Photo from Max Pixel.

The Beauty of Yes

When you have a child with significant disabilities, you get used to hearing “no.”

From nationally recognized speech therapists who say, “Sorry, my cutting-edge techniques won’t work for your son,” after you have schlepped the family halfway across the country to work with them, to Jewish educators who will open their classrooms to some “higher-functioning” students with special needs but not to those who need one-to-one assistance. Not to mention navigating the world of special education in the public school system in which you need to become an expert on the governing federal laws in order to get the services to which your child is entitled.

Such was the case with Birthright. Although I have worked on and off as a Jewish community professional for many years, I never imagined that our son, Danny, now 23, would be able to go on Birthright — the program providing free Israel trips to adults between 18 and 26 — in spite of the fact that he would be the perfect candidate in many ways.

He grew up watching kids’ musical videos in Hebrew, understands a lot of Hebrew, attends Shabbat services weekly at a Conservative synagogue and has visited Israel with our family. He loves Israeli dances and enjoys flying on planes.  He has probably watched the documentary “Hava Nagila” more than anyone else in the world, and his older sister spent a Masa-sponsored gap year in Israel, speaks Hebrew fluently and has staffed two Birthright trips.

In my former position at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, I sat in on many meetings with Birthright staff members and always enjoyed hearing all of their post-trip stories and adventures. But I couldn’t imagine a Birthright trip that would be able to accommodate Danny, who has limited mobility, not to mention a complicated medication regimen. The 10-day Birthright trips are known for their fast-paced, grueling schedules, including intensive physical activities and moving from hotel to hotel.

How could Danny ever participate in a trip like that?

Then in September, I received an email from the national Conservative-affiliated Camp Ramah Tikvah network. It was announcing the first-ever Birthright Israel: Amazing Israel-Ramah Tikvah trip for young adults ages 18-29 with disabilities. Ramah has organized previous Israel trips for Tikvah program participants and alumni, but this would be the first one being offered in collaboration with the international Birthright program, which has brought more than 600,000 young Jews to Israel since 1999.

The trip starts on Dec. 18 and will include classic Birthright Israel activities such as visiting Masada (by cable car) and Yad Vashem and spending Shabbat in Jerusalem, while also adding programming geared specifically for these participants, such as meeting Israeli soldiers with special needs.

Thanks to Elana Naftalin-Kelman, Tikvah director at Camp Ramah in California in Ojai, Danny has been an overnight summer camper there for the past nine years, always accompanied by a personal aide to help him with such everyday activities as dressing, eating and showering. Danny loves his time at camp, and we also love our “time off” from family caregiving. Last summer, Danny was able to gain vocational experience doing his favorite activity — being a DJ at the side of the pool, which also is his favorite place in camp.

I never imagined that our son, Danny, would be able to go on Birthright.

Elana helped me connect with Howard Blas, National Ramah Tikvah Network director, who is coordinating and leading the trip in partnership with Amazing Israel, the Birthright tour provider. Howard has led many trips to Israel with young adults with disabilities and fully understands the need to adjust the trip’s pace and intensity.

During our Skype call with him, Howard was very welcoming and open to the idea of having our personal aide from camp accompany Danny on this trip. He told us, “While we will all learn a lot from the explanations of our very experienced tour educator, Doron, each person will experience Israel differently. The trip takes each participant’s unique needs and learning style into consideration. We will experience Israel through all of our senses — riding a jeep in the Golan Heights, floating in the Dead Sea, planting trees, making chocolate and T-shirts, touching the Kotel and lots of singing, dancing and eating delicious Israeli foods!”

The word “yes” has never sounded so good.

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

Students Tzvi (left) and Iva comprise the inaugural two-student class at what will be known as Learning Circle of Los Angeles.

A need filled: Two determined moms take action to give students with special needs a Jewish education

On a recent overcast morning, Chaya Chazanow arrived with her 5-year-old son, Tzvi, at a sleepy Pico-Robertson storefront that has barred windows. Once inside, he sat quietly on the floor of a cozy classroom, playing with colorful blocks and Hebrew alphabet cards. A smiling behavioral therapist looked on.

“I toured a bunch of Jewish day schools, public schools, other nonpublic schools, and I just couldn’t find the right setting for him,” Chazanow said.

But now she has — the city’s first Jewish day school for children with special needs.

Tzvi was born with a rare genetic disorder that Chazanow declined to identify, but it resulted in physical disabilities, like trouble walking, as well as cognitive processing and executive functioning issues. Tzvi also is mostly nonverbal.

The nonprofit Friendship Circle Los Angeles (FCLA) operates out of the storefront, providing weekend and after-school Jewish and secular programming for children with special needs. Behind the unassuming facade, there’s a sprawling 17,000-square-foot facility with five classrooms, a shul and a wheelchair-accessible playground. Thanks to a Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles grant awarded last year, a sensory room for therapy is under construction. It will have matted floors and swingsets. Most of that space currently is rented out by a preschool.

At the moment, Tzvi and one other child are the only students in the new day school, which will be known as Learning Circle of Los Angeles. It occupies only one classroom, but there are plans to expand once the school attracts more kids. The staff is made up of a full-time behavioral therapist, a secular studies teacher, a Judaic studies teacher and other part-time therapists who pay weekly visits to the school.

FCLA’s educational director, Doonie Mishulovin, who puts together curriculum and teaches Judaic studies, has sympathy for parents like Chazanow who have trouble finding a day school for their children. 

“The pain of Jewish parents who don’t have a day school is so deep and so raw,” she said. “They’ve been kind of swept under the rug a bit by the community for a long time.”

Los Angeles has 37 accredited day schools recognized by the nonprofit Builders of Jewish Education (BJE). Not one of them specifically caters to students like Tzvi with moderate to severe disabilities. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Los Angeles Unified School District schools have to provide resources that day schools don’t. But after visits and research, Chazanow concluded that those resources constitute more of a “one-size-fits-all approach.”

Besides, she wanted her son to have a Jewish education. “It’s part of our family, rooted in our belief system,” she said.

Other major cities, including New York, Miami and Boston, offer heavily funded options, such as Boston’s Gateways: Access to Jewish Education program.

“Most parents have a choice where they send their kids to school,” Chazanow said. “For us, we weren’t really given a choice.”

Sarah R’bibo, a corporate lawyer living in North Hollywood, also was left without much of a choice. She said that after sending her first three kids to Emek Hebrew Academy in Sherman Oaks, she was told by Emek administrators that they couldn’t meet the special needs of her fourth and youngest, Iva, who was born with cerebral palsy.

“I just thought my daughter deserves a Jewish education. There’s no reason why my other kids can go to a Jewish day school and she can’t,” R’bibo said. “It’s astonishing something doesn’t exist here. So, we decided to try to start something.”

Now, Iva shares a classroom with Tzvi, filling out the inaugural two-student class.

Their moms share a mission — to make sure the school succeeds. 

“We’ve wanted to do this for a long time, start a full-time school like this,” Mishulovin said. “We gave up for a while, until [Chazanow] came in here in April and said, ‘You have to do this for my son.’ Now, we’re doing it.”

R’bibo volunteers, handling legal matters and the lion’s share of fundraising. Chazanow, who also volunteers, runs the administrative side of things, while Mishulovin does a bit of everything, including teaching. 

Betty Winn, BJE’s director of its Center for Excellence in Day School Education, said she and others recognize the “tremendous need for something like this.” However, this isn’t the first attempt at having such a school, and Winn made it clear what the main obstacle will be.

