and had attempted suicide multiple times until being taken in by a center for independent living in Jaffa. Now he has the support and care he needs to play guitar, act in plays and motivate others with his personal story. At Aleh Negev, once infertile desert sands have been transformed into a thriving oasis by disabled individuals. One resident named Dalia, who was severely disabled from polio, is proud of working 12-hour days at the village’s Internet cafe. The promotion of independence in order to become productive members of Israeli society no matter what they must overcome gives new hope to the hopeless.

“The wonderful ability to use every resource in order to accomplish great things is what we need to take back home with us,” Hall said with enthusiasm. “We can also learn a lot from the way social services work together with the government in order to promote inclusion rather than exclusion.”

Beyond meeting individuals and touring facilities, the delegates also attended a conference in Jerusalem where they heard from government officials, legal advocates, professors and other Israeli parents.

“The conference was a tremendous opportunity for dialogue,” Klein said. “For some of the parents on our trip, it was a chance to hear that Israeli parents are facing the same challenges and frustrations. For our autistic participants, it was a chance to express the need for choices. There is simply no one size fits all.”

The disabled community is made up of individuals who have different needs so providing various options to meet those needs should be a central focus for future planning. Klein is hoping that the connections formed among parents, children, industry professionals and legal advocates will create lasting partnerships.

As the group gathered for its final breakfast at the Alexander Suites hotel in Tel Aviv overlooking the sea, participants discussed their expectations versus reality.

“The rocks need to be cleared away so that acceptance can be celebrated. We are all individuals and if we stay focused on what we can do rather than what we cannot, we can overcome the bureaucratic pitfalls,” Hall said.

For Diane Isaacs, a veteran producer of film, television and music and the co-author with Elaine Hall of “Seven Keys to Unlock Autism,” the trip to Israel was not yet at an end. With her 17-year-old son, Wyatt, who starred in the HBO documentary “Autism: The Musical,” she attended an international conference in Jerusalem hosted by the ICare4Autism foundation.

As her well-spoken, highly intelligent and musically talented son took the podium to speak, she wondered what he would say since she never coaches him or dictates what he should share. He again amazed her with his precise ability to define the biggest issue in a simple but profound way for the international audience.

“Just like the wall that divides Israel and Palestine, there is a wall that divides the disabled from everyone else,” he said. “Our goal should be to get rid of the wall. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Jewish, Christian, Muslim or autistic; there shouldn’t be walls. We have to find a way to break down these barriers.”

Michelle Wolf, a blogger for the Jewish Journal and co-chair of the mission, noted that the intensity of the trip was a life-changing experience, not just for her but for many others.

“In one of our great conversations on the bus someone compared us to the women’s rights movement seeking suffrage. I think that social movement aptly captures the energy and intensity of what we as parents and activists are trying to accomplish now. We have a long way to go, but this trip has given us more tools to get there.”

10 groups awarded for fostering inclusion of disabled in Jewish community

The Ruderman Family Foundation announced its ten inaugural Ruderman Prize in Disability winners, for fostering full inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community.

The foundation, which initiated the prize this year, received more than 150 applications representing seven countries. The winning organizations receive $20,000.

“Awarding the prizes is the genesis of a legacy that we believe will support and promote new opportunities for people with disabilities in the Jewish community,” Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said Tuesday in a statement.

“These ten award winners offer a vision of a world with full inclusion, where people with disabilities have the same opportunities for employment, education, religion, and enjoyment of their communities as those without disabilities. These grants will nourish and nurture that vision.”

Recipients include organizations that pair professional dancers with the disabled in Israel; work for the inclusion of the disabled into Mexico’s Jewish community; integrate the developmentally disabled into the Israeli Defense Forces; and create a more welcome environment in synagogues for the disabled.

The winners are the Vertigo Dance Company; SHALVA: The Association for the Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel; Norwood Ravenswood; MetroWest ABLE; Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center of San Diego; Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Boston; Kadima; Jewish Family Center Adain Lo; Reishit School; and ASKIM Israel: National Association for the Habilitation of Children and Adults with Intellectual Disabilities.

