From schools to bomb shelters, Israel lagging on promise to disabled

A thick concrete bomb shelter sits by the side of a central street in this embattled southern Israeli town, but Naomi Moravia can’t get inside.

Shelters like this one are crucial in Sderot, which is located about a mile from the Gaza Strip and is the frequent target of cross-border missile attacks that send residents running for cover.

But Moravia can’t run. She can’t even get up on the sidewalk.

Pushing a lever on her wheelchair, she rolls down the street looking for a ramp or a dip in the curb that she can ascend without tipping backward.

If she can manage to reach a shelter in time, she often won’t fit inside, stymied by tight corners impossible to negotiate in a wheelchair. Of five shelters in Sderot’s central district that Moravia tried to enter recently, only one was accessible.

“If there’s a siren and I’m not in a protected room, all I can do is sit in my wheelchair and pucker my butt,” said Moravia, the chairwoman of the Israeli activist group Struggle for the Disabled. “I just wait to hear the boom. There’s nothing I can do.”

The dearth of wheelchair-accessible shelters in Sderot, officials and activists say, is emblematic of Israel’s sorry record in providing for a disabled population estimated by the government to be 1.5 million.

Despite the 1998 passage of Israel’s Law of Equal Rights for Disabled People, which promises the disabled “active and equal participation in society in all areas of life,” Israel has been lax on regulation and enforcement. Public buildings and buses often are inaccessible to those in wheelchairs. Disabled children face an unresponsive education system. And the Defense Ministry has yet to formulate regulations to accommodate the needs of the disabled.

Part of the reason is that the government agency tasked with enforcing the equal rights law, the Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities, has an annual budget of just over $2 million and a national oversight staff of 11.

Israel has “very nice laws that will not be applied,” said Ahiya Kamara, the commission’s head.

“If we rely on enforcement, woe unto us,” said Ilan Gilon, a Knesset member from the Meretz party who helped draft the equal rights law. “A state needs to be accessible to its citizens.”

For disabled Israelis, the challenges can begin early. Elad Cohen, now 10, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome as a toddler. As a result, his Tel Aviv public school refused to readmit him in 2006 and Elad’s mother, Revital, had to pay out of pocket for a caretaker in a private preschool.

When Elad transferred back to public school, the state offered to pay about $5 per hour to a caretaker, enough for someone with only a high-school education — a similar standard as exists in some U.S. states.

“The state wants to do two things: not tell you what your rights are, and if you know what your rights are, find any way to deny them from you,” said Revital, who consults privately for parents of disabled children.

A series of recommendations endorsed by the Education Ministry in 2009 would have afforded nearly all disabled children the right to integrate into general classrooms at public expense. But the government has applied those recommendations in only three school districts and has no timetable for implementing them nationwide.

The ministry’s director of special education, Ra’aya Levy-Goodman, told JTA the goal is for every child who would benefit from integration — and not have a detrimental effect on their classmates — to attend public school. Since 2011, she said, the number of severely disabled children integrated into regular classrooms has tripled, from 300 to 900.

“Every child who wants and who can should be in general education,” she said. “But special education isn’t a punishment, it’s a right. And there are children who need it.”

The challenges facing the disabled continue well beyond their school years. Until 2011, no regulations existed to make public buildings handicap accessible. Regulations adopted by the Ministry of Housing and Construction that year set standards for bomb shelters in a range of public structures, but full implementation was not required until 2021.

Israel’s limited but growing railway network is handicap accessible, but the more extensive bus system is not. Transit Ministry spokesman Avner Ovadia told JTA that suggestions for improved accessibility have been solicited from advocacy groups.

Home front security, though, remains the biggest gap in special needs regulations. Disability rights activists worry that the state’s intense focus on protecting its citizens has not been fully extended to the disabled, though they cannot recall any deaths due to a lack of accessibility among the more than two dozen Israeli civilians killed by rockets since 2004.

Under a provision of the equal rights law added in 2005, the state has until 2018 to implement an emergency services accessibility plan. But Israel’s government has passed an austerity budget, which could make implementation less likely.

In the meantime, the Home Front Command’s website suggests that in case of emergency, the disabled should make sure to stay in a shelter with “other people.” For assistance, the disabled are directed to turn to “relevant organizations” and their local municipalities.

As a result, much of the burden of assisting disabled Israelis in wartime has fallen to nonprofits. When Hezbollah began raining missiles on northern Israel in 2006, volunteers from the Struggle for the Disabled evacuated 500 disabled Israelis to southern hotels. The organization paid for the service through donations.