“It’s challenging, mainly because it’s extremely expensive,” she said. “Facilities have to be developed. It needs a very organized initiative with heavy funding.”

So far, Chazanow, Mishulovin and R’bibo have raised $100,000 through donations. They estimate they’ll need $200,000 to cover all the costs of running the school for the first year. Beyond that, they’ve set goals to make the school unique and financially sustainable in its capacity to accommodate different special needs. They are working to compile a staff with more volunteers, teachers and therapists to form at least a 2-to-1 student-to-staff ratio; getting L.A. Unified home-school charter funding; and getting nonprofit status (currently, they are accepting tax-deductible donations at

They estimate tuition will be close to $18,000 per year.

By comparison, Emek, where R’bibo’s other children go to school, charges more than $12,000 in annual tuition. The tuition at some other day schools in the area is well over $20,000.

Chazanow said there are about 10 prospective families monitoring the school’s progress. The target is mainly elementary school-age children. 

“Many parents are apprehensive about sending their kids to a new school, a new program. So it looks good to show people the program as it’s running,” she said. “It’s going fantastically well, and we’re confident we’ll have a good group next fall.”

According to the U.S. Census, roughly 1 in 5 Americans has a disability. Some, like Jennifer Mizrahi, president of the national advocacy group RespectAbility, believe the Jewish community might be hit particularly hard by disabilities. In a 2014 article published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, she wrote, “It is likely that the percentage of Jews with disabilities is higher than the national average,” basing her observation on genetic risks Jews carry and the fact that Jews have children later than many other demographic groups.

Still, in many of her meetings with potential donors, R’bibo has been met with responses like, “Do we need this?”

“A huge part of our mission, beyond offering these kids a Jewish education, which is fundamental, is educating these people who think there isn’t a need,” she said. “It isn’t good enough to say public schools can do this. If you want to send your kids to public school, that’s fine, but there should be an option.”

R’bibo also said the issue leads to alienating Jewish special needs children from religious engagement. Before this year, Iva was in state-subsidized preschool and wasn’t getting much Jewish education. Now, after just a few weeks at her new school, R’bibo already is noticing a huge difference.

“She came home from school for High Holy Days and knew more about the shofar, knew an apple-and-honey song. She participated in Rosh Hashanah in a most meaningful way, more than she ever has before,” R’bibo said. “It was in incredible experience for our family.”

Winn noted that the geography of Los Angeles might be a hurdle. There are day school options in every part of the city, but having only one option for special needs kids could make for some long commutes. Chazanow lives in the Fairfax neighborhood — not very far — but R’bibo commutes from North Hollywood. However, R’bibo said, it’s still preferable to the alternative, and she’s confident other parents will agree. 

“Having everything in one central location where they get a secular education, a Jewish education and therapies, that’s ideal for me and other parents,” she said. “It eliminates so much chaos and travel time. It’s an integrative approach and a really great model.”

Chazanow took several trips to the East Coast to visit special needs schools in the New York-New Jersey area. She looks to those experiences and what she found there for motivation.

“At so many of the places I visited, people told me it all started with a storefront,” she said. “They told me all it takes is one parent to get it started.”

Seated next to Mishulovin inside the otherwise empty Friends Circle shul, she looked around and shrugged.

“Well, here I am.”

“Work In Progress”: A New Musical Takes on High Unemployment for Adults with Disabilities

While the general unemployment rate  in California fell to a new low of 4.9% in March of 2017, for people with disabilities, an astounding 66.2% were still unable to find paid employment, according to a new study from the national advocacy group, Respectability.

This persistent problem of unemployment among adults with disabilities is at the core of a delightful new musical from The Miracle Project called, “Work in Progress, ” now playing at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. The large cast, ages 9-56 years, is composed of both disabled and non-disabled performers who stage an original musical that follows a group of recent “Miracle High School” graduates as they go out in into the “real world” and try to find jobs or go to college, only to find that doors are closed  before they can even get their foot in. As the lyrics to one song written by Music Director Zach Marsh poignantly say, “Give us a chance…give us a shot. Look at what’s there and not what’s not.”

The musical chronicles the journey of many of these high school graduates, showing the emotional angst and frustrations of young adults pursuing both college and non-college paths. For the college students, there are the high expectations of parents and the many stresses of being away from home for the first time. And for those looking to find paid work, no one wants to hire someone without experience, but how these students ever get experience if no one will give them the opportunities?

With a Broadway sound and texture similar to the musical “Rent”, this show is most exciting during the ensemble pieces, although there plenty of solos from the cast (many of whom have autism) that are also quite captivating. The book for the show was written by Maxell Peters, Zach Marsh, Miracle Project Founder and Artistic Director, Elaine Hall and Jeff Frymer.

The Miracle Project was created by my long-time friend Elaine Hall who was a top Hollywood acting coach before her adopted son was diagnosed with severe autism. When traditional therapies failed to help him, she developed her own innovative methodology, combining mindfulness and the expressive arts with what she learned from autism experts Dr. Stanley Greenspan, Dr. Ricki Robinson and Dr. Barry Prizant. Recently, The Miracle Project approach to working with children, teens and young adults with autism has been named as an evidence-based therapy, meaning it is clinically significant in addressing anxiety, expanding social skills and more, similar to more conventional therapies such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) or occupational therapy (OT).

One of the most interesting aspects of having an inclusive cast is that it is often impossible to tell which of the performers has disabilities and which do not, which is kind of the whole point. Now, if only we could convince more employers to feel the same way…

“Work In Progress” will be shown May 1-4 at the Lovelace Studio Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets can be purchased here. 1491589567_Miracle_Project_Cast_1061x601

Explaining the Inevitable to Children with Special Needs

I have a question about death

How do young children understand the concept of death? According to the experts in the this field, children’s comprehension of death depends on two factors: experience and developmental level. Children’s experiences with death (i.e., actual experience and what they have been told about death) are critical to their understanding of it. They also do not have enough life experience to realize that death is inevitable for all living things. As children develop more abstract thinking, around the age of 10, they usually understand the permanent and inevitable nature of death, even if they can’t process all the emotional issues.

For children and teens with autism and other developmental disabilities, however, that inability to understand death and dying is compounded by their special needs, which may include limited communication abilities, a lack of abstract thinking and difficulty “reading” the emotions of others.

A new book, “I Have a Question about Death: A Book for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Other Special Needs” by Arlen Grad Gaines and Meredith Englander Polsky is the first book to fill this gap. With a very straightforward presentation of the topic, and simple, uncluttered illustrations, the book has three components: 1) The complete story with more words for those with higher vocabulary comprehension 2) Short picture story for more visual learners and 3) Suggestions for parents and caregivers.

Uncomfortable questions, such as “What happens to people when they die?” are raised, bringing to the surface a whole range of spiritual and theological issues and responses, which the authors tactfully summarize by writing, “Different people believe different things, but nobody knows for sure.”

In the suggestions section of the book, parents and caregivers are advised to use clear, concrete words with children who have special needs, such as using the word “died” instead of “passed away” or “gone”. The authors explain why this directness is needed: “Though these softer words can feel to adults like they are cushioning the topic, they may make it less comprehensible to a child for whom euphemisms are difficult.”

“I Have A Question About Death” is an important new children’s book that tackles an extremely difficult topic with compassion and understanding. It is available from Amazon and most major bookstores. For more information, go to here.



