Embracing inclusion at the Federation through interns

If you happened to give money to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in recent weeks, you may have received a thank-you call from Chaim Yaakov Abbott.
December 3, 2014

If you happened to give money to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in recent weeks, you may have received a thank-you call from Chaim Yaakov Abbott. Abbott, 28, is an intern at Federation, one of three Angelenos chosen to participate in the Ruderman Family Foundation Opportunity Initiative, a yearlong pilot program that launched in January, providing short-term, paid internships to young adults with special needs. 

Abbott, a Hancock Park resident and Los Angeles native, has cerebral palsy, though he’s quick to point out, “The disability does not define the person. I can do this job and be in a wheelchair.” Abbott’s internship began in early September and continues through early December. He comes into the office four days a week for limited hours and is accompanied by a representative from Etta Ohel (formerly Etta Israel).

Most days, Abbott goes through a page of donors, carefully marking off each one with pen and ruler when he completes the call. He admits that, when he started the job, he was “pretty frightened,” adding, “I didn’t know what was going to happen.” Despite making fairly innocuous thank-you calls, he did — and still does — get the occasional hang-up. Initially, he felt “insulted” when this would happen. But he has since shortened his shpiel and acquired a thicker skin. “Now if you hang up on me,” he said, “I’ll just write down you hung up on me and go on.” He also helps with mailings and is learning computer skills.

Abbott had tried another office position elsewhere in the past, and while he is loath to say anything negative about that experience, he is clear that this one is different.

“I like that this is my first real paid job,” he said. “I like the environment and the people. I have my own office. I’m not crammed with three other people sitting here. There are very helpful people.” He feels he is making a contribution and that he is part of a team, not to mention that he’s gaining useful job skills.

The L.A. Federation is one of five Federations across the country participating in the initiative, which is being managed by the Washington, D.C.-based umbrella organization, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). The Ruderman Family Foundation provided the funding, which is matched by the participating Federations. Los Angeles was selected among the applicant Federations because its staff has “always projected themselves as a leader on these issues,” meaning issues of inclusivity, said David Feinman, senior legislative associate at JFNA and project director of the initiative. They are, he added, “ahead of the curve.” In fact, the Federation will soon launch the Los Angeles Jewish Ability Center, to address the needs of Jewish adults with special needs. 

The Ruderman initiative “is right in line with our goals and mission,” said Lori Klein, senior vice president of Federation’s Caring for Jews in Need. “We are seeing an increase in the need for services and programs. Part of what is happening is children with a more recent diagnosis of autism, those numbers are growing and those kids are becoming adults. There isn’t a lot of formal structure for them. A very big need is for vocational skills and jobs. … Something we hear over and over again is people wanting meaningful work to enhance their skill set and give back to the community and feel like they are a productive member of society.”

Whether the initiative continues in some form in the coming year remains to be seen. JFNA and Ruderman Family Foundation are currently in discussions. Whatever the outcome, Klein, who worked more closely with two Ruderman interns who preceded Abbott, said the program has been “very successful,” though not without its challenges.

“In order to sustain an ongoing program like this, any organization would need to have appropriate dedicated staff or supervision and enough meaningful projects to keep the individual engaged,” she said. The other two interns, for example, did not have the same outside, ongoing supportive presence that Abbott has through Etta Ohel. Nonetheless, it was apparent that they “benefited tremendously,” Klein said.

“They both felt they gained new skill sets and understood what it was like to be in an office environment,” she said. “They learned some hard skills and social skills for an office environment: collegiality, how to be part of a team, how to fit in, come on time, clock in, take a break for lunch, keep your desk appropriately. One of the interns learned how to do Excel. … They both expressed how welcome they felt here and how liked, and how they haven’t had those experiences before — that everybody embraced them. 

“On the flipside, what it did for the professionals working here in Federation, it made them aware of the need. It made them more sensitive. It made our Federation community more open and receptive and understanding and inclusive. That is the bottom line. We talk about inclusion of people with special needs, and this put those words into action.”

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