Special-Needs Bill: Good IDEA or Not?


Jewish organizations expressed disappointment over President Bush’s recent signing of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), saying the bill does not go far enough to help Jewish children in private school who need extra educational support.

Under IDEA, students who require special services — such as speech therapy, sign language interpreters or resource teachers — must receive them by attending local public schools. Although some parents have successfully negotiated or even sued to allow their child to attend a private school and still receive financial support from their district for those services, for the most part, parents who want their child to receive a religious education must pay for additional services themselves.

Prior to the mid-1990s, IDEA made it possible for parents to send their child to a religious school and still receive services, such as speech therapy or occupational therapy, through their local school district.

However, a reauthorization of the law in 1997 changed all that. Currently, in states like California, many parents who would prefer to send all of their children to the same Jewish day school are forced to send their physically or otherwise challenged child to the local public school because the school district will not pay for support services provided off campus.

Jewish educators and advocates had hoped Bush, a proponent of school choice, would support changes to the law that included increased funding for services and making religious private schools a part of the larger picture of special education.

But while the reauthorization of the law includes some improvements, most advocates were disappointed.

“The last reauthorization in 1997 made things harder, and this did nothing to correct that,” said Michael Held, executive director of the Etta Israel Center, which provides services for children with special needs. “Unfortunately, Congress was not able to make the needed changes at this time.”

IDEA requires, for example, that the state pay for the federally mandated services only if the child is in a public school, even though funding is based on the total number of children with special needs who live in a district. Private schools do receive federal funds through IDEA, but those funds usually only cover a small percentage of the services the law itself mandates.

“We’re talking about a relatively small amount of money being made available to all private schools in the state. This has been the biggest problem for private schools, and in fact there has been a dramatic falloff [at Jewish private schools] in the number of kids receiving services and in the number of services they are getting,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Washington office director and counsel for Agudath Israel.

The latest legislation did make some improvements, fine-tuning the way private school students are counted in the overall picture for federal funding, and requiring the public school district, which distributes the federal funds, to consult with local private schools in determining how the funds are distributed among the schools.

It has been a tough road for supporters of legislation that had started out with such promise. H.R. 1350, which was passed by Congress last month and signed into law by Bush on Dec. 3, is the latest in a long line of legislation to ensure the rights of disabled people, beginning with the passage in 1975 of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, renamed Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990. The law is intended to make possible a free and appropriate education for any child with physical, mental and emotional challenges.

Activists for the disabled championed the initial passage of the act in 1975 as a bold civil rights initiative. In the education world, it had the same meaning for children with disabilities as Brown v. Board of Education had for African American students. However, IDEA is not a permanent part of federal law and, therefore, requires reauthorization approximately every five years.

“The irony is this particular piece of legislation was one of the most empowering to come along in terms of including children with special needs. But, over time, it has become extremely restrictive and adversarial, denying private school families the ability to get what they need,” said Held of the Etta Israel Center. The center provides inclusion support and self-contained classrooms for Jewish students with educational and developmental challenges, and also trains Jewish educators to work with such students through its Schools Attuned program.

Held said that Etta Israel is still committed to providing a full range of services — speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy — to Jewish children, despite the fact the Center is not reimbursed through the IDEA by either the state or federal government. He said, however, that his dream of full inclusion for children with learning challenges and physical disabilities within the Jewish community will not come to fruition until IDEA is changed back to its pre-1997 funding standards.

“At Etta Israel, we have really tried to create a model that does not separate [regular] education and special education. But the old model is the model IDEA supports,” Held said. “The result is that parents are locked into this scenario where they have to fight, advocate and litigate to get services. If the model were allowed to change and the education dollars flowed to helping the kids, there would be a lot more services to go around.”

David Ackerman, director of educational services for the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) in Los Angeles, said problems stemming from the bill have been exacerbated by state law.

“The difficulty is not just because of federal legislation, but because of the state’s policy and its tradition of separating church and state issues,” Ackerman noted. “Other states have found ways to provide special education services [in private religious schools] in a way California never has.”

The BJE recently commissioned a task force which will, among its other duties, examine ways to obtain funding within the confines of the law, and make sure private school students identified as needing support services are accounted for in the state budget.

“We are concerned the state won’t properly identify those kids from private schools who should be receiving services and are entitled to those services,” Ackerman said.

Held acknowledged there was one helpful change in the new legislation.

“It does endorse and fund professional development,” he said. “So our Schools Attuned work will be able to access the dollars to provide high-quality professional development to private Jewish schools throughout Los Angeles.”