Photo courtesy of Pexels

Inclusion of people with disabilities is a rare shared value

Americans may not agree on very much these days but there is one issue that is widely supported across racial, economic and party lines: the desirability of including people with disabilities in our communities. In an April 2016 survey conducted by the Association of University Centers on Disability (AUCD) by Lake Research Partners, 90 percent of those surveyed said they support a key provision of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) that states: “Public places like restaurants, hotels, theaters, stores, and museums may not discriminate against customers on the basis of disability.” In general, there is wide approval of the ADA, with support from 93 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Independents, according to the survey.

Likewise, in our own Jewish community, there is now a broad consensus among all religious movements and political views on the positive impact of including Jews of all abilities in our synagogues, camps and Jewish Community Centers (alas, not so much with day schools, but that is another article). In the 21 years since our son, Danny, was first diagnosed with developmental delays, I’ve witnessed the profound changes here in Los Angeles from limited tolerance, to acceptance and now inclusion. Back then, the only two Jewish special needs programs were the Shaare Tikvah Religious School at Valley Beth Shalom (still going strong, now part of a much broader Our Space program) and ETTA, where Danny is now part of its adult community day program.

For example, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Special Needs Jewish Engagement Task Force partners with Jewish Family Service of  Los Angeles (JFSLA) on a Community Inclusion Project, now in its third year. Current organizations receiving consultations and resources are Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, the Zimmer Children’s Museum, Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, the Westside JCC and Hillel 818 (which serves the campuses of Cal State Northridge, Pierce College and Los Angeles Valley College).

“We provide a very customized approach with each agency, first doing a focused needs assessment on what they need to do to be more inclusive for participants with special needs, and then helping to meet those needs, such as providing staff training,” said Sarah Blitzstein, JFSLA’s program coordinator for HaMercaz, a one-stop resource for kids with special needs and their families.

The term “inclusion” can mean different things to many people, but I like to use the words of Shelley Christensen, co-creator of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, or JDAIM (more on that in just a minute), and the author of “The Jewish Community Guide to the Inclusion of People with Disabilities,” when she says: “Inclusion is the opportunity for every person to participate in a meaningful way in the life of the Jewish community. … We do not do things for people with disabilities. We do things with people with disabilities.”

Inclusion also means a two-way relationship between those with disabilities and those without, and it is often the case that those participants without disabilities have more to gain from that encounter.

Inclusion also means a two-way relationship between those with disabilities and those without, and it is often the case that those participants without disabilities have more to gain from that encounter. The volunteers from Friendship Circle Los Angeles (a Chabad program serving children with special needs and their families) who have spent time with our son and other children and teens with special needs have shared with us that, after their volunteer stint, they have discovered greater patience and openness to people who may appear “different.” In some cases, teenage and young adult counselors who have been assigned to work with the campers with special needs have found that they are really drawn to that work, and later pursued professional careers as special education teaches or occupational therapists.

In celebration of the shared value of special needs inclusion, there is now a global initiative, JDAIM, every February, now in its 10th year. As the Facebook page says, JDAIM invites Jews in North America, Israel and around the world to “Join a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide.”

Groups as diverse as the Union of Reform Judaism and Chabad all participate in JDAIM, along with hundreds of community agencies and synagogues, including the Jewish Federations of North America and, closer to home, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Miriam Maya, the director of Caring for Jews in Need and the Los Angeles Jewish Abilities Center (LAJAC) at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said, “Our Federation and our partners make JDAIM a reality in many ways: We create inclusive environments and programs; we ensure each person feels valued and has a voice; we provide support and resources for making cultural shifts within organizations so that inclusion is part of their norm. Inclusivity is not just a word or program; it is a mindset that is embedded into our beliefs and actions.”

For the third year in a row, the 19 local organizations that make up the HaMercaz-LAJAC Partners group have come together to hold a Jewish Community Inclusion Festival in celebration of JDAIM, and families and persons of all abilities are invited to join in the fun. There will be arts and crafts, karaoke, gymnastics, Israeli dancing, farm activities, sensory-friendly activities, sports, musical performances, a photo boothand DJ Danny Wolf (yes, there’s a relation) will be spinning tunes. Kosher food will be available for purchase from Rosie’s and Holy Frijoles food trucks.

The event will be held Feb. 26, from noon to 3 (rain or shine), at Vista del Mar, 3200 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. Tickets are $10 for entire families or $5 a person.

Loren Evans (left) grasps the Torah during his bar mitzvah at Breed Street Shul. Photos by Lynn Levitt.

A bar mitzvah amid tears — and kvelling

This was a day that Loren Evans’ family thought they would never see.

In a heartwarming ceremony featuring an unlikely front man, Loren — a high-functioning autistic 18-year-old — celebrated his bar mitzvah at a landmark Los Angeles synagogue.

The young computer whiz also suffers from selective mutism, an anxiety disorder which makes it nearly impossible for him to speak to anyone except family members, let alone headline an oration-heavy bar mitzvah.

With the help of a volunteer leader from Camp Chesed, a camp for young people with special needs, and a Chabad rabbi, Loren stood on the bimah and participated in the ceremony to his fullest ability.

“Loren was glowing brighter than I’ve seen him glow in a very long time,” his mother, Gilda, said. “It brought him great joy, meaning and fulfillment. I think he smiled more than I’ve ever seen him smile.”

The bar mitzvah took place on Dec. 25, Christmas Day as well as the first day of Chanukah, at the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, one of the city’s most historic houses of worship. About two dozen or so friends and relatives attended.

Loren, who lives with his family in Tarzana, currently attends Pierce College and has an affinity for electronics and computers, which his mother says he hopes to parlay into a future in the gaming world.

However, Loren’s family, longtime members of Stephen Wise Temple, previously had doubted he would be able to follow in the footsteps of his older brother and sister in the bar and bat mitzvah tradition.

“I had always assumed Loren’s personal challenges would prohibit it,” his mother said. “We weren’t sure it was feasible.”

camp-jaquesJacques Hay, a man the Evans family knew well, had other plans, offering to make all the bar mitzvah arrangements.

Hay, a short, bubbly man with gray stubble, owns a store in Northridge that sells awards, plaques and trophies. For the past 21 years, he has run Camp Chesed, a Reseda-based, two-week-long summer camp for Jewish children with special needs. The camp is free for all campers, and its operations rely on private donations Hay works to obtain.

Loren attended Camp Chesed for the past five summers. Several Camp Chesed alumni and their families were present for his bar mitzvah.

A few weeks before the big day, Hay called Gilda to invite the family to a Chanukah party for Camp Chesed campers, counselors, alumni and families. During that same call, he proposed giving Loren a bar mitzvah.

“When he said to me it’s something Loren deserves, the tears began to flow. I asked Loren and he didn’t hesitate,” Gilda Evans recalled.

Hay met with Loren once before the bar mitzvah for a 1 1/2-hour tutoring session about the Chanukah haftarah portion that would be read on his special day. They went over the prayers and what Loren’s role would be.

At the ceremony, Loren stood smiling next to Hay’s friend Rabbi Yitzchak Sapochkinsky of Chabad of Westlake Village — who made the more than 50-mile trip to officiate.  Loren carried the Torah in the procession around the chapel. He then followed and pointed at the text of his haftarah portion while the rabbi sang. Sapochkinsky gave voice to the voiceless and the ceremony reduced many to tears.

Gilda; Loren’s older brother, Louis, and grandparents Ernest and Ida Braunstein were in attendance. His older sister, Leigh, watched via Facetime from Boston, where she works for AmeriCorps.

