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 http://www.maticenter.com/events/me-hero-brorher/

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 (ramah.org) 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.

Story continues after the video.

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

Opinion: Dream big, y’all

In synagogue last Friday night, just after her sermon, the rabbi announced she had invited a special guest in honor of Jewish Disabilities Month.

The woman next to me leaned over and whispered. “What’s Jewish Disabilities Month?”

“That’s for Jews who get B’s in school,” I said.

Kidding, of course.

But in a culture that prides itself on education and achievement, there is a tendency to overlook those children, men and women who may never fit into the straight-A, Ivy League, graduate school and away-we-go model. Our norm is pretty exceptional.

One of the most moving stories I’ve reported for The Journal was on Dr. Michael Held, who in 1993 founded an organization called Etta Israel to make sure every Jewish child, regardless of his or her abilities, received a Jewish education. Held told me stories of families who kept their Down syndrome children locked in the house rather than allow the community to see them.

Things have changed for the better since then. Etta Israel now offers group homes, camp and Israel experiences, and Michelle Wolf, who created the first blog on the subject, Jews and Special Needs, at jewishjournal.com, charts the heartening growth of programs and opportunities seeking to include and assist people with disabilities.

These programs succeed — we as a community succeed — only when we stop viewing life as a race where just a select few make it to “the top.”

“What if instead of seeing life as a race,” Rabbi Naomi Levy wrote in her book “Hope Will Find You,” “we begin to see life as a hora?” — as a circle folk dance. “The question a person in a race asks is, How far ahead am I? The question a person in a dance asks is, How wide is my circle?”

It was Rabbi Levy who introduced the special guest at her Nashuva congregation services last Friday. The rabbi and I also happen to be married — I just call her Naomi — and our daughter, Noa, who turned 16 last weekend, has demonstrated each day the persistence and grace required to navigate the world when you aren’t, in the words of her bat mitzvah speech, “all put together.” But much of Noa’s success is due to the circle of educators, doctors, specialists, lawyers and friends who have devoted themselves to children with special needs, and to her.  

The guest Naomi introduced was a 20-year-old Jewish rapper named Rio Wyles.

Wyles, clad in rapper chic — baggy pants, T-shirt, dark shades — stood silently on the bimah as Naomi recited his story.

At age 3, Wyles was diagnosed with autism. Specialists told his mother that his thinking would never rise above the abstract. But a succession of devoted specialists — Dr. Bill Takeshita, now affiliated with the Center for the Partially Sighted; cognitive therapist Shmuel Stoch, at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy; education therapist Carol Essey and others — helped him along. Wyles is now a proud graduate of the Academy of Music magnet program at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, class of 2010.

At the age of 8, while browsing through the bins at Tower Records, Wyles told his mother, Judith Feldman, he intended to work in the music business. Doctors had warned her to keep her expectations in check. 

“Do you want to work here?” Feldman asked her son, knowing even a record store might be a stretch.

“I want to be a rapper and own my own label,” Wyles shot back.  “You gotta’ dream bigger than that, Mom.” 

Rio Wyles transformed himself into the rapper Soulshocka. 

He sought music mentors — Sam Kingston, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame and   producer Joe Seabe at PASW Music Management.

As important as the professionals and friends who helped him were institutions like Vista Del Mar and its Miracle Project — whose founder and president, Elaine Hall, brought him to Nashuva — as well as Hamilton High and Day Jams, a summer rock music camp held at American Jewish University. Wyles was the first Day Jams camper with autism to be admitted — something his mother said transformed his life. Doors didn’t just open for Wyles — people chose to let him in.

Soulshocka performs along with the Miracle Project Fly Ensemble at autism-related charitable events, synagogues and elsewhere. He has a label, and a producer, Seabe.  Soulshocka received the 2011 Autism Genius Award at Carnegie Hall, and a standing ovation last Friday night at Nashuva.

The two songs he performed were “We Will Prevail” and “Malfunction,” with music by Seabe and the lyrics by Wyles himself. 

I’ll leave you with the chorus from “We Will Prevail.” 

Walkin’ in a straight line
and never look back.
Never surrender when you’re
under attack.
Won’t be easy but you gotta stay strong.
Never give up cause the road is long. …
Somehow I know we will prevail.
We will not fail. We will prevail.
Somehow I know we will prevail.
We will not fail. We will prevail.
Somehow I know we will prevail.
Dream big, y’all.
I’m out.

Reform launches special-needs summer programs

The Union for Reform Judaism has launched two new summer programs for children with special needs.

Camp Chazak in Massachusetts, opening this summer, is for middle-school children with communication and social delays. It has recreational and therapeutic programming.

Like the Reform movement’s existing programs for autistic teens—the Mitzvah Corps program at Camp Kutz in Warwick, N.Y., and the Camp Nefesh program at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, Calif.—the new camp aims to provide a Jewish experience to youngsters often left out of mainstream opportunities.

The second new program, Israel in a Special Way, is a travel program to Israel for older teenagers with learning disabilities and emotional/social difficulties. It is the first Reform program in Israel for those with special needs.

More information on the programs is available at www.urjcamps.org/programs/specialneeds.

Judaism Through Arts for Adults With Special Needs

As her daughter Amy was nearing graduation two years ago, Pattie Earlix was crushed by the thought that her religious education was ending.

“We were heartbroken,” Earlix said. “How can our kids graduate? They have nothing to graduate to.”