“They turned to the Welfare Ministry, and everyone from the Welfare Ministry had left their office,” said Yisrael Even Zahav, a former government consultant who coordinated the volunteers. “They were left alone.”

A Welfare Ministry spokesperson told JTA that the ministry “works extensively, without connection to regulations, to make emergency services accessible” in conjunction with government-funded group homes and regional councils.

Some activists hope that Israel’s adoption last year of the nonbinding U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will lead to further legislation. But many are skeptical.

“It’s like a yahrtzeit,” Gilon said of the convention. “They talk about it one day and 364 days they forget about it. It doesn’t matter to most people.”

Did the rabbi steal the wheelchair?

Before Elener Jacobs was hospitalized in mid-2011, she was, for a 95-year-old, relatively active. She lived at the Royal Bellingham, an assisted-living residence in Valley Village, and though she didn’t talk to many of the other residents and occasionally lashed out at members of the staff, Jacobs got along well with Lori McKay, the facility’s administrator.

“She liked to go shopping,” McKay said of Jacobs, who would ride in her electric wheelchair for a half-mile to get to the nearest supermarket.

After Jacobs’ hospitalization for a matter related to the long-term management of chronic pain, she was transferred to Windsor Terrace, a skilled nursing facility in Van Nuys that provides a higher level of care than Royal Bellingham.

Just over a month ago, Jacobs could be found sitting near the window in her room in a nonmotorized metal wheelchair, and she told a visitor she hadn’t left the building since she had transferred there almost a year earlier. She said she wasn’t even sure she was allowed to leave.

“I didn’t ask, because I have no transportation,” Jacobs, now 96, said.

The last person known to have had possession of her motorized wheelchair was Rabbi Alan Abrams.

A heavyset man with a full head of gray hair and a close-cropped beard, Abrams, 50, has been working as a rabbi-for-hire in and around Los Angeles for the past two years. Those who have worked with him say he can be alternately kind and gruff, but perhaps more than anything, many people agree, Abrams is relentlessly self-promoting.

He peppers his speech and writings with Hebrew words. (Even the “Sent from my iPhone” tag that appears at the bottom of some of his e-mails is bilingual.) On his Web site, he says he “follows halachah [religious Jewish law] as written in the Torah,” but he doesn’t identify with any of Judaism’s major sub-groups. On his blog, he shares some very personal experiences from his own life, but at the same time, some statements he makes don’t, upon study, always match up to other people’s accounts. 

One of those is whether he is, in fact, a bona fide rabbi.

Abrams claims to have received his ordination privately in Jerusalem, which was later “enhanced” by a New York-based distance-learning program that ordains nondenominational rabbis. The head of the New York program, however, said in an interview that Abrams’ rabbinical ordination was revoked because he acquired it fraudulently.

Abrams began to use the title of rabbi in June 2009, when he was living in Phoenix, Ariz. Abrams was not a member of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix, however, and his own congregational rabbi told The Journal he did not consider Abrams’ rabbinic ordination to be valid.

Abrams also is not a member of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, the 75-year-old organization that offers professional development for its 320 member rabbis, but he appears to have been able to create for himself a rabbinic practice that centers on what he calls “mobile chaplaincy,” through which he visits people in a variety of hospitals, assisted living facilities and, in the case of some hospice patients, in their homes throughout greater Los Angeles.

That Abrams is a rabbi — or uses the title — is only part of what makes the story of Elener Jacobs’ missing property so unsettling. Another cause for concern is that in the many small facilities in and around Los Angeles, there are likely any number of elderly and vulnerable Jews like Jacobs.

According to Janet Morris, an attorney who directs the long-term care project at Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit legal services organization, many elderly people are susceptible to financial abuse, including those who live in skilled-nursing and assisted-living facilities.

Administrators of such facilities have a delicate balance to strike.

“They have to prevent bad things from happening to their residents,” Morris said, “but they also have to allow their residents freedom to have visitors.”

Abrams met Jacobs during the four months in 2011 when he worked as the part-time chaplain at Windsor Terrace. He used to come to the facility every Friday afternoon to lead the seniors, including Jacobs, in welcoming the Sabbath.

At that time, Jacobs was not in contact with any member of her own family, and she struck up a friendship with Abrams, enough so that, in August 2011, she asked him to transfer some of her belongings from Royal Bellingham to Windsor Terrace.

On Sept. 13, 2011, as required by Royal Bellingham administrator McKay for release of the property, Jacobs signed a one-page “authorization to release property,” giving Abrams permission to collect her mail, her clothing, her motorized wheelchair and “any and all property being held in ‘safe keeping,’ including cash.”