From left: Family members Louis Evans, Ernest Braunstein, Gilda Evans, Loren Evans and Ida Braunstein gather on the bimah at the Boyle Heights synagogue.

From left: Family members Louis Evans, Ernest Braunstein, Gilda Evans, Loren Evans and Ida Braunstein gather on the bimah at the Boyle Heights synagogue.

Loren’s 92-year-old grandfather joined the man of the hour on the bimah. Behind them, an ornate mural depicted lit chanukiyahs and commandment tablets, a permanent fixture in the sanctuary, which recalls the heritage of the 101-year-old synagogue. A Holocaust survivor who has macular degeneration, rendering him blind, Ernest Braunstein recited an aliyah from memory. His 88-year-old wife watched alongside Gilda in the women’s seating section.

Louis beamed with pride as he aimed his cellphone at the altar so his sister Leigh could watch from the East Coast.

“I’m just happy he got to have a bar mitzvah like my little sister and I did,” Louis said. “Now it’s all three of us. It’s so great for my grandfather. All the culture, tradition and heritage is really important to him. He, along with the rest of the family, really loved seeing him up there.”

Gilda was quick to credit Hay, saying, “It was all due to the generosity of [Jacques], who is one of the most amazing people I’ve met in my life.”

During the summer, Hay’s Camp Chesed hosts about 40 campers of all ages. For every camper, there are two to three counselors, usually volunteer high school and college students. Hay’s campers span the gamut of special needs, although he estimates more than 80 percent are on the autism spectrum.

In recent years, Camp Chesed has treated campers to trips to Disneyland and Universal Studios, as well as flights over the greater Los Angeles area in two-seater airplanes.

At the ceremony, Hay was modest and shrugged off the amount of time and energy he pours into performing good deeds.

“This is what Camp Chesed does,” he said. “It’s a very special camp.”

Hay told the Journal he has had seven campers bar mitzvah’d under his watch. Four years ago, he helped coordinate a Breed Street Shul bar mitzvah of another Camp Chesed alumnus, a young man with a brain tumor.

“Eighty thousand Jews used to live within a five-mile radius of this place,” he said of the synagogue. “It’s the oldest and maybe most respected synagogue in Los Angeles. Coming back here is like going back to the future.”

Once the hub of the city’s Los Angeles Jewish community until many Jews migrated to West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley after World War II, the Breed Street Shul later fell into disrepair and was vandalized. An ambitious restoration project that includes seismic retrofitting and repainting is under way. The large, iconic Byzantine-style sanctuary remains closed for that work. The smaller chapel to the rear, where Loren’s bar mitzvah was held, is now used mainly as a community center serving the largely Latino population of Boyle Heights.

Founding and board president of the Breed Street Shul Project Stephen Sass, who was present for the bar mitzvah, has overseen the restoration for the past 16 years. Sass said the shul hosts a Jewish event such as Loren’s bar mitzvah four or five times a year.

Gilda, who knew little of the shul’s history before Hay filled her in, deemed it a perfect setting for the occasion.

“How appropriate is that? It’s amazing to have a young man overcome seemingly impossible odds and accomplish this wonderful mitzvah in a place that also overcame impossible odds to be restored as the place of worship it is today,” she said.

Gilda went on to say that she hopes more people with special needs draw motivation from what Loren was able to do.

“I hope this will serve as an inspiration to other young people who have challenges, obstacles they perceive too difficult to overcome, and who might be able to accomplish the same thing. I hope this will inspire them to take another look at it, adopt another viewpoint and perhaps find a way to have the same wonderful experience.”

After the bar mitzvah and a bagel brunch, 450 guests attended a Chanukah party for Camp Chesed alumni and families on an Encino estate, home to a prominent camp donor. Loren was bestowed with the honor of lighting the menorah welcoming the second night of Chanukah.

“My Hero Brother”: Special Needs Adults and their Siblings Scale New Heights


The Yiddish word, chutzpah, doesn’t translate so neatly into English, although the dictionary definition of “shameless audacity” is a good try. And it was that singular word, chutzpah, that keep repeating in my mind as I watched the new Israeli documentary, “My Hero Brother” that chronicles the adventures of 11 pairs of young adults with Down syndrome who together with their non-disabled young adult siblings, traveled from Israel to India for a trekking expedition in the Himalayas.

It all started when Enosh Cassel, a Tel Aviv University film school graduate and film producer, took his brother, Hannan, who has Down syndrome, to Nepal on a three-week trek in the Himalayas which he documented on film. Israel’s Channel 2 featured a news item about the trip, which generated many positive responses, including some from other adult brothers and sisters who also had siblings with special needs.

This inspired Enosh, together with his friend Itamar Peleg, (a guide and organizer of challenging tours around the world), to create the project “My Hero Brother” with the goal of taking a larger group of brothers and sisters of young adults with Down syndrome on a similar trek.  Noted Israeli filmmaker Yonaton Nir joined the duo, with the goal of sharing this exceptional journey as a documentary. And this is where the word “chutzpah” comes to mind. Just traveling overseas with 11 young adults with special needs, some with special health needs, would be challenging in and of itself, let alone an arduous wilderness trek of many days that included schlepping along kosher food, as some of the participants were observant. Yet, somehow, they all make it, even if the siblings with Down syndrome needed to ride on a horse in order to get to the summit.

As the documentary unfolds, viewers get to know the sibling pairs, all of whom have different types of relationships. There’s Irena, who says, “At the age of 22, I became the mother of a nineteen-year-old with Down syndrome.” She became the legal guardian of her brother, Amar, after their mother died four years earlier after a long struggle with cancer. In contrast, there’s Inbal, the sister of Ilan, who also has Down syndrome. She says that she never felt all that close to him; from the moment Ilan was born, her parents focused all of their attention on her brother and she felt pushed aside. Now that their parents are aging, Inbal wants to get closer to Ilan, and with the realization she will someday have the sole responsibility of taking care of him, she softens her attitude both toward Ilan and her parents.

And then there’s Harel, brother to Golan, Harel is a stereotypical Israeli former soldier, who spent his military service in the Israeli Defense Forces as an officer in the Golani Brigade specializing in counter-terrorism. Harel is shown pushing Golan to keep moving, even when Golan is exhausted and feeling homesick. After numerous conversations with some of the other non-disabled siblings, mostly with the sisters, he gradually shows a kinder side. In reflecting on his decision to take Golan on the trek Harel says, “Like most things in their lives, it’s something we chose for him. Sometimes, I ask myself who gave us the right to make this choice?”

This film is tender, funny, and most of all filled with heart and of course, chutzpah. It’s showing at many film festivals, in Hebrew with English subtitles. As part of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion month events in February, “My Hero Brother” will be shown on Thursday, Feb. 9th at Sinai Temple at 8 pm, sponsored by Mati Center/IAC. Tickets are $20 and are available at

Conversations about special needs employment shifting from ‘if’ to ‘how’

Shalhevet High School office assistant Daniel Schwartz’s responsibilities are mostly clerical. They include mailing copies of the school newspaper, The Boiling Point, to Shalhevet families; ensuring students clean up after themselves; reminding students not to bring food or drink into the art studios of the recently renovated Fairfax Avenue campus; and other such tasks. 

Schwartz, however, is not an ordinary employee. The 26-year-old has cerebral palsy that was caused by a brain bleed at birth, which rendered his left arm and hand ineffective and impaired his vision in his left eye. 

