December 12, 2018


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The following is a transcript of a speech at a recent Bnai David-Judea Shabbaton. One part of the program was in conjunction with Yachad.

Yachad, The National Jewish Council for Disabilities is a thriving global organization dedicated to addressing the needs of all Jewish individuals with disabilities and ensuring their inclusion in every aspect of Jewish life.” 

Purim. It’s a story of good guys and bad guys, with a cast of characters that includes an inebriated king; a disobedient queen; a new queen with a secret; a pair of clumsy conspirators; and Darth Vader with a colonial-style hat. And we celebrate וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא — the sudden reversal of fortune — by wearing costumes, putting on silly plays, and eating and drinking way too much.

All this may seem an odd juxtaposition with the subject of inclusion.  Though when you think about it….masks, costumes… Purim is perhaps the one time of year when we’re all judged — in fact want to be judged — by external appearances.  But people with special needs are often and unfairly judged that way all the time.  Though on Purim, costumes allow everyone to be included.

Actually, the tradition to celebrate Purim by dressing in costume is ironic, since the story the Megillah tells is so caught up in identity.  And identity is Purim’s real connection to inclusion.

Consider, for instance, that despite being a people מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים, scattered and dispersed, by the time of the Megillah the distinction between the remaining tribes of Israel has been supplanted by a common identity: יְהוּדִים, Jews. He’s not Mordechai the Benjaminite; he’s מרדכי היהודי.  That the Persians used a one-size-fits-all label is no surprise; but the Megillah makes it clear that the exiles adopted it as well.

One could argue that this shared designation is the seed of וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא. For the first time in our history, we’re truly united by a common identity.

Still, it’s a fragile community, as Mordechai instructs Esther to conceal even this fragment of identity (her שארית ישראל, if you will).  So she hides behind a mask and distances herself with a queen-Esther costume.  וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא begins in earnest when Mordechai realizes that Esther’s mask and costume not only hide her, but simultaneously isolate her from the community.  She’s both afraid to be seen and is reluctant to see.  He awakens her to a responsibility towards the נֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיהָ, the community she’s left behind.

So beneath the broad arc of triumph of good over evil, the Megillah is a story of community and inclusion. Esther’s actions demonstrate that we must remember those who, metaphorically speaking, do not live in the palace. Mordechai is our conscience, reminding us of the נֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֵינו.

The word נֶּחֱשָׁלִים appears only once in Tanach — in Parshat Zachor, which we read every year on the Shabbat before Purim:

אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ — וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ

“Remember what Amalek did to you along the way: when you were weary and worn out, they attacked all who were lagging behind…”

Note that it wasn’t Amalek who was responsible for their exclusion.  We were tired (עָיֵף) and worn out (יָגֵעַ)… and we neglected those in the community who fell behind, הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים.

But just who are the נֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֵינו — the left-behind, the excluded?

Of course, there’s the traditional triumvirate of the גר יתום ואלמנה — the stranger, the orphan, the widow.  But even this excludes those with special needs.

Like Esther, people with special needs sometimes hide, or are isolated, behind their masks.  Esther’s mask is described as יְפַת-תֹּאַר וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה, beautiful — but we soon learn that she’s more than just a pretty face.  How often do we give those with special needs a chance to show what they can do?

Consider my daughter Aviya.  She’s happy, friendly, outgoing.  She loves noses and circles.  She particularly enjoys playing with words — saying them backwards, reversing letters.  She doesn’t read books, she reads “koobs”; she comes home from school everyday on the “sub”.  She does this not because of her challenges; she does this because she’s clever and enjoys being silly.  It’s part of what makes her special.  But too often a perceived mask and costume leave her excluded, and leave her endearing traits unknown, unacknowledged, unappreciated.

To be sure, there are some things she can’t do and maybe will never be able to do.  There are some things she may never understand.  But what she does understand are feelings of exclusion.  When she goes up to other kids, they usually stare at her.  Though she doesn’t always understand this, she often feels their silence and their distance.

I worry that soon, when Aviya becomes a young adult, many grown-ups will respond to her the same way.  And despite a tremendous vocabulary, she can be hard to understand — and gets so frustrated at having to repeat herself that she often retreats into herself.  Or hides behind a koob.