Shatner Horse Trek; Four of a Kind; Star Bright; Mayor Meets Mayor; Social Justice? Here I Am

Horse Trek

William and Elizabeth Shatner made their first U.S. public appearance on behalf of the William and Elizabeth Shatner-Jewish National Fund Therapeutic Riding Consortium Endowment for Israel last week at “An Evening of Magical Information.”

The $10 million endowment will support therapeutic riding programs for the disabled throughout Israel so that more individuals can benefit from the essential contribution equine therapy makes to the overall well-being of the disabled. The long-term hope is to forge cooperative networks between Israel and neighboring countries in support of therapeutic riding for the disabled.

Four of a Kind

The San Fernando Valley Council of Na’amat USA (formerly Pioneer Women) honored two local couples Sept. 10 with its 2006 Distinguished Community Award. Marilyn and Jerry Bristol and Trudy and Lou Kestenbuam were recognized for their decades of philanthropy and public service. The lunch at Braemar Country Club in Tarzana raised $75,000 for the Petach Tikvah MultiPurpose Center in Israel. Middle East expert Yoav Ben-Horin gave a thoughtful speech on the current situation in Israel and reminded everyone that events in the Middle East never turn out predictably. Phil Blazer served as master of ceremonies for the evening.

Star Bright

” target=”_blank”>www.thalians.org.

Mayor Meets Mayor

Rabbi David Baron of Temple of the Arts hosted Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Mayor Yona Yahav of Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, on Yom Kippur. The Israeli city was recently shut down for more than a month during the destructive Hezbollah missile attacks.
“Mayor Yahav is a symbol of resiliency” said Baron. “This is a recurring theme of Yom Kippur — that the Jewish people will endure hatred and violence to pray for peace.”

The vision of Temple of the Arts, which was founded by Baron, is “to reconnect fellow Jews and all people seeking spiritual enlightenment with the beliefs and traditions of Judaism through the arts.”

For further information, or to attend the services, call (323) 658-4900 or visit

Visit with special people makes for special summer

Going to Disneyland with your family or friends is always an experience. But going with a group of developmentally disabled adults turns out to be unforgettable.

This summer, I participated in Yad B’Yad, a program where a group of high school students and a group of developmentally disabled campers from around the United States travel together, along with a staff of counselors.

The joy that I saw on so many faces when we were boarding “it’s a small world” is something I will cherish forever. Joy can be found in simply buying clothing or seeing a movie, but seeing someone laugh at a showing of “MuppetVision 3-D” sparked a type of pure joy I had never encountered.

We hadn’t planned to end up in Disneyland.

Yad B’Yad, sponsored by the Orthodox Union’s Yachad program for the disabled, was set to begin on July 18. I was incredibly excited for this amazing opportunity.

The summer after 10th grade is a summer where most teens look to hang out with friends — in Israel, particularly — and just have a great time getting to know people. I had a different agenda in mind: I wanted to spend my summer in Israel, as well, but I wanted to know I would grow from the experience.

But the day before we were supposed to leave for Israel, I received a call from my father.

“Israel is canceled because of the war in Lebanon,” he told me.

What was going to happen to the summer of my life?

Well, the next day the program began anyway, with a new destination — the West Coast. A little disappointed (especially since I grew up in L.A.), I boarded the buses and began the journey that would become the greatest experience of my life. Apprehensive at first, I grew more and more comfortable with the high school and Yachad members and was able to establish personal relationships with each and every one of them.

While the program is set up for the high school students to give the disabled or handicapped participants the times of their lives, the reverse was also true and overwhelming. The joy and fun the Yachad members brought to all the participants was and will forever be unforgettable. Waking up to smiles every morning and going to sleep with the exact same happy faces at night is an indelible memory.

The first Shabbat everyone met and established connections with as many people as possible. This was a great success and set the tone for the rest of the summer. We started in San Francisco and went to Palo Alto and Los Angeles, including our stop at Disneyland.