Overall, the complexity of the IDEA and the failure on the part of Congress to make needed changes means parents are going to have to work harder to educate themselves. At Agudath Israel, Cohen said part of the organization’s focus is to help parents to get more than “yes or no” answers from their local school districts.

“Unless they know what they are entitled to, parents are going to forgo services,” Cohen said. “A lot of strides have been made but unfortunately they are because of litigation and knocking on the doors of city hall. I suspect that will continue.”


Bracelet Bandwagon


Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve — wear it on your wrist. And with the new Shalom bracelet, you can. The Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles is distributing 25,000 of the blue elastic bands adorned with a white dove and the word “Shalom” throughout the community.

It carries a simple message: Israel wants peace.

Yael Swerdlow, director of media relations at the consulate, said the target audience for the bracelets is a universal one.

“They are for anyone who wants peace,” Swerdlow said. “We are getting requests from all over the country, from yeshivas in New Jersey to human rights activists that vilify Israel. It’s an opening to dialogue.”

The public relations department at the consulate came up with the idea for the bracelets using Lance Armstrong’s yellow “Livestrong” bracelet as their inspiration. Bracelets are all the rage this year, with the yellow bands leading the pack. Although unlike the free blue Consulate bracelets, the yellow ones sell for $1 in Nike stores with profits benefiting cancer patients. Similar bracelet campaigns include several varieties of pink bracelets that support cancer research. They include the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer foundation bracelet (five for $5), the Melissa Etheridge bracelet (one for $5), and Target’s Share Beauty, Spread Hope bracelet (10 for $10).

Jewish organizations may have been ahead of the craze. AllforIsrael.org is currently selling silver memorial bracelets, engraved with the name of victims of terror, for $2. Hillel and various synagogues nationwide began selling the bracelets in 2003, a concept created by the Israel Solidarity Fund in 2000.

“People wear this jewelry to make a statement,” Swerdlow said, “and we hope to make ours.”

To get your Shalom bracelet send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, 6380 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1700, Los Angeles, CA 90048. Attention: Consul Yariv Ovadia.


Here’s a Great Idea for a Change


Jews know well how to create an idea and implement it. In the world at large, we do it all the time in the arts, business, government or academia.

Yet, inside our community, in those numerous meetings of Jewish organizations, more often than not, rather than creating ideas, we know best how to kill them. We commit these horrendous little suffocations, daily.

We have all been witnesses to this crime. Often, we are also the participants, perpetrators and collaborators. Our institutions are graveyards of good ideas, murdered by activist Jews with good intentions:

An Aspen Institute-style center for Jewish thought about Jewish and worldwide issues — Snuffed out. An opera depicting a family destroyed by the Holocaust and re-locating each other over the next 20 years, to once again become whole — left to whither in multiple memos. An international conference of young Jews, performing service projects within their cities, meeting to discuss the nexus of Judaism and volunteerism along with the values of their generation — ignored.

You’d think we’re doing just fine and didn’t need to think about powerful, breakthrough ideas. You’d think that the next generation was breaking down the doors of our institutions. You’d think that the news media was making it up when they reported that the best-selling holiday card this year is that one that says, “Merry Chistmakkuh,” being sent to the growing number of interfaith families (see page 12).

Ever sit through a committee meeting of a Jewish nonprofit? Some unencumbered, fluid-thinking new member, who doesn’t know the history of the group and hasn’t yet been neutralized by its bureaucracy, dares to raise an idea.

Most of the room goes blank. There is tension in the air. Finally, someone breaks the atmosphere and says, to everyone’s great relief, “Oh, that will never work.”

We like our meetings to be boring. If not, they would stop being so. We listen to financial reports, we clap at endless mazel tov announcements, we argue about ridiculous petty issues that have no significance outside of the room and we escape the ennui through scrolling the screens of our cellphones, discreetly punching at our Blackberries or passing written commentary to the person at our side, as if we were still in grade school.

What is it about ideas, that we revere them in the outside realm and fear them in the internal Jewish realm?

Good ideas have a soul. Giving birth to an idea and nurturing its existence is like giving birth to a new life.

The word “idea” and the world “create” are married to one another. They are a merged concept. You cannot create without an idea.

We learn from the second word of the Torah, barah (created) that creation is a holy act. We are to be fruitful and multiply. Does that just apply to the creation of people or to the products of our minds?

Ideas challenge us. In the outside world, we accept the challenge. We relish change. We see our role as that of the idea people and the challenger of the status quo. We know that the world at large is a big enough place, that it can accommodate the challenge of an idea.