She and so many others in our community are the נֶּחֱשָׁלִים בתוכנו — the excluded in our midst.

The word נֶּחֱשָׁלִים is often translated as “weak ones,” from the word חלש. However the shoresh of נֶּחֱשָׁלִים would appear to be  ח-ש-ל, not ח-ל-ש.  But חלש is the word the Torah uses to describe the battle with Amalek:  יהושע and his troops did not “defeat” Amalek; rather, ויחלוש יהושע – he “weakened them”.

So too, it seems נֶּחֱשָׁלִים should really be נֶּחֱלָשִים.  Not חשל but חלש. This is an example of a linguistic process called metathesis — the reversal of sounds or letters in a word.  And it’s not all that uncommon. For instance, כתונת is the source of the english word “tunic”; or the mispronunciation “nucyular”; or Aviya, who comes home everyday on the “sub”.

Usually this flipping of sound can survive to become part of the language only when the mispronunciation would not be confused with an established word. Thus the hebrew word כבש has the synonym כשב.

What makes נֶּחֱשָׁלִים remarkable is that its apparent shoresh, ח-ש-ל, already exists:  חשל is the forging or shaping of metal to strengthen it.  And not just metal — as Kelly Clarkson would say: מה שלא הורג מחשל.

So חשל and חלש have essentially opposite meanings.

Maybe all this is not a coincidence — maybe we’re being told

אל תאמר נֶּחֱלָשִים אלא נֶּחֱשָׁלִים

Don’t describe them by what they are  — weak, excluded — but as what we should all be  — members of a strong community.

Perhaps the text is reminding us not just of the actions of Amalek, but also how to correct our own failings. That, despite a common identity, more is required to forge a community.  For the עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ — we, the weary and worn out — to be strengthened, we need to include the excluded. וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא.

In other words, Kelly Clarkson got it wrong: it’s really

אלא שמחשלים אחרים, הוא חישל אותו

Those who strengthen others, strengthen themselves.  As individuals.  As a community.

So this Purim,

  • Remember to let Mordechai be our conscience and Esther our action hero.
  • Don’t forget that a mask — yours or another’s —  obscures ones view, and that external appearances are mere costumes.
  • Recall the words of Shoshanat Ya’akov, which we sing after reading the Megillah,
    להודיע שכל קוויך לא יבושו ולא ייכלמו לנצח כל החוסים בך
  • “…to make known that all who hope and trust in You
  • will never be ashamed or humiliated…”
  • Remember that הִתְהַפְּכוּת, reversal, begins with our sense of, and commitment to, the entire community of יְהוּדִים.

We should remember this as we scroll through the Megillah next week… or any time we settle in to read a good koob.

Here are 5 places you can pray outdoors this summer

IKAR holds Kabbalat Shabbat at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills on the first Friday of each summer month. Photo by Scott Shulman

What better place to find the Tree of Life than in nature? And what better spiritual guidebook than a siddur?

A number of congregations in the Greater Los Angeles area take Friday night services outside during the summer — singing nigunim on the sand in Malibu, shul-hopping on bicycles in Venice and picnicking before prayers at public parks. And if you’ve ever wanted to bring your dog to shul, this is probably your best opportunity.

Holding services outdoors has become a popular way for local synagogues to reinvigorate the prayer experience. With services stripped of the formality and physical constraints of a sanctuary, congregants can more vividly experience the wonders of God’s creation — or simply enjoy the Southern California weather in a Jewish context.

“Experiencing God in all the manifestations of nature, we find we are connected with the Creator,” said Cantor Marcelo Gindlin of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, which will meet at Westward Beach every Friday night from July 14 through Sept. 8.

The Friday night services with Gindlin include a live band, and usually more than 100 people attend, bringing picnics, blankets and beach chairs. The cantor begins at around 7, though many arrive earlier to set up and eat. “The dolphins show up when I sing ‘Shalom Aleichem,’ ” Gindlin said.

The Malibu congregation is not alone in taking advantage of the beach. Open Temple practices hitbodedut, a meditative form of prayer, at Venice Beach in August. The proceedings include traditional prayers, contemplative moments, and what Rabbi Lori Shapiro called “sound baths on the beach.” There’s also a gong.

Leonard Atlas, 54, said Open Temple’s outdoor programming is its most authentic.