Prayer services took place three times a day; in the morning, the boys put on their tefillin. One Yachad member I had the privilege to assist with his tefillin was Navid Harouni, one of the three Los Angeles participants on the summer program. Every morning, he and I would recite the Shema together.

On the last day of the trip, when we reached the last word of the first paragraph, my eyes were close to tearing. The type of joy and love Navid expressed by saying a few words that so many people say carelessly gave me the warmest feeling and one of most rewarding experiences of my life.

The last week of camp we traveled to Arizona. When we got to the Grand Canyon for a magnificent sunset, everyone was clicking away with cameras, observing God’s amazing creation. Once the sun had almost set, one counselor from Israel, Shachar ben David, asked everyone to pick a different spot on the platform and simply think about something meaningful in perfect silence.

I sat down looking at the spectacular sunset with lightning crashing down on the background and was astonished at the beauty God could create. Then, looking around at everyone else sitting in silence, I thought, “Wow, look at how God was able to create a program like this, as well.”

The night after the program ended, I received at least 50 e-mails from people on the program saying how hard the separation is and how different life will be without 65 amazing people joined together. A reunion occurred Aug. 24, only three days after the program concluded. The ties and relationships established through the program are the types that remain forever.

Participants in these programs go with a specific goal in mind — to give more than you get. Those are the types of people who try to perfect this world and assist in bringing unity to the Jewish nation as a whole.

Ian Lurie is an 11th grader at YULA.

First Person – Like Any Other Child

By his size and handsome impression, our son, Max, appears to be like any other boy his age, however when you meet him in his wheelchair, you quickly learn that he is severely disabled, both cognitively and physically. He’s unable to talk, use a device to communicate, propel himself or use his hands. You realize that he’s dependent on others in every aspect of his life. Yet, that didn’t stop our family and friends from all over California, our community and Max himself from celebrating his becoming a bar mitzvah. In January, 160 people gathered for a Havdalah service at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes to recognize our son’s turning 13 and to share in the joy and inspiration he has stimulated within each of us.

As my wife, our 9-year-old daughter and I proudly joined Max to sit on the bimah, Rabbi Isaac Jeret and Cantor Sam Radwine conducted a beautiful service filled with tradition. Music, an aliyah, prayers and sensitive words recognized the significance of the evening. With the intent of highlighting the joy of the occasion rather than focusing on the uniqueness of the situation and Max’s disabilities, the service was purposely kept simple and accented with lots of singing. On the bimah, we sat in a semicircle just one step above the congregation. With Max seated between my wife and me, and, with our daughter, the rabbi and the cantor all sitting alongside us; we were so close to family and friends that I felt as if we were at home, in our living room, for a family event. It was a warm, supportive and loving environment that everyone was able to share in, up close and personal. My wife and I, the cantor and the synagogue president each were called for an aliyah. Then, as Max is fortunate to have a 92-year-old great-grandmother, four grandparents, six aunts and uncles and seven first cousins, each was called upon to participate in the Havdalah ceremony. Max’s grandparents held the candle, his cousins held the Kiddush cup and his sister and great-grandmother held the spice box. The support of our families was overwhelming.

Appreciating the sensory stimulation, Max laughed and smiled throughout the 45-minute service. Building on the moment, I shared an interpretation of the relevant Torah portion to speak of how our family has matured from having Max in our lives and experiencing his disabilities. Max has taught us, both figuratively and literally, the value of being kind, doing mitzvot, not taking things for granted, liking people for who they are and recognizing that there is purpose and meaning for everyone in what we do and in everything that happens. I acknowledged that through Max’s disability, he has demonstrated a kind of strength we all need to make the best of situations, to welcome and invite diversity and to appreciate how people, even when they cannot communicate in the ways to which we are accustomed, can enjoy life in different ways.