Nevertheless, the lanky, dark-haired, yarmulke-wearing 20-something works a total of 24 hours per week between two jobs: two days a week at Shalhevet and up to four days a week at Pavilions grocery store in Beverly Hills. He has worked at Pavilions for the past 10 years and at Shalhevet since 2014. 

Schwartz may not be an ordinary employee, but his situation isn’t unique. Several other Jewish day schools in Los Angeles — including YULA Boys High School, Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am and Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy — have hired young adults with special needs. Although there has been no coordinated effort behind such hires among the schools, Angie Bass, director of the early childhood center at Pressman Academy, said she hopes someday to see schools working together to bring more special needs adults into the professional fold of the schools.

“I would be very interested if that happened,” Bass, who interviewed a special needs applicant who eventually was hired at the school, told the Journal.

During a recent school day at Shalhevet, Schwartz interrupted his daily routine to participate in an interview with the Journal alongside the school principal, Noam Weissman; Schwartz’s mother, Hendel; and his job coach, Maria Pineda.

Weissman said Schwartz’s hire has been a success, both for Schwartz and for students of the Modern Orthodox high school. 

“He’s an important reminder for the students to behave in a menschy way,” Weissman said.

Every Wednesday and Thursday, Schwartz goes to Shalhevet accompanied by Pineda, a job coach with the Exceptional Children’s Foundation. Pineda, who will continue to assist Schwartz as long as he works at Shalhevet, described how her client manages performing what would for others be fairly simple tasks, such as operating the school’s mailing machine when he is sending copies of The Boiling Point to Shalhevet families. 

“As his job coach, I see him sometimes having a hard time, including putting a newspaper inside an envelope, a task that for us [is easy],” she said.

“He has to use one hand,” Schwartz’s mother, Hendel, said.

“At times I hear Daniel say, ‘It’s hard,’ but he has been able to manage. … [H]e figures it out, he finds a way to do it,” Pineda said.

Schwartz was hired, in part, through a personal connection: His older brother, Jonathan, an attorney, and Weissman are friends. Still, it was Schwartz’s personality that convinced Weissman to hire him. The principal recalled Schwartz delivering a toast at Jonathan’s engagement party.  

“I think what sold me is I saw him — he was giving a toast for his brother, or, more than that, he was excited to give that toast. … I was like, ‘I think this guy is fun and I think this guy could be cool to have around students.’ … [W]hen students have the opportunity to be around fun, positive people, why not take advantage of that?” Weissman said. 

But Schwartz’s concept of “fun” is a little different when he’s on the job, such as his warning a misbehaving Shalhevet student that he was being watched.

“Last week I said to one of the students, as a joke, ‘I have eyes behind my head,’ ” Schwartz said.

“He’s much stricter than me,” Weissman said. 

According to The Boiling Point, Schwartz is the first employee with special needs to be hired at the day school. Is he a symbol of what special needs adults can accomplish if given a fair shot? His mother thinks so. 

“He represents a huge community, and there are so many of them who really need employment and really need doors open[ed] for them, and I think that’s one of the messages I want to try to get across,” she said.

Jacob Katz, 32, who has Down syndrome, is another example. He works as an office manager at YULA Boys High School.

Katz joined the staff five years ago thanks to a family connection with the school’s leadership. He works 30 hours a week at YULA — without a job coach. But it wasn’t always that way. Initially, an aide from the California Department of Rehabilitation accompanied Katz and provided guidance both to him and the school staff. 

“You have to know how to maximize the interaction so it’s a good experience for everybody, and it’s not like you drop a kid like that in a work environment or a school and they’ll know what to do,” said Ernest Katz, Katz’s father, who is a clinical and pediatric psychologist. 

Jacob Katz’s co-worker and YULA Boys School administrator Chavie Gorman admitted she had reservations when Katz joined the staff. Initially, she worried that he would not be able to keep up with her; now she said he makes her better at her job.

“I love having him here. He doesn’t slow me down,” she said. “If anything, he helps me maintain the pace that I need.”

Michael Held, executive director of ETTA, one of the largest local Jewish organizations focused on programing for the special needs community, said the hiring of people with special needs at Jewish day schools is indicative of positive change in the larger community. 

“When Jewish day schools are asked about including someone on their staff who has special needs, we don’t get the same questions we used to get. They might ask, ‘How do we do this properly?’ but they are ready and willing and prepared because attitudes have changed, and that’s a big step for the Jewish community,” Held said in a phone interview. “It’s a significant improvement and, looking ahead over the next five or 10 years, it will get bigger. People with disabilities will find more employment in mainstream settings.”

Late last year, ETTA received a $60,000 Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund grant to create ETTA JOBS, a special needs vocational program providing coaching, placement and more to people in need. The program is currently serving eight community members, and Held, for his part, expects the program to grow. 

“Adults with disabilities are being seen as productive and should be gainfully employed and not just be given busy work,” he said.

Michelle K. Wolf, executive director at the Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs Trust and a Jewish Journal contributor, who has a 22-year-old son with a developmental disability, said employment provides special needs individuals with the self-esteem required to succeed in the world. It also, on a more practical level, provides the all-important paycheck, though special needs individuals who are employed consequently receive less Supplemental Security Income (SSI) assistance than those who are not employed, she said. 

“Work provides us with meaningful activity and self-confidence. And money. Everyone needs a paycheck,” Wolf said, “even people who receive government benefits should still work.”

Special needs couple ask Knesset speaker for permission to wed there

A Knesset worker and his fiancee, both with special needs, have petitioned Speaker Yuli Edelstein for permission to be married there.

Nadav Halperin and Hodaya Lowenstein made their request to help promote tolerance for people with special needs, Israel’s Channel 2 reported Thursday.

The couple met under the auspices of the Alei Siach organization, which provides programs for people with special needs, including assisted living, occupational therapy and college.

Chaim Frankel, director of the organization, sent the letter to Edelstein on behalf of the couple, according to Channel 2.

“Allowing a wedding for people with special needs to take place at the Knesset, the heart of Israeli democracy and consensus, would benefit our work to create a more inclusive society for people with special needs in Israeli society,” Frankel wrote. “Your permission would provide an official seal of approval for the hopes of so many people to be included in society. It also would put Israel at the forefront of tolerant countries that are working towards acceptance of ‘the other.’”

Edelstein reportedly is considering the request.

Conservative rabbis, leaders letter to Netanyahu urging him to ‘ensure the rights of every Israeli’

The Honorable Binyamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel

For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent.   למען ציון לא אחשה

Iyar 17,‏‎ 5775 May 6, 2015

We are writing to you as the collective leadership of the Conservative/Masorti Movement, representing two million Jews around the world and hundreds of thousands in Israel. We are true Zionists and defend Israel every day so we were devastated when our love and affection was returned by a slap in the face from Mayor Rahamim Malul of Rehovot. The Mayor, a member of Likud, decided to cancel the b’nei mitzva ceremony of children with disabilities because it was to be held in a Masorti synagogue. This decision scuttled the hopes and dreams of the families who yearned for the rare opportunity to celebrate their boys and girls and to welcome them into the Jewish adulthood. This is not an opportunity generally made available by any synagogue under the auspices of the Rabbanut to any child with disabilities and certainly not to any girl, with or without disabilities.

[Read David Suissa's thoughts on the movement]

Masorti’s b’nei mitzvah program for children with disabilities, operating for more than 20 years all over Israel, is the essence of Kiddush Hashem, an act that sanctifies God’s name.