“Being in nature is the purest form of prayer,” Atlas said. “With the sand under our feet, it feels like we’re in Sinai — but not quite in the desert.”

Open Temple also does a communal bike ride that makes stops at several area synagogues for different parts of the Friday night service. The riders sing nigunim on the road. This year’s Bike Shabbat Shul Crawl will be on July 21.

Other synagogues venture into the wilderness — or at least to the park.

On June 9 and July 14, Valley Outreach Synagogue will hold “Shabbat in the Park” at Oak Canyon Community Park in Agoura Hills. A crowd of 400 to 600 people, along with their pets, create a Hollywood Bowl-style amphitheater effect, says Rabbi Ron Li-Paz.

No beautiful sanctuary is as beautiful as the sky and the mountains and the trees,” he said.

Li-Paz also heralded the informality of the natural setting for its appeal to interfaith families. “A synagogue might be challenging for some families to walk through the doors, just as a church might be,” he said. The casual, kibbutz-like atmosphere of Shabbat in the Park can be more inviting to non-Jewish family members.

But the appeal of praying outdoors is universal, says Loren Witkin, 50. He and his family have come to Shabbat in the Park for several years. Witkin noticed that his sons, who had had difficulty connecting to Judaism in their early adolescence, enjoyed a more laid-back presentation of the religion.

“The kids — they’re building memories and an experience that will draw them back in,” he said. “It gives you optimism for the future because we know how disengaged [young] people are becoming from their congregations. Seeing all these young people having a good time together reinforces some sense that this is going to continue.”

The spiritual appeal of praying in nature goes beyond the pleasure of a good view. There are actual references to nature in the liturgy, explained Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, a prayer community that meets once a month in Brentwood.

“We sing so many songs about nature [in regular prayers], but you say them inside a building,” Levy said. “The re-creation of each day, and seeing God in the heavens and the sky — to take all those prayers and put them where they were probably written, by someone who was in nature, experiencing the majesty of God in nature … [one can] really feel the power of the words.”

Nashuva holds services at the beach on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and in a Temescal Canyon meadow on the second day. There’s a band, and members are encouraged to bring their own instruments.

“It just feels like nature is waking us up from all the enclosures of our lives,” Levy added.

IKAR holds an outdoor service at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills on the first Friday of each summer month. An abridged Kabbalat Shabbat starting at 6:15 p.m. is preceded by a communal picnic (bring your own), followed by a group discussion led by Rabbi Nate DeGroot that is targeted for a young professional audience.

Convening outdoors eases a lot of the social pressures of praying that are inherent to more conventional settings, said Matthew Weintraub, assistant executive director at IKAR.

“When you walk into a room, it’s easy to look around and see who’s sitting where and who are the people who you know,” Weintraub said. “But when you go outside and people are socializing informally, laughing and connecting, and then going right into a service from [that place of] comfort, it prevents barriers to entry from forming. It doesn’t feel so closed off.”

The bottom line, as it often is in California, is the weather.

“People want to get out and enjoy the summer months and it being light outside for longer,” Weintraub said. “Being able to come in shorts and flip-flops and have a meal and a prayer experience — it just feels different.”

Hate crimes, bomb threats, anxiety and people with disabilities


As we all are aware, recently there has been a significant increase in hate crimes and bomb threats across the United States. Minorities, including people with disabilities, are especially at risk, not only for attacks and threats but also for the stress and anxiety that can result from seeing what is happening around us. People with multiple minority status (i.e. people of color + disability, LBGTQ + disability, Jewish or Muslim + disability, immigrant + disability) are particularly vulnerable.

Following more than 90 recent bomb threats and 140 separate recent incidents of anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has issued a security advisory. It is asking people to review the Bomb Threat Guidance provided by the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security; refer to the chapter on Explosive Threat Response Planning in ADL’s Security Manual Protecting Your Jewish Institution, which assists institutions in creating welcoming environments while keeping them safe; and to refer to ADL’s list of 18 Best Practices for Jewish Institutional Security. However, while the ADL’s excellent guidance can be helpful to people of all faiths, it does not cover issues that are vital for the 56 million Americans who have a disability.