For me, Max’s bar mitzvah was a very emotional event. It was not just the occasion of his becoming a bar mitzvah that was momentous. It was the feeling and recognition that our son, who doesn’t understand and is not easily included in regular activities and holidays, was being recognized and confirmed. For several years, I had found myself becoming very emotional during bar and bat mitzvahs as the 13-year-old would read from the Torah and recite his or her speech. I couldn’t imagine how we could enable Max to have the opportunity to experience such a crucial life-cycle event. However, about nine months ago (prior to Max’s bar mitzvah), my wife and I had a conversation with Cantor Radwine. We talked about a simple, creative and musical service to recognize Max turning 13. Then, following a discussion with Rabbi Jeret, we decided to have a bar mitzvah; the date was set for a Saturday night when we could all share in the experience of Havdalah. So, there we were, with Max, my wife and daughter on the bimah and I could not have been happier.

As with any bar mitzvah, the service and reception is tailored to child’s abilities and interests. The reception, in the motif of a carnival atmosphere, was dinner with live background music. The theme for the evening, inspired by a Yiddish proverb, was “Each child carries his own blessing into the world.”

“Inclusion” for the disabled has many different meanings. In the broadest sense and as demonstrated in our son’s bar mitzvah, it means to open doors and provide experiences and opportunities for people of all abilities. The value of inclusion is in the pleasure we know the recipient receives. Equally as important, however, is the value that the community experiences from the event — particularly the support we offer one another.

Max’s bar mitzvah celebrated our rich Jewish traditions; recognized Max within the community; reflected on the significance of life, family and friends; and illustrated how, thinking outside the box, we can celebrate life-cycle events with people of all abilities.

Anton Dahlerbruch is deputy city manager of the city of Beverly Hills.


Simple Minds

I shared a ballroom last Saturday night with a group of people whose lives could easily inspire nothing more than pity. Like me, they were attending the annual gala of Etta Israel Center, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides outreach and services to developmentally disabled Jews and their families.

Etta Israel is one of those rare organizations that attracts support — and offers support — across denominational boundaries. So the lobby of the California Science Center, decked out for a private evening affair, was host to bearded, black-hatted rabbis and smooth-shaven, kippah-less types. There were women in cocktail dresses and women in fashionable shaidels. UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, whose politics veer left, ran into an old acquaintance, Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, executive director of Maimonides Academy of Los Angeles, and the two men joked about who was going to swing whom over to his side.

Also among these Jewish leaders and financial supporters of Etta Israel were dozens of the young adults and children whose named and unnamed challenges — cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s syndrome and others — are often used as reasons to exclude them from many things that society has to offer, like an education.

The Etta Israel Center runs programs to teach Judaism to developmentally challenged children and young adults, as well as group homes for adults (its third home will open in the Valley in June) and a popular summer day camp. It helps Jewish day schools meet the learning needs of all its students, and has trained thousands of teachers in how to help all children learn through its Schools Attuned programs.

One of the young women in its girls yeshiva program saw me taking notes and approached me.

“She wants to show you her writing,” said the educator I was speaking with. The young woman couldn’t form words, but offered me her notepad, on which she had written several rows of wavy lines. It was just lines — no words, no letters — but it was her writing. She beamed and blushed at once.

In another context, the moment could have inspired pity. But pity is cheap. Like guilt, it’s only useful as a tool to pick the locks on our hearts, to compel us to change, to act.

Surrounded by friends from her class, helped along by the educator and the people at Etta Israel — as well as by parents, like the dozens of committed ones in the room — the young woman struck me as confident and fortunate. She found herself embraced by people who wouldn’t settle for mere pity.

One of the evening’s honorees was Valerie Vanaman, an attorney whose relentless advocacy on behalf of special-needs education has improved the lives of thousands of children and their families.

“Every child is entitled to receive an appropriate educational program,” Vanaman said during her award acceptance speech. It is such a simple idea, but like most simple ideas, it takes people of great intellect to conceive it and men and women of iron will to implement it.