Yet, in the organized Jewish world, ideas challenge not only the status quo — but our egos. In contrast to the world at large, inside the Jewish community we live in a much more provincial way. We feel ownership and a certainty that we know what path the community needs to follow.

An idea, particularly from a neophyte, challenges the positions of ownership we have carefully cultivated for ourselves. We praise the creation of our tight-knit communities.

But the question we must ask ourselves is: Do our embracing, comfortable communities and their positions of leadership foster a stifling and dismissal of ideas? I think it is a discussion we need to begin having.


As a marketer of Jewish life, I have seen some great Jewish ideas come to fruition: Birthright, Jewish day schools, the Zimmer Museum, ReBoot, the Professional Leaders Project, even the State of Israel. We need more. We need them every day.

So how did those great ideas sneak through?

First, I doubt any of those ideas were born out of what is now proliferating in Jewish organizational life, like a growing spider web entangling our minds and strangling our creativity. The culprit is a two-year process called the strategic plan. Organizations think that if they participate in a long, drawn out strategic planning marathon, injecting numerous lay people into the process, they are making change.

Strategic plans are mostly risk-free. You can’t make change without taking risk and putting yourself on the line with an idea. Moving things around on the same plate and shifting responsibilities of who makes those same humdrum meals — the outcome of most strategic plans — is not the mettle of idea creation.

Strategies come alive only if they lead to an idea. Many organizations come to us with their strategic plans and ask, “How do we market this?”

Strategic plans, the way they are currently done, are mostly unmarketable. Strategies do indeed need to be set. But the emphasis of those plans must be upon the idea creation that should follow the strategies.

Ideas resonate with people. Ideas capture their imaginations, minds and spirit. A good idea will also upset some people. Yet in the end, ideas are what get funded, not strategies.

Good ideas, such as Birthright — sending tens of thousands of young people to Israel for free trips — and the Professional Leaders Project — encouraging the best and the brightest of a new generation to become interested in both professional and lay positions in Jewish life — happen quickly, pulled off within months, not years with a strategic planning process.

Great ideas have come from recognizing need. They come from risk. They come from a sense of mission.

Meetings in the Jewish world should be vibrant and punctuated with the discussion of ideas. Our meetings should include idea sessions, where well-strategized and breakthrough ideas are brought to the table for intelligent assessment and discussion.

As a community, we must become adept in the discourse of powerful ideas. If we are committed to our mission, than we have to be committed to ideas.

Gary Wexler is the owner of Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes, based in Los Angeles.


For the Kids

Soul Solution

Summer is over, now the real work starts. Last week we remembered hard-working Americans on Labor Day. But that’s nothing compared to the work we Jews will do over the next two weeks — on our souls. There will be a lot of hard-core thinking:
What did I do that I won’t do again? What do I want to do better? How can I learn to be a more generous, considerate person? And how will I show it?

“Apples Dipped in Honey for Rosh Hashanah” is a song many of you know. Well, how about honey dipped in apples? Here’s a great idea for a Personal Honey Bowl.

Core the apple, but make sure you do not go through the bottom. Use the spoon to scoop out more of the apple. If your apple has absolutely no holes, you will not need a cup. Just pour the honey straight into the apple hole. Now each person at your table can dip their apple slice in the honey that’s in the apple.

B’nai Mitzvah Planning Guide

At Birth

When the child is born, start saving! It’s not a bad idea to start two savings accounts; one for college and one for the bar or bat mitzvah.

One to three years ahead

  • Set the date.

  • Set a budget.

  • Reserve the synagogue.

  • Reserve the hall for additional receptions.

  • Arrange for caterer, party planner and band or DJ.

  • Buy a loose-leaf binder or start a filing system on index cards.

Ten to 12 months ahead

  • Begin b’nai mitzvah lessons.

  • (Continue to) attend weekly Shabbat services as a family.

  • Arrange for photographer and videographer.

  • Book hotel accommodations and investigate transportation for out-of-town guests.

Six months ahead

  • Plan colors and theme.

  • Arrange for florist and make guest list.

Four to five months ahead

  • Order invitations and thank-you notes, imprinted napkins and personalized party favors.

  • Shop for clothing and shoes.

  • Purchase a tallit and tefillin, if applicable.

  • Choose a calligrapher.

Three months ahead

  • Plan Sunday brunch, if applicable.

  • Order printed yarmulkes.

Two months ahead

  • Meet with photographer and videographer.

  • Meet with florist and/or decorations coordinator.

  • Mail out-of-town invitations.