Days later, Abrams brought the signed paper to McKay, who handed over Jacobs’ various belongings that Royal Bellingham had been storing, including her mail, her clothing and toiletries, her walker, her electric wheelchair, a certificate of ownership of two burial plots and $1,500 in cash.

Around this same time, Jacobs also granted Abrams her power of attorney.

According to McKay and other staff at Royal Bellingham, Abrams also asked multiple times for Jacobs’ Social Security checks, which were among the pieces of mail being held at her former residence. McKay said she refused to give those to Abrams, and instead sent them directly to Jacobs at Windsor Terrace.

The administrator at Windsor Terrace said that any mailed checks were delivered directly to Jacobs.

The release Jacobs signed did not mention what Abrams was to do with her belongings, but of the items that Abrams picked up from Royal Bellingham, only the burial plot certificate was returned to her.
By late 2011, through Abrams, Jacobs had reconnected with her son, Jay Jacobs, a retired agent who had worked at the William Morris Agency and International Creative Management, and who says he has fallen on hard times since the economic collapse.

In April 2012, after both mother and son had spent months trying to get the rabbi to meet with them and return her property, the Jacobs reported the matter to the administrator of Windsor Terrace, who in turn contacted Los Angeles County Adult Protective Services.

Jay Jacobs has alleged that Abrams also took $4,000 worth of Social Security checks belonging to his mother and claims that Abrams, using his power of attorney, withdrew $1,100 from her bank account in March, and then closed it.

Detective Sherri Stanley, the elder-abuse coordinator in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Van Nuys Division, is now involved. “This is an Adult Protective Services investigation,” Stanley said, when asked last week about the case by a reporter. “I have absolutely no evidence at this point that a crime has been committed.”

Who is Rabbi Alan Abrams?

Abrams appears never to have met a social networking platform that he didn’t like.

He describes himself as “The Networking Rabbi,” and, indeed, he maintains a Facebook account, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles, a YouTube video channel and a photostream on Flickr. He has uploaded resumes to at least two different job search Web sites, and he has accounts on the photo-sharing Web site Pinterest and on Plaxo, an online address book network.

Consequently, Abrams’ background is relatively easy to discover, and it is nowhere more overtly spelled out than in the biographical sketch on his Internet Movie Database (IMDb) page.

The three-paragraph essay posted there is attributed to “Anonymous.” It starts with Abrams’ birth, then goes on to list everything from his earliest schooling (Brentwood Elementary) to the details of his meeting his now ex-wife Sheana Abrams (Texas, 1985; they met while Abrams was on vacation) to the years their three children were born (twin boys in 1992, a third son in 1995).

The biography stops in 2007, when Abrams created a golf-themed reality TV show. The pilot episode, the only one produced, aired locally in Phoenix, in January of that year, according to IMDb.

Not included in the biography are Abrams’ many appearances in civil and criminal court over those years. A search through court records in the last three states where Abrams is known to have lived — California, Arizona and Florida — turned up the following results:

— In 1993, Abrams, then 32, was charged with 25 counts of illegally practicing veterinary medicine without a license. Officially, he was running the business side of a clinic in Chatsworth owned by his father, a licensed veterinarian. But according to articles about the case in the Los Angeles Times, clients accused Abrams of representing himself as a veterinarian, and prosecutors charged that he “operated on a cat with cancer, even though the pet’s elderly owners thought that the animal had been put to sleep months before.” Abrams pleaded no contest to four of the charges and was sentenced to serve six months in jail.

— In 1996, Abrams moved with his family to Coral Springs, Fla. Between 1997 and 2003, he was sued in Broward County on at least five different occasions, each time for amounts less than $15,000. At least one of those cases ended in a default judgment against him.

— In 2002, Abrams and his family moved to Phoenix, Ariz. Between 2005 and 2010, Abrams was sued in Maricopa County civil court on at least four separate occasions. In each of those instances, he was named as a defendant along with his then-wife or one or more of the corporate entities he created. Three of those cases ended in transcript judgments against Abrams. The combined awards to the plaintiffs in those cases totaled more than $14,000.

— In March 2007, Abrams was arrested in Tolleson, Ariz., in connection with the theft of $73,000 reported by a group of medical doctors. According to a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney, the case was never prosecuted because there was “no reasonable likelihood of conviction.”

— In 2009, Abrams was charged with 12 misdemeanor counts of issuing bad checks in Maricopa County. According to the complaint drafted on April 13, 2010, by the county attorney’s office’s check enforcement unit, between July 10 and Nov. 22, Abrams allegedly issued or passed 12 separate checks to a variety of vendors, including OfficeMax, Costco and Prestige Cleaners. In May 2010, when a summons could not be delivered to Abrams, a warrant was issued for his arrest. 