This cynical and heartless act has been felt around the world. Trammeling on a moment of holiness, it was the essence of Chilul Hashem: desecration of God’s name. It has left Masorti/Conservative Jews everywhere, heartbroken and spiritually depleted.

The Rehovot incident is merely the latest in a string of insults against non-Orthodox Jews in Israel. We are repeatedly confronted with the Zionism of prejudice, a Zionism that has been hijacked by an extremist, coercive, and inflexible Rabbinate.

Masorti Jews and communities in Israel demonstrate daily that there is more than one way to be Jewish. That flowering of the Jewish spirit, and the healthy diversity that it generates, is our approach to Judaism. Israel, which we love and admire so much, cannot remain the only democracy in the world where Jews do not celebrate freedom of religion.

We urge you to use your influence as the leader of the Likud Party and as Prime Minister to ensure the rights of every Israeli, especially those who are most vulnerable. We urge you to stand up for what is just and fair for these children, and what is right for the Jewish people.

Rabbi William Gershon, President, The Rabbinical Assembly

Rabbi Robert Slosberg, Chairperson, Masorti Foundation

Laura Lewis, Executive Director, Masorti Foundation

Shueli Fast, Chairperson, Masorti Movement

Sarrae Crane, Executive Director, WLCJ

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President, The Rabbinical Assembly

Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary

Rabbi Mauricio Balter, Co-president, Rabbinical Assembly in Israel

Yizhar Hess, Executive Director, Masorti Movement

Carol Simon, President, WLCJ

Margo Gold, President, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

Rabbi Bradley S. Artson Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, AJU

Rabbi Dubi Hayun, Co-president, Rabbinical Assembly in Israel

Dr. Stephen Wolnek, President, MERCAZ Olami

Rabbi Charles E. Simon, Executive Director, Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

Dr. David Breakstone, International Vice President, MERCAZ Olami

Gillian Caplin, President, Masorti Olami

Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, Executive Director, MERCAZ & Masorti Olami

Myles Simpson, President, Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs 

Summer camp for all

Like many children and teenagers, Michael Rosenbaum of Los Feliz sees going to summer camp as a highlight of his year.

He relishes the outdoor activities, cooking classes, swimming, dancing and games at Camp Ramah in Ojai. He enjoys connecting with his Jewish heritage through daily celebrations and songs, and he especially loves seeing his camp friends from previous years. And, since last summer, the 18-year-old has been thrilled at the opportunity to work at the camp as a cooking teacher’s assistant.

Rosenbaum’s trajectory from camp participant to camp helper is typical of many teenagers as they reach adulthood, but for him, the transition is particularly auspicious. Rosenbaum has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that makes it difficult for him to participate in many of the activities other children at summer camp take for granted. Yet, according to his mother, Rony Rosenbaum, he has been able to take part fully, thanks to Camp Ramah’s programs for special needs youth.

“It’s really one of the most incredible programs that you can possibly imagine for these kids,” she said. “The kids are not just integrated into everything that the whole rest of the camp does, they’re rock stars. Kids in the rest of the camp actually fight to be their buddies.”

Camp Ramah ( runs an umbrella initiative called Tikvah for children and youth with special needs, under which three programs are available: Ohr Lanu, a weeklong family camp in early June for special needs children, their parents and siblings; Amitzim, where special needs children ages 11 to 17 participate alongside regular attendees in Camp Ramah; and Ezra, a seven-week vocational training program for young adults. The goal is to make summer camp something that youth of all abilities can enjoy, and where they can find a welcome place as members of the Jewish community, Tikvah director Elana Naftalin-Kelman said. About 80 children with a wide range of disabilities attend the programs each year, mostly from the Los Angeles area, she said. 

The Ezra vocational program takes the participation of special needs teenagers and young adults to a new level. The program grew out of recognition at Camp Ramah that there needed to be opportunities for young people with disabilities to continue their camp experience after they turned 18, even though they are unable to become counselors, Naftalin-Kelman said.

Under the Ezra program, youth ages 17 to 23 live at the camp in Ojai and are given jobs, either within the camp or at businesses in town. Tasks at the camp include setting up and clearing tables in the dining hall, helping staff run the sports programs, working in the mail and supply rooms or running the staff store, where they make smoothies and sandwiches. Jobs in Ojai have included work at the local library, a grocery store, a senior living facility and an animal shelter.

In addition, participants receive daily life-skills lessons to help them become more independent, such as cooking healthy meals, setting up a bank account and using public transportation. Three times a week, they attend classes on Jewish holidays, keeping kosher, what it means to be a Jewish adult and other aspects of Jewish life.

Naftalin-Kelman said the experience helps them develop independence, self-confidence and a sense of belonging. She said many families have struggled to find acceptance in the communities they live in because of their child’s disability and often do not belong to a synagogue. 

“These families are more often than not feeling like they’ve been rejected from the Jewish community,” she said. “Camp Ramah is their Jewish community.”

That’s not the case for Rosenbaum, an Ezra program participant who is keenly devout and involved at Temple Israel of Hollywood, his mother said. 

“The Jewish aspect of Ramah is key to how much he loves it there,” she said. “[Jewish traditions] are really, really important to him, and for that reason it’s really important to us.”

Rosenbaum said he’s looking forward to attending Camp Ramah again this summer. The reason is simple: “It’s my favorite place.”

A camp with a big heart

For the past seven summers, Hilary Kip’s twin boys have attended Camp Chesed, a Reseda-based program for kids with special needs now headed into its 20th year. There’s a very simple reason Kip sends them year after year.

Every day, she said, “They leave happy, and they return happy.” 

Whether it’s a trip to Disneyland or an afternoon at the park, the Van Nuys mother said her sons, who are on the autism spectrum, get excited about the modest program making a big difference.

The camp, whose name means “lovingkindness” in Hebrew and which served 38 people last year, is a true family operation, with the avuncular patriarch Jacques Hay at the wheel. Hay, 65, of West Hills said it has its roots in his daughter Jalena’s mitzvah project from when she was 11.

It came on the heels of a project by his older son, Joshua, who had just hosted a wildly successful fundraiser for a CSUN basketball recruit who lost both legs following a horrific car accident and needed money to purchase prosthetics. 

“My daughter wanted to do something,” Hay said. “I had always wanted to set up a camp for kids with disabilities.”

So they started Camp Chesed together. Not that any of Hay’s own kids had special needs. In large part, the camp is a huge gesture of gratitude for this.

“I knew several children who were Jewish with disabilities who were neglected in school,” said Hay, a teddy bear of a man who owns Award Winners trophy shop in Northridge. 

He also saw the camp as an opportunity to build character in his own children. 

“They are healthy. They are wise. They are light-years ahead of me. They realize how fortunate they are,” he said.

When Camp Chesed began, it was a small, one-week program for 17 kids. Last year, the day camp lasted two weeks. Campers are also invited to attend Purim and Chanukah celebrations during the year. Participants must be Jewish and at least 6 years old.

Home base for campers is Diane S. Leichman High School in Reseda, a Los Angeles Unified School District campus for students with special needs. But the campers go on regular field trips to places such as the Santa Barbara Zoo and, last year, Whiteman Airport in Pacoima. There, the kids went on plane and helicopter rides and, in some cases, even got to pilot a plane for a couple of seconds. This year, Hay hopes to take campers to Agua Dulce Airport in Santa Clarita for longer plane rides and a carnival, as well as to Universal Studios. In the past, campers and their families have enjoyed trips to Disneyland as well.