Six weeks ahead

  • Order tuxedos.

  • Take care of clothing alterations.

  • Order wine for Kiddush.

  • Mail in-town invitations.

Four weeks ahead

  • Prepare speech.

  • Finalize reservations and transportation.

  • Meet with caterer.

  • Make welcome gifts for out-of-town guests.

  • Arrange aliyot.

  • Send honorary gift to synagogue.

  • Meet with rabbi.

  • Make seating charts for reception (and dinner).

Two weeks ahead

  • Give final count to caterer.

  • Check with florist.

  • Meet with rabbi.

  • Order cake, cookies and pastries for Friday night oneg Shabbat.

A few days ahead

  • Have rehearsal and take bimah photographs.

  • Make copies of speeches, room and table layouts, and give them to a friend to hold for you.

Special day

  • Enjoy your simcha!

‘Lucky’ Friends

Since they met at a mommy and me 13 years ago, Adam Schlesinger and Sean Abramson have been coming up with innovative schemes together, such as the time they sold novelty items like Whoopie Cushions and electrified hand buzzers. (They pulled in $100.)

But now the two recent graduates of Sinai Akiba Academy are onto something bigger and better. Their latest venture — a simple plastic guitar pick on a ball chain called “Lucky Pix,” selling for $10 — seems to be catching on.

Some high-powered connections forged through the boys’ parents landed them an appearance on Fox’s “Good Day L.A.” and placed some of their Lucky Pix around the necks of celebrities. Intuition, a trend-setting Web boutique known to cater to celebrities, is the sole outlet for Lucky Pix, giving the boys the kind of publicity and panache other retailers covet.

Schlesinger and Abramson, whose families are longtime members of Sinai Temple, are donating 25 percent of all sales to children’s charities.

“It was Adam’s idea to give to charity, and we thought that would be great,” Sean said. “By giving luck to others, you also bring luck to yourself.”

Both boys play guitar with Raw Material, a rock band at Sinai, and Sean says he has one pick he considers his “lucky” one that helps make his music come together. The boys researched the idea themselves, designed a logo and a found a manufacturer for the first several hundred picks in tortoise-shell brown, hot pink, turquoise and black.

Those have long since sold out and the next order of 2,000 is already on the way.

And the boys are about to meet a whole bunch of new teenage necks from which to hang Lucky-Pix. Both boys are attending Milken Community High School next year and Camp Ramah this summer.

“We’re really excited because this has a lot of potential for us to be able to donate a lot and help a lot of kids,” Adam said.

To view or purchase Lucky Pix, visit www.lucky-pix.com .

The Headache of Resolutions

Blame it on the Mesopotamians. About 4,000 or 5,000 years
ago, they came up with the meshuggeneh idea of New Year’s resolutions.

And what was their most common pledge? To return borrowed
farm equipment. “That would be a pickax or a sickle,” says Danny, 12, who
studied the Mesopotamians last year in his ancient civilization class.

But today we can’t simply return some borrowed tool, toy or
casserole dish. No, we North Americans feel compelled to annually reinvent
ourselves as perfect physical, intellectual and emotional beings. We feel
compelled to promise to shape up, to learn Aramaic or read the 100 top
English-language novels, to be more patient.

And so, as soon as the ball drops in Times Square, we plunk
hundreds of dollars down at Weight Watchers and 24 Hour Fitness. We enroll in
university extension classes and buy “Ulysses” and “The Great Gatsby.”

But less than a week later, up to 90 percent of us have
reverted to our formerly overindulgent, ignorant and short-fused ways. Why do
we even bother making resolutions?

“Relentless optimism,” Jeremy, 14, suggests.

“Self-deception,” Gabe, 16, says.

“Social pressure,” Zack, 19, adds.

“Why do we diet?” my husband, Larry, asks rhetorically,
knowing that it’s human nature to want to improve oneself.

And it’s human nature to want to divide time into manageable
and meaningful segments, marked with appropriate rituals.

And that’s what New Year’s Eve is — a symbolic milepost, a
fresh start, another chance that this year, magically and mysteriously, our
resolutions will stick. But there’s nothing magical about Jan. 1. In fact, the
Mesopotamians, like the ancient Jews, celebrated the New Year in the spring, to
coincide with the rebirth of the land. That’s why they almost unanimously
resolved to return borrowed farm equipment, which was needed for planting the
new crops.

And there’s nothing magical about change. As Judaism teaches
us, we’re all continuously engaged in a bitter, millennia-old battle between
yetzer hatov, the good inclination, and yetzer harah, the bad inclination.