Conversely, the idea that people with mental, emotional or physical disabilities might be barred from partaking in a public or Jewish education is, no matter how cool and rational it may seem, the fruit of simple minds, and it takes no more ability than the slack acceptance of the status quo to realize it. Vanaman railed against challenges to opportunity and funding of special-needs students at the state level, and urged parents to contact their representatives and State Board of Education Superintendent Jack O’Connell to protest the decrease in services. “Lawyers can’t save the day,” she said. “Only parents can save the day.”

The other honoree was David Suissa, the founder of Suissa/Miller Advertising and publisher of Olam magazine. During his speech, Suissa recounted the story of Etta Israel, a teacher who, after retirement, took it upon herself to teach developmentally disabled children at Beth Jacob Congregation for 20 years. Her experiences led Dr. Michael Held to create a center in her name. Again, it was a simple idea: instead of offering pity, offer parity. Extend the beauty and benefits of Jewish learning to those most likely to be left behind. Focus teachers on the students’ abilities, working through — and around — their deficits.

The organization, which has largely focused on the Orthodox community, is looking to be of service to non-Orthodox day schools, as well. Held wants more schools to emulate the model of schools like the CSUN-affiliated CHIME Charter schools in Woodland Hills, where enrollment is 80 percent “typical” children and 20 percent special-needs children. Why can’t the Jewish community, he asked, support a Jewish high school following that model?

A simple, brilliant idea — waiting for people of iron will to make it a reality.

For more information, go to www.etta.org


Task Force Reviews Access for Disabled

Childhood polio didn’t slow Jay Kruger. Although he couldn’t run, Kruger led a normal life as a teenager and into adulthood. Now, like other seniors experiencing post-polio syndrome, his strength is receding. To get around, three years ago he began relying on an electric wheelchair that he controls with a joystick.

While federal laws require public buildings to provide access for the handicapped, Kruger still encounters restaurants without ramps, public restrooms with hard-to-open doors that trap him inside and theater seating that is spitting distance from the screen. One quarter of the nation’s population cope with either physical or cognitive disabilities.

“People with two good legs, it doesn’t hit them,” said Kruger, who recently toured the recently opened Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Irvine to critique its accessibility for the handicapped.

Kruger had another motive, too. He is a member of a special Jewish Family Service (JFS) task force, which this fall will survey for the first time the needs and barriers of the physically and mentally disabled at synagogues, day schools and other Jewish institutions in Orange County.

It is hoped the Jewish Federation-funded survey will identify synagogues or programs that address needs of the disabled, which can be a model for others. The subject is a sensitive and complex one, as it will put a spotlight on community support for special services and conflicting attitudes over how to provide those services.

Findings initially will be compiled as a local Jewish resource guide, said Mel Roth, JFS executive director.

“When you find yourself with a child with special needs, it’s a maze out there,” said La Rhea Steindler, a JFS case manager and counselor, who is leading the 18-member task force, and is a mother of children with disabilities. “If it takes you three years to identify special needs, you’ve lost three precious years and have the emotional damage that goes with it.”

“If we shorten that process, we may prevent it,” she said.

The task force includes representatives from local Jewish groups, like the Jeremiah Society, as well as county service providers.

“It’s a very difficult job to get the community to recognize there are people among us who can’t benefit from society,” said Rose Lacher, who for 20 years has tried without success to establish a Jewish group home for mentally disabled adults in Orange County. She founded the Jeremiah Society, a social club of 30 members that draws participants from outside the county, reflecting the scarcity of such services.

“There are a lot of barriers,” Lacher said. “Some people just don’t want to hear about people who are different.”

“Using a public restroom has nothing to do with being Jewish,” said Joan Levine, who trains special education teachers at Cal State Fullerton. Levine, the author of a vocational guide for Orange County’s disabled, is dyslexic and has attention deficit disorder. She also is a JFS task force member.

Even so, she pointed out, observant Jews with disabilities face some particular hurdles. As an example, she said, turning off a hearing aid on Shabbat is considered an act of work, which is prohibited. Levine recalls having to seek permission from a religious court to use a sign language interpreter at a bat mitzvah where a deaf relative was to be called to the pulpit.