Last year, Camp Chesed added a sports component. Campers worked with college athletes at CSUN, where they were coached in basketball, baseball, swimming, soccer and tennis. 

Other activities at Camp Chesed include singing, participating in a drum circle, dancing, art projects, and just spending downtime with other campers and counselors. Attendees participate in daily prayers, enjoy kosher food and celebrate Shabbat.

“Most of the kids like to say, ‘You know, I come to camp just so I can hang out and be normal,’ ” Hay said.

Hay’s wife, Judith, is very involved in the camp, and Jalena, who now lives in New York, returned two summers ago to supervise the camp. Joshua, now a Florida resident, handles registration and coordinating staff, while his younger brother, Jonathan, who lives in Pico-Robertson, is active in fundraising and usually assists for a day or two in the summer. 

Because the camp is free to participants, Hay actively fundraises throughout the year. He does not have a set goal but estimates needing approximately $900 per camper. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles contributes between $3,000 and $5,000 a year, for which he said he is grateful. But, Hay said, “99 percent” of funds come from individual donors. Local philanthropist Maynard Ostrow, who passed away in October, was especially generous, contributing “well into the six figures” over the years, Hay said. In fact, the official name of the program has been updated to Camp Chesed/Camp Maynard in the donor’s memory.

The counselors — most of whom are high-school students — all donate their time, and there are two to three designated for each camper. Even so, Hay finds that he has to turn away eager volunteers each year.

When Camp Chesed started, most of the campers had Down syndrome, but now many are on the autism spectrum, like Kip’s sons, who plan on attending again this summer. 

“I know for a fact they enjoy the outings very much,” she said. “They loved being active and having college-level athletes working with them.” 

One of the things that really stands out to Kip is the camp’s family feel. 

“There’s a real sense of good will … a very good sense of welcoming,” she said.

That’s no surprise, with Hay at the helm.

“It takes a lot of my time,” he said. “But it makes me whole.” 

Tyler Barbee shares his sports passion with special-needs kids

As a little boy growing up in Mill Valley, Calif., playing baseball meant the world to Tyler Barbee.

“When I was a kid, baseball was my life,” said Barbee, now a 17-year-old high school senior at Tamalpais High School.

But he also knew that his love of the sport couldn’t be shared easily by his brother, Conner, who is four years older and has autism.

“I wanted him to be able to participate, but there wasn’t an environment for him to succeed,” Barbee recalled.

Six years ago he helped start Challenger Baseball & Basketball, a sports league for children with special needs.

Each special-needs player is matched with a buddy, typically a high school student without disabilities, to help learn not only the rules and skills necessary for the sport but also to give them a chance to socialize, gain confidence and develop friendships. The games are non-competitive, Barbee said, and mostly focus on having fun.

Another benefit of the program, he said, was the support network that emerged for the parents of the special-needs children.

“It wasn’t part of the initial plan, but was a really fantastic added benefit,” Barbee said.

Barbee, who serves as his school’s student body president, was recently awarded the DillerTeen Tikkun Olam Award. He plans to use some of the $36,000 award to expand the program to include tennis and soccer, as well as to purchase team jerseys and new sports equipment.

The program is also in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status and has changed its name to Project Awareness and Special Sports.

“Sports were my community, and I wanted to create this for my brother and other children with special needs,” said Barbee. “I loved baseball and I wanted him to have the opportunity to feel this love, too.”

JTA spoke with Barbee about the hero who most impresses him, what connects him to Judaism and which California baseball teams he hopes to see in the World Series.

JTA: Who is your hero and why?

Barbee: I’ve been really very impressed with Martin Luther King Jr. Everything that I’ve learned about his protests and [acts of] nonviolence is impressive and inspiring to me.

What is meaningful to you about being Jewish?

How connected and strong the community is, and I am very proud to be a part of it.

What advice would you give to other teens interested in starting a tikkun olam project?

I’ve learned that things can go in other ways than what you expect and still work out. There are different ways to get things done and not one set way.

What do you think you want to be when you grow up?

I’m not quite sure, but I am interested in business and having a business or nonprofit that has a positive impact on society.

What kind of things do you like to do for fun?

I like mountain biking, hiking, camping with my friends and playing baseball recreationally.

Who would you like to see in the World Series this year?

I’m actually an [Oakland] A’s fan, so I am hoping that they make it and beat the [Los Angeles] Angels! It would be nice to see the [San Francisco] Giants play the A’s.

Limmud for special needs

Since the launch in 2011 of Limmud L’Am at Limmud Conference UK, adults with a variety of learning/developmental disabilities have become a welcome addition to the Limmud community around the world — as presenters, volunteers and participants.

Verbal or nonverbal, walking or in a wheelchair, independent or reliant on others for their support needs — whatever each person’s level of ability, he or she is being welcomed to Limmud. How do we do this?

At the latest Limmud conference in the United Kingdom, a small group of volunteers was tasked with the role of ensuring the site was as accessible as possible. But the real challenge was with the learning. After all, Limmud means, quite literally, learning. How could we make learning events accessible to those who have challenges accessing educational material in the traditional formats? How could we empower them to take one more step on their Jewish journey?

We started by focusing on what people can do rather than what they can’t. We looked for sessions that are already accessible and enjoyable to lots of people — music, crafts, cookery, etc. Because this is Limmud, these classes are also designed to have educational value and Jewish content.

For someone with additional needs, Limmud can sometimes be overwhelming. More and more, we are encouraging presenters to think creatively about making their sessions more accessible — large print, alternative forms of communication, use of new technology, e-mailable content for use on an iPad, handouts in easy-to-read format and so on.

We are just at the beginning of this journey. With time, our goal is that when it comes to Jewish learning, we will leave no Jew behind.

Rachelle, a presenter with special needs, said it best this year: “People with learning or developmental disabilities are just the same as everyone else and should have the same opportunities as everyone else. We should be able to go to Limmud like anyone else, and we should be able to teach people, too. It makes me happy to teach people.”

Shoshana Bloom, an ardent advocate for those with special needs in the Jewish community, serves on the Limmud UK executive committee and has twice co-chaired Limmud Conference.

Welcoming special-needs families at Vista Del Mar

Six years ago, when Rabbi Jackie Redner was hired as a full-time rabbi at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services center, she decided to visit the kids in the Nes Gadol program first. Nes Gadol is designed to prepare children with autism for their bar and bat mitzvahs — they learn about Jewish history and religious practice and write speeches about their relationship to Judaism and faith. Many of the kids are nonverbal, so through a program called the Moses and Aaron Cooperative, each child selects someone who will speak their words aloud from the bimah on the big day.

The first child Redner interacted with was a boy named Dov. He was one of their toughest cases — “When I came into the Nes Gadol classroom, he was sitting on the floor, rocking, you name it, just really not focused,” she said of that initial encounter. 

But Redner decided that if she was going to work with these children, she shouldn’t shy away from the challenges, so she sat with him and tried to get to know him. Dov doesn’t speak, but he can communicate by typing. The first thing he typed to her — one letter, one finger at a time — was: “Will you help me prepare for my bar mitzvah?” At the end of the session, he thanked her for her patience. 

One hundred years ago, Vista Del Mar was a Jewish orphanage, a West Los Angeles refuge for children who didn’t have anywhere else to go. Now the 18-acre campus serves children and families from a variety of religious backgrounds and with a variety of needs, providing residential programs for kids in the foster system and nonpublic elementary and high school classrooms for children with learning and behavioral disabilities.