By the time she was 8 years old, Amy had been diagnosed with a mood disorder, learning disabilities and ADHD. Shortly after her bat mitzvah and until recently, she’d studied with Shaare Tikva, a weekly Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Sunday religious school program for 3- to 18-year-olds with developmental delays or autism. There she made friends and enjoyed attending religious services while parents reached out to one another for support, Earlix said.

As Shaare Tikva students turned 18 and 19, however, “they were gently asked to graduate … no one wanted to go,” Earlix said. “Parents as a group said, ‘If VBS stops at Shaare Tikva, that community sense of belonging stops.’”

[story continues after the jump]

Graduates of Valley Beth Shalom’s Shaare Tikva will likely be among the first students with Artistic Spectrum, a Jewish education program for special-needs adults.
Photo courtesy Etz Chaim Learning Center

Vocational training, counseling and social services exist for Jewish adults with special needs, but few synagogues and agencies outside of the Orthodox community, like Etta Israel in North Hollywood, offer continuing Jewish education for that segment of the community.

Starting this fall, VBS will launch the Artistic Spectrum of Jewish Learning, which seeks to provide adults with special needs, ages 18 to 25, with opportunities in higher Jewish learning through the arts. Classes are scheduled to begin Oct. 18, and will meet on Sundays.

Artistic Spectrum — playing off the term “autistic spectrum,” a phrase inclusive of all autism disorders — is one of several programs offered through Our Space, a unique collaborative effort between Conservative congregations VBS in Encino and Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. The curriculum for Artistic Spectrum’s first year will teach Shabbat through the arts, including photography, weaving challah covers, dancing, painting, ceramics and instruction on Jewish traditions, such as creating a Jewish kitchen and preparing a Shabbat dinner.

“Some of our graduates are already living in independent situations with peers, and they want to bring Shabbat into their homes and be able to invite their families over,” said Susan North Gilboa, director of Our Space.

Tuition for Artistic Spectrum is $900, and students need not be members of Valley Beth Shalom or Temple Aliyah to participate. Classes will be held 9-11:30 a.m. each Sunday, except holidays, and the academic year will end June 6.

“This year is intended to be a pilot program, drawing on six recent graduates, two of whom just graduated from Pathways at UCLA,” Gilboa said, referring to a two-year UCLA Extension program for adults with special needs.

Artistic Spectrum is the second 18-and-over program started through Our Space, joining the Voice of Hope Choir, which Temple Aliyah’s Cantor Mike Stein started in 2008 and teaches twice each month on Sundays. Partial funding for Artistic Spectrum comes from a $15,000 grant from The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, which was provided in summer 2008 to support Our Space programs, especially the newly formed choir.

Our Space, which was established in 2007, seeks to help children with special needs, particularly those with an autism spectrum diagnosis or various learning/developmental disorders. Serving 40 to 60 students, ages 3 to 18, Our Space is comprised of classes on Jewish topics, youth groups and a parent support network.

“The idea was to coordinate and work together to be able to bring in as many families as possible across the scope and to join forces,” said Rabbi Paul Steinberg, who heads the VBS Etz Chaim Learning Center, which includes the Our Space program.

In addition to Artistic Spectrum and the Voice of Hope Choir, Our Space’s programs include Shaare Tikva; Moreshet, which meets twice a week for children in third through seventh grade; Solomon’s Tent (formerly Otzar), Temple Aliyah’s second- through seventh-grade program for special-needs Jewish learning; Bagels ‘n’ Chats, a monthly support group for parents; and B’Yachad, a monthly Jewish youth group for pre-teens (ages 7-11) at Temple Aliyah and teens (ages 12-18) at VBS.

Our Space maintains a low student-teacher ratio, and the learning takes place through hands-on classroom activities, music, art and making connections to the lives of the participants, Gilboa said.

“There is a growing body of research that points to the effectiveness of arts education to enrich the lives of young people with special needs, allowing them to develop along their unique paths. In addition to this research, there is a long tradition with Judaism embracing the arts as religious expression,” she said.

While Artistic Spectrum will be the first program of its kind in Los Angeles, featuring regular academic, artistic and religious instruction at the synagogue level, Jewish education for adults with special needs has been available. Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, for instance, provides some Jewish educational opportunities as part of its Chaverim program, but the group is more socially oriented, featuring a karaoke night, a dinner club, dancing, day trips, Shabbat dinners and holiday parties.

Some Shaare Tikva graduates are already expressing interest in enrolling with Artistic Spectrum, including Arthur Abravanel, 20, who started with the program in first grade.

Diagnosed with autism and ADHD, Abravanel was uncomfortable around crowds and loud sounds when he was younger. But by the time he graduated from Shaare Tikva this past year, he was in front of a crowd on stage singing prayers, and he was among the first to join Voices of Hope Choir, which he plans to rejoin this year.

Today Abravanel, and his sister Alayna, currently in Shaare Tikva, are active in the Jewish community and attend social and holiday functions with friends made through Our Space.

When he talks about the Our Space program, Abravanel says he particularly appreciates “meeting new people [and] learning about Jewish traditions.”

Amy Earlix, 19, says she’s remained close friends with students from Shaare Tikva, including Abravanel and his sister. She also says she learned a lot from Our Space program, including Jewish practices, reading Hebrew and learning about the Jewish community. But Amy is eager to try something new and different with Artistic Spectrum, even though it will mean not seeing students still enrolled in Shaare Tikva as often.

“My friends will miss me, but they’ll always be in my heart,” she said.

For more information about Artistic Spectrum of Jewish Learning, call Our Space at (818) 530-4069 or visit http://www.ourspacela.org.