When contacted on June 1, Abrams initially refused to answer any questions about these events and directed this reporter to speak only to his attorney. Eventually, though, Abrams offered some explanations of his involvement in some of these cases.

About the 1993 criminal case of illegally practicing veterinary medicine, Abrams said, “I did something to help my dad. It was 20 years ago. It’s over, it’s done with, and there’s nothing to talk about.”

Asked about the five civil cases brought against him during the years he spent in Florida and the four civil cases that were brought against him in Maricopa County, Ariz., Abrams wrote in an e-mail, “People in business are often sued and also sue people and entities. In some people prevail and others people lose.” 

Twins Bring Hope to Paralyzed Couple

Shmuel and Rivkah Klein have all the hassles of being new parents. Their twins don’t sleep through the night, and with all the feedings, baths and diaper changes, they have difficulty finding time for themselves.

But the Kleins have an added challenge: They are both paralyzed, and they need to care for 8-week-olds Yosef Netanel and Yaakov Aryeh from the confines of their wheelchairs.

"Years ago, when I was growing up, I wondered how I would be as a mother," said Rivkah Klein, 27, who became paralyzed from the hips down after she contracted polio as a child. "But once my sister got married and had children, I became the second mother to them, and I was changing diapers and helping feed them. Then I realized that I am capable of doing anything another mother can do; I just do it from a sitting position instead of a standing one."

She met 41-year-old Shmuel, a graphic designer and tutor, on a blind date in 2001. He was able-bodied until he was 22 years old, when he broke his neck in an accident and became a quadriplegic. As a couple, they bonded over their shared disabilities, their commitment to religion (they are both Orthodox) and their desire to have children.

"When Shmuel and I were dating that was one topic we discussed," Rivkah Klein said. "We both wanted children, and it wasn’t a question of whether we would be able to, but rather finding the right way to have them."

After about a year of marriage, the Kleins started investigating fertility options.

"We covered all the bases, from homeopathic to in vitro," she said. "There are many options for people with paralysis. The key is to find what might work for you, and not to get discouraged."

The Kleins ended up conceiving the twins through in vitro fertilization, and the pregnancy was not without its challenges.

"Rivkah was all baby," Shmuel Klein said. "It got hard for her to cook and lift a pan, get into the van and climb into bed."

At 33 weeks, Rivkah Klein thought her water broke. She went to Cedars-Sinai, where she remained on bed rest while taking steroids to speed the maturing of her babies’ lungs.

The twins were born on July 1 via c-section; Rivkah was 35 weeks pregnant. Yosef, born first, weighed 5 pounds, Yaakov followed two minutes later and weighed 5 pounds, 3 ounces. Although premature, both babies were born healthy.

At home in their Pico-Robertson apartment, the Kleins have a round-the-clock nurse, who helps with all the regular baby care tasks, as well as some extra ones. The Kleins have both slowed down the speed of their wheelchairs, so the babies would not feel a rushed and hectic environment in the house.

In lieu of Shmuel Klein holding the babies in his arms, the nurse holds them close to him so they can get used to his smell. That way, he can bond with his children.

"What Shmuel cannot give them physically he makes up 100 fold by what he can give them spiritually," said Reuven Fauman, who is making a documentary about the Kleins through his production company, Sightline Video, which he hopes will air on PBS. "When I was filming his daily routine I couldn’t stop weeping one day, when the attendant took off his leg brace, and his foot started to spasm uncontrollably, but Shmuel just looked at the twins and this look of pure joy came over his face. These parents, whose bodies have betrayed them, have these two children who are so perfect, and when you see the faith that [the Kleins] have in God, and their positive attitude, is just so inspiring."

Whether it will become more difficult for the Kleins once their twins are ambulatory remains to be seen, but both the Kleins and their doctors seem confident about the future.

"I think children who grow up with handicapped parents accept the fact that the parents are handicapped and to them it is normal and not a problem," said Dr. Harold Peart, the Klein’s obstetrician at Cedars-Sinai.

"The things that make me nervous are when I look into the future," Shmuel Klein said. "I want to go to shul with them on Shabbos, but I need someone to wheel me there. So who will be taking them? It is obviously doable, but until it is actualized I don’t know [how we will do it]. My biggest thing is that I want to know that we will be a family. I just want to know that we are a family unit sitting at a table, just the four of us eating dinner. That is really my goal."