Spiritually, we know that change doesn’t happen without
prolonged and painful soul-searching. For us Jews, that happens during the High
Holidays, with the process beginning a month earlier, on the first of Elul.
During this time, we are commanded to confront the people we have harmed or
injured during the previous year.

We must formally and sincerely apologize, make concrete
amends and refrain from repeating the behavior. We must also contend with the
promises we have broken between God and ourselves. We are held accountable for
our actions, or inactions, which determine nothing less than “who shall live
and who shall die.”

Psychologically and experientially, we know that change
doesn’t happen until we hit the proverbial rock bottom –  until life slams us
up against a brick wall or brings us abruptly and humbly to our knees, forcing
us to confront our demons and wrongful deeds, our addictions and afflictions.

New Year’s Eve is the only secular holiday, save our
birthdays, that specifically marks the passage of time.

Perhaps it’s that intimation of mortality, combined with the
knowledge that once again we’ve made no one’s year-end Top 10 list, that
triggers our desire to revamp ourselves.

And in our fast-track society, where everything is open 24/7
or only one click away, we want that transformation to be instantaneous and
painless, like those diet advertisements that promise permanent and immediate
weight loss with no exercise.

But the Federal Trade Commission, much to my husband’s
delight, is clamping down on those bogus advertisements. And it’s our turn to
clamp down on this bogus ritual. Let’s institute truth in advertising and call
New Year’s resolutions by their real name: New Year’s wishes. An opportunity to
dream, to fantasize, to visualize a “before” and after” us. A shot at the
self-improvement lottery, with, like the California SuperLotto Plus, a one in
more than 41 million chance of winning.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have many more habits
I’m willing to break. Over the years, I’ve quit smoking, worked myself down to
my pre-pregnancy weight, given up caffeine and Diet Coke and changed my
sedentary ways. (Of course, nobody’s asking if I want to give up carpool
driving, grocery shopping, bill paying and serving as the family’s human PalmPilot.)

I don’t know about you, but I’m saving my serious repenting
for the High Holidays, where substance and sublimity trump slapdash

Still, given the expectation of a New Year, however
arbitrary and inauthentic, and given the grim state of the world, I think some
frivolous resolutions, or wishes, are not out of order.

Personally, for 2004, I’d like to eat more vanilla ice
cream, occasionally oversleep, read some trashy novels and spend more time
needlepointing and, as my kids constantly urge, “chilling.”

But not, I assure you, before returning the pickax that’s
been sitting in the garage.  

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.

Marlene Marks’ Spirit on the Web

Being treated for cancer is no one’s idea of fun. But a new Web site, www.chemochicks.com, is bringing moral support and an irreverent sense of humor to women undergoing chemotherapy. The colorful, breezy site gives female cancer patients a place to gripe, share inspiring stories and purchase products that will make life easier when their hair falls out and their self-esteem is nil.

Chemochicks.com is the brainchild of Jana Rosenblatt, a theatrical costumer and interior designer who has spent the past year fighting ovarian cancer. Much of the Chemo Chick product line comes from her own search for stylish headwraps and for eye makeup that will stay put on a hairless face.

“It’s amazing,” Rosenblatt said, “how expressionless you are without your eyebrows.”

The site also reflects Rosenblatt’s feisty spirit. When first facing chemotherapy, she dreamed up a fearless alter ego, Super Chemo Chick, who was tough enough to handle whatever might come. Now this personal coping mechanism helps empower others.

Rosenblatt’s founding partners in Five Chicks Unlimited are four local businesswomen who have been touched by cancer. They bring expertise in finance, product research, Web design and customer service to the site. But its guiding spirit is someone who did not live to see its launch: Marlene Adler Marks.

Rosenblatt had redecorated Marks’ Malibu home in 2000, shortly before The Jewish Journal’s longtime columnist and former managing editor was stricken with lung cancer. When Rosenblatt herself fell ill in June 2002, a visibly ailing Marks came to call. Marks’ courage in the face of her own mortality inspired Rosenblatt to battle back with similar grit. Two months after Marks’ death last September, the idea for chemochicks.com was hatched.

Another major morale boost came from Rosenblatt’s synagogue, Or Ami of Calabasas. Though she was relatively new to Southern California, members showered her with food baskets and friendly visits. Several, in fact, have joined the Chemo Chick team.

“I didn’t realize I was so much a part of any community, let alone a Jewish community,” Rosenblatt marveled.

Which shows that even a cancer diagnosis can lead to good things. “I like the person I am now better than the person I was before I got sick,” Rosenblatt said.