While day schools and supplemental religious schools willingly enroll special needs students, few are staffed with teachers expert in their needs. Some training is available locally through a little-known group, Special Needs Learning Partnership, formerly known as Jewish Education For All. The group provides highly regarded training in special-needs instruction for religious school teachers, hosts experts for talks with parents and teachers, and supplements teacher salaries.

“It’s the best-kept secret,” said Linda Shoham, the partnership director and also a member of the JFS task force. In the coming year, partnership-trained teachers will offer special-needs religious school classes at Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek and Huntington Beach’s Congregation Adat Israel.

Yet even when such resources are available, many parents with special-needs children prefer mainstream classes rather than a specialized one, which can be stigmatizing.

During the JCC tour, Kruger was pleased to learn the fitness staff includes Angel Luna, a victim of cerebral palsy, who is a rehabilitation specialist. Luna’s expertise with stroke and heart-attack victims would serve the disabled, too, said Sean Eviston, the JCC athletic director.

“He fits a niche perfectly that is lacking in most commercial gyms,” Eviston said.

Kruger was equally impressed with a submersible chair, allowing the wheelchair-bound to be immersed in the swimming pool.

“I’ve never seen another one,” he said.
But entering a JCC restroom or the senior center was a considerable effort for Kruger from his wheelchair.

“There are people with walkers who will have more difficulty than I getting through all those doors,” said Kruger, none of which open automatically. For those reasons, Kruger gave the JCC a “B” grade. “I couldn’t give it an ‘A.'”

Schwarzenegger’s Kindest Un-Cut

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t know it, but his recent
gesture to reverse planned cuts for the disabled was the greatest memorial
tribute to my brother, Danny. This week, we observed Danny’s shloshim, the
traditional 30 days after the death of a loved one.

Danny didn’t have a political bone in his body. No lawyer
ever represented him. He wasn’t a member of any union, wasn’t even able to
work. He had no wife and no children to care for him. He was just one of the
faceless, nameless disabled you walk by on your way to work or at the grocery
store. But to us, and now to our governor, my brother was not faceless or
nameless. He was a man with “special needs.”

Danny didn’t arrive in the City of Angels brimming with
optimism like so many. He was forced here four years ago when our ailing mother
in Connecticut could no longer care for him. It was an insurmountable
adjustment for a 46-year-old with epilepsy, kidney cancer, malignant melanoma,
some brain damage from prolonged use of anti-seizure medications and many
social issues from periods of isolation. But Danny was able to live a life with
dignity in our Golden State benefiting from many of the programs that escaped
the guillotine recently. And we cannot settle for anything less for the
thousands with special needs like Danny or worse.

Danny attended the Valley Storefront Adult Day Health Care
Center in North Hollywood, a full-day care program where he received a
nutritious and kosher lunch and badly needed medical attention and physical

He was a client of the North Los Angeles County Regional Center,
which provided him with a devoted counselor and advocate and all the basic
human services that the Lanterman Act says he has a right to.

He lived in an assisted-living facility, where he was given
a private room and treated with respect. Prior to that, when he was physically
able, he lived in a group home with five other men like him and a devoted

Danny had the best medical care this city has to offer,
including a top general practitioner, neurologist, nephrologist, oncologist and
other specialists. And he could not pay for any of it.

He achieved a great deal of mobility with Access Paratransit,
which thereby increased his contact with the outside world.

It was back in April that we received the news that Danny
would finally encounter the ultimate disability, inoperable cancer of the
liver. His death sentence was carried out seven months later. But, even in the
process of death, he received fine medical care by the Cedars-Sinai Hospice
Program, which is following up with counseling for my family to try to deal
with this tragedy.