Redner is in charge of the Jewish life aspects of Vista Del Mar’s programming. It’s a smorgasbord of undertakings, including the Nes Gadol program, as well as creating High Holy Days services designed to welcome families of children with disabilities. Although Nes Gadol focuses specifically on kids with autism who are also nonverbal, the point of the High Holy Days services is to provide a welcoming Jewish space to all families who otherwise have trouble finding places where they can worship with children who have trouble focusing, reading, sitting still or just staying quiet. 

“Our demographic is any kid who would get kicked out of any other program,” said Redner’s colleague, Elaine Hall, who runs the acclaimed Miracle Theater program at Vista.

Nes Gadol grew out of Hall’s Miracle Project, a 22-week program that culminates in the performance of a musical starring kids who are typically developing or who have autism spectrum disorder. Hall created the project as a response to the lack of creative, social outlets for her own son, Neal, who was diagnosed with autism. For her part, Redner comes to this work from a   background in therapy: She was a registered occupational therapist interested in Jungian psychology before she became a rabbi. Both women agree that the goal of their work is to encourage self-expression in children through creativity as well as a sense of their own worth in the world. 

“The Nes Gadol kids are very active in the service,” Redner said of Vista Del Mar’s High Holy Days programs. “They’re completely integrated, and they’re not just welcome, but they actually get to be leaders.” She considers this a crucial piece of the puzzle. 

“Parents of kids with special needs don’t get to brag about their kids,” she added. “They don’t get the nachas.” But when the kids are encouraged to study and to speak, “they allow the congregation to find their own light, and by including them we elevate our services.”

Both Hall and Redner are quick to clarify that what they’re doing isn’t service work in the traditional sense. 

“We don’t know who’s before us,” said Redner, who added that her default mode is to “assume intelligence” in the kids she works with. She takes their unique perspectives and perceptions as open windows onto new ways of seeing the world. 

To that end, Redner and Hall have recently secured a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation to create the Vista Inspired Community Inclusion Program, which will pilot a program focusing on including special-needs families into more traditional congregations. 

“This isn’t about doing good for some poor person,” Redner said. “We’re hoping to partner with them to help them engage with, support and be elevated by these children.”

At the end of an interview, Redner screens a video of Dov’s bar mitzvah, a montage that includes his process of writing his speech and then someone delivering it for him on the bimah. Dov’s talk begins with a simple assertion: “Everyone desires some way to reach somebody.” Before he learned to type, there was no way for Dov to communicate with the people around him; he was 11 before his parents knew what was going on inside their son’s head. When they asked him what he’d been up to all those years, Dov replied simply: “Listening.” 

The Jewish Life programs at Vista Del Mar return the favor for those years of listening, encouraging children with autism to speak their minds, to engage with their faith and to find a way to reach out to their community.

Study: Jewish summer camps increasingly attune to special needs kids

A study released by the Foundation for Jewish Camp showed overnight camps are growing increasingly aware of the needs of children with disabilities.

The organization on Wednesday said the study showed a greater number of retreats for Jewish youth offered unique services to a larger number of children with special needs than previously expected.

“Camps were serving much larger numbers of children with disabilities than we thought before we did the research,” said Abby Knopp, vice president of program and strategy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Also, the kids that are getting to camp are gaining the benefits; being more connected to Judaism, Israel and other Jewish kids.”

The survey quizzed 828 parents, campers, camp directors and staff from 124 Jewish camps around the country. About a third of the camps included in the study offered a track for children with special needs and just over half had staff exclusively dedicated to their care. Just over 90 percent of parents of children with disabilities said they were happy with their children's experience at camp.

At the same time, pollsters said results might have been affected by the sample group, which consisted entirely of parents who enrolled their children at Jewish camps excluding parents that, for whatever reason, did not. Nonetheless, the group said the data was a good sign for Jewish camps.

“We are encouraged to see that families thus far are very happy with their Jewish camp experiences,” says Jeremy J. Fingerman, the Foundation for Jewish Camp's CEO. “Now we can concentrate on creating more opportunities for more children to experience a joyful, transformative experience at Jewish camp.”

A group of experts are expected to submit a list of recommendations to the Foundation for Jewish Camp on how to further improve conditions for children with disabilities by the winter of 2014.

The Mensch List: Two-person army for their autistic son

Just try asking Connie and Harvey Lapin to recap 44 years as parent activists in the world of autism. In hyperactive tag-team, the couple bursts forth with stories and ideas, only to interrupt themselves and one another with still more anecdotes, ideas and accomplishments.

In the end, through laughter and tears, they manage to produce a coherent story of the tireless chutzpah, visionary courage and what they call serendipity, but is probably more about persistence, that helped them change the landscape, locally and nationally, for people with autism.

Harvey, 75, and Connie, 73, both grew up in Detroit. The second of their three sons, Shawn, was born in 1968 and was diagnosed with autism in 1970. Shawn is mostly nonverbal, and when he was younger was prone to violent and self-destructive behavior. He now lives in his own apartment with 24-hour help.

In 1970, there were no services for Shawn, and autism was misunderstood as childhood schizophrenia, often blamed on a frigid mother (Connie melts with warmth), and was treated with what today would be called abuse. The Lapins were told Shawn was incapable of feeling love or attachment and that the state had no obligation to educate him.

The Lapins had no intention of standing for any of that.

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But growth is inevitable: The number of adults with developmental disabilities, especially autism, is expected to increase dramatically over the next several years. And they have been raised to believe that a disability is not an obstacle.

“If you stay focused and you believe in yourself, you can do things,” said Emily, a 15-year-old on the autism spectrum, who participates in a b’nai mitzvah class at Vista Del Mar’s Nes Gadol program. “That is how I can accomplish things in life. I would like to go to college someday and have a decent life. Just a normal, happy life.” (Emily’s last name has been left out because she’s a minor.)

Banayan is already living that life.

“I am an independent woman here,” she says, sitting on her zebra-striped bedspread, a bright pink pillow in her lap. “I love the way I live.”

The Westwood crowd is high-functioning, with a variety of disabilities — autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or other related developmental disabilities. ” title=”Jewish Federations of North America as Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month” target=”_blank”>Jewish Federations of North America as Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, in collaboration with about a dozen independent and synagogue-based programs, crafted a comprehensive calendar of events and a resource guide for its ” title=”whose reality is real” target=”_blank”>Whose reality is real?

Whose reality is real?

A little while ago, Hendel Schwartz got a call from a city bus driver.

“Your son walks with God,” the driver told her.

Daniel Schwartz, 23, who has cerebral palsy, is sociable with a great sense of humor, and once he learned the independence of riding buses, he made them something of a second home.

Parents and activists have long understood that those with disabilities have a unique perspective that can, and should, influence those around them.

Take Daniel’s determination. He walks with a limp and his left hand curls in on itself at the wrist and isn’t functional, but Daniel opens his own pill bottles, sinks three-pointers in basketball with alarming frequency, goes bowling every Sunday and visits homebound senior citizens after that. His enthusiasm for leading the blessing after meals at UCLA Hillel on Friday nights has shown other students the joy of Jewish ritual.

“They are going to be leaders in the community — it’s not just about these poor kids with disabilities. It’s not like they’re someone’s mitzvah project,” said Elaine Hall, founder and director of a Jewish arts program for children with autism at ” title=”Finding their place” target=”_blank”>Twentysomethings with special needs are mainstreaming themselves into independence