Danny Solomon died at the age of 50, with $20 in his pocket
— part of the $50 I had given him a few days earlier. That was the sum total of
his estate. But the level of care that he received and the dignity that marked
his final days are something every California resident should be proud of.
Thank you, governor, in Danny’s name and in his memory for the compassion you
showed. Â

Ron Solomon is executive director of the West Coast Friends of Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Challenge Issued

Gloria Lenhoff’s music debut was her bat mitzvah. Instead of reciting Torah, she amazed guests with a chapter from the Song of Songs, singing in a pitch-perfect soprano voice.

Since then, she has performed in a dozen languages on prominent stages, starred in a television movie and picked up the accordion. Now 47, she currently sings gospel with The Miracles, a touring choir of residents from Baddour Center, a 120-acre, Methodist-backed village for the mentally retarded in Mississippi. Since Gloria joined the choir, after relocating two years ago from Orange County, its repertoire has expanded to include Hebrew melodies. She also occasionally serves as cantorial soloist at Tupelo’s Temple B’nai Israel.

Placing their daughter in a lifetime-care haven — one that emphasizes music but lacks a Jewish environment — was wrenching for Howard Lenhoff, 72, a retired UC Irvine biology professor and his wife, Sylvia, 70, a retired administrator, who had lived in Costa Mesa for 35 years.

"There is no comparable place in the Jewish community," fumes Lenhoff, who also relocated to Oxford, Miss., to remain near his daughter. "We’re quite angry about this. Who wants to disrupt their whole lives?" he asks, describing the predicament confronting aging parents of developmentally disabled children. "It was not an easy choice."

Though time is against him, Lenhoff is praying for a second miracle. He already witnessed one. In 1991, an organization he co-led succeeded in relocating 60,000 Ethiopian Jews from famine-plagued Africa to Israel, an 18-year effort.

Last month, seizing the pulpit at an annual dinner of the Jewish Community Foundation, Lenhoff challenged Orange County’s Jewish community to fill what he described as a "glaring gap in social services." He asked the community to join him in creating the first regional campus for the Jewish retarded, one comparable to villages most often supported by Christian denominations.

"Non-Jewish groups are doing something about it," he says. "Why can’t Jewish kids end up in a Jewish environment?"

The couple, who issued their challenge in a letter read at the event, was honored for establishing the foundation’s first gift annuity, a $300,000 charitable donation in proceeds from their home sale. Income from the annuity will cover their daughter’s living costs until her parents’ death, and then it will be dispersed for developmentally disabled causes, such as a local facility.

Lenhoff’s timing may be propitious, because a similar plan, one that has foundered for years, appears now to be gaining outside support.

In 1995, Orange’s Rose Lacher, 81, founded the Jeremiah Society to provide 40 developmentally disabled adults, including her 53-year-old daughter, Amy, a supportive atmosphere for socializing and practicing Jewish rituals. They meet at the Jewish Community Center.

Lacher’s dream is Jeremiah House, an arrangement for independent living for up to 15 people with some communal facilities, such as a kosher kitchen and garden, which she estimates could cost $5 million. "They would have a community, have friendships, know they’re not alone," she says, calling Lenhoff’s suggestion for a regional facility "a splendid idea."

Her own plan has won the philosophical endorsement of top county officials, but not the financial windfall needed to fulfill it.

"I’m excited about where we can go with this," says Bill J. Bowman, executive director of the Regional Center, the contract nonprofit agency that annually dispenses $125 million for housing and services from the state Department of Developmental Services to the county’s 13,000 developmentally disabled. He met with Lacher last month.

"It’s not a problem we want to ignore," concedes Bunnie Muldin, chief executive of the Jewish Federation, which this year and last allocated $4,000 to the Jeremiah Society, in part to increase its visibility. "We can’t possibly give them all the money they need at once," she says.

The need for permanent living facilities has intensified in recent years, as several parents of society members have died. "We talk about it all the time," says Natalie Mandel of Newport Beach, who has two developmentally disabled adult grandchildren.

"We’re afraid to die," adds Lacher, pointing out that private group homes cannot guarantee continuity of care like a nonprofit entity. Even the best-run ones, she says, would not reinforce Jewish practices at an appropriate cognitive level. "They don’t know they’re Jewish anymore," she says.

Given the state’s fiscal crisis, such a proposal may seem quixotic. Yet, at least one contrarian thinks Lacher’s timing is perfect.

"Is this a good way to float a project that will save the state money?" asks Joyce Hearn, chief executive of Orange County’s ARC, formerly known as the Association of Retarded Citizens. "I think it will be well received," she predicts, adding her group could help with administration.

"Maybe it’s time for a committee to formulate a plan," she says, cautioning that potential donors are likely to be persuaded by a concept drafted with specialists in real estate, construction, architecture and finance.

"Or is it just a kosher kitchen?" she asks.

Their Right of Passage

Hundreds of Israeli children celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs every week, and 13-year-old Asher Gorsky did not want to be an exception.

Last fall, Asher, a handsome but frail boy with a radiant smile, realized his dream before two dozen relatives and friends. Asher has cerebral palsy. He has no control over his voice or limbs, and he can see nothing but shadows.

When called up to the Torah at a Masorti/Conservative synagogue in the heart of Tel Aviv, the wheelchair-bound teen “recited” the blessings by pressing a special, automated vocal device with his head.

Although the voice on the tape was not actually Asher’s, the expression on the bar mitzvah boy’s face as he waited for the exact moment to chant the blessings spoke volumes about his determination to officially enter the ranks of Jewish adulthood.

While bar and bat mitzvah programs for disabled children have been operating for two decades in the United States, only one such program, introduced in 1994 by the Masorti/Conservative movement, is available in Israel.

This program has enabled nearly three dozen physically or developmentally disabled Israeli boys and girls to take an active role in their bar and bat mitzvahs, usually in a group ceremony. By the end of next year, at least 60 more will join their ranks.

Although Israeli society is progressive when it comes to special education, says Judith Edelman-Green, director of the Masorti movement’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program for the Special Child, “few severely disabled Israelis have had a full-fledged bar/bat mitzvah.”

While some families would never consider having their disabled child’s bar or bat mitzvah for religious or cultural reasons, “in most cases, Israeli families simply don’t know that such an option is available,” Edelman-Green says .

Some parents “assume that it’s impossible,” she says, because some religious authorities “say that severely disabled kids are exempt from the obligation of having a bar mitzvah ceremony.”

While the Masorti movement continues to seek recognition for its religious institutions in Israel, the bar and bat mitzvah program has received Ministry of Education funding since the summer of 1995.

The ministry’s approval of the program was “a very significant step of recognition for the Masorti movement as a whole,” Edelman-Green says.

The program provides intensive one-on-one instruction to disabled children, regardless of their physical and intellectual limitations or religious background.

Asher, the most disabled child to ever enter the program, had special needs.

“Many children who can’t speak simply point to the blessings, but since Asher can’t see, we decided to use a machine with a microphone next to his ear,” Edelman-Green says. “Working with his Torah teacher as well as his speech clinician, we were able to tailor a service that was just right for Asher.”

Although Asher can communicate only simple concepts with his vocal machine, Edelman-Green stresses that “everything came from him.”

Putting on a tallit “was Asher’s idea, as was his request for a kiddush cup. Believe me, he knew what was happening from beginning to end.”

Ironically, had Asher’s mother not read about the Masorti program in a local magazine, he would have become a b’nai mitzvah.

“We’re not religious, but we had been told that according to Orthodox law, children like Asher can’t have a bar mitzvah,” says Ada Liza Gorsky. “I didn’t know anything about the Masorti movement until I read the article.”

Holding her son’s hand after the ceremony, her eyes glistening with tears as relatives and friends smother Asher with kisses, Gorsky says, “We will never forget this beautiful day. It’s hard to tell exactly what Asher is feeling, but I know he is happy.”

Group Gifts

Communal b’nai mitzvah presents make teens and parents alike happy

By Lisa S. Lenkiewicz, Jewish Telegraphic Agency