When Jewish institutions do not have inclusion committees or policies, issues of life and death that impact people with disabilities can be seriously neglected. Fully 1 in 5 Americans have a disability, and the Jewish community, due to genetic disorders and advanced paternal ages, is disproportionately impacted by disabilities.

Can you imagine if an alarm goes off at a Jewish community center or day school and someone cannot hear it and there is not a plan in place? Or if someone who is blind or has low vision isn’t properly helped when the alarms are simply flashing lights? Or if people who need to take medications at regular intervals are evacuated but their medicines are left behind? Or what happens to a child with autism or adult with mental health issues if the staff is not properly trained and no system is in place?

Every Jewish institution needs to take disability inclusion seriously. Our nonprofit organization, RespectAbility, has compiled the free tools and resources listed below to help.

The 1 in 5 people in America who have a disability need proactive and systematic planning in order to ensure they have the same safety and security as everyone else. Key issues and steps include:

Anxiety, Addiction and Emotional Health: Even for people who do not have ongoing mental health issues and who are located nowhere near bomb threats or hate crimes, the content of social and other media can be extremely frightening. Emotional reactions can include feeling physically and mentally drained, having difficulty making decisions or staying focused on topics, becoming easily frustrated on a more frequent basis, arguing more with family and friends, feeling tired, sad, numb, lonely or worried, and experiencing changes in appetite or sleep patterns. Most of these reactions are temporary and will go away over time. It is important to try to accept whatever reactions you may have and to look for ways to take one step at a time and focus on taking care of your needs and those of your family. Keep a particularly close eye on children and people with addiction issues (including internet addiction) who may need extra means of support.

Some of the things that can significantly help your mental health include limiting your exposure to the sights and sounds of stress, especially on television and radio, in newspapers and on social media, as well as to eat a healthy diet, get ample sleep and stay personally connected to family and friends. Stay positive. Remind yourself of how you’ve successfully gotten through difficult times in the past. Reach out when you need support and help others when they need it.

Most major cities have a Jewish social services agency, which will help people of all faiths. Additionally, the Red Cross Disaster Distress Helpline is free and available around the clock for counseling or support. You can call 1-800-985-5990, text “TalkWithUs’ to 66746 or utilize

Another resource is the American Counseling Association. It has fact sheets you can download on mental health services, including post-traumatic stress disorder and crisis counseling. Moreover, if you are feeling suicidal, you should go immediately to the website

Create Your Evacuation Plan and Support System: Have you been in touch with your local police station and fire department? If not, do it now. A part of the services they provide is to keep track of the needs of residents with disabilities in times of threat or disaster. For example, if you use a wheelchair and live or work in a high-rise building, the fire department will come out for free to meet with you and create an individual plan for you in the case of a fire or other emergency.

If you have sensory, cognitive or other issues, it is vital for the police and fire department to know how to support you in a time of crisis. Hundreds of Americans with disabilities are killed by police each year because the police have not been trained to recognize and address mental health or other disability issues. The time to have those conversations and training is before a disaster strikes. Because this issue is so important, RespectAbility has conducted a free webinar, which you can find on our website: Special Conversation with Special Olympics about Violence, Police Training and People with Disabilities.

When it comes to evacuating people with disabilities, you must plan in advance. See the National Fire Protection Association’s terrific Emergency Evacuation Planning for People with Disabilities (June 2016) at

Have a “To Go” Kit Ready: If your building is evacuated, you will want to have several things handy. For example, you will want to have any medications you may need to take as well as your phone and charger, glasses, hearing aids and extra batteries if you use them, supplies for a service animal you may have and more. You also will want to let your loved ones, who might worry if they see a threat on the news, know you are OK. You can do that through phone, email or social media. There are terrific resources available through FEMA at

If you use a communication device, mobility aid or service animal, what will you do if these are not available? If you require life-sustaining equipment or treatment such as a dialysis machine, map out the location and availability of more than one facility. For every aspect of your daily routine, plan an alternative procedure. Make a plan, write it down and print it out. Keep a copy of your plan in your emergency supply kit and put a list of important information and contacts in your wallet.

Create a Personal Support Network: If you anticipate needing assistance, make a list of family, friends and others who will be part of your plan. Talk to these people now and ask them to be part of your support network. Share each aspect of your crisis/emergency plan with everyone in your group, including a friend or relative in another area who would not be impacted by the same emergency who can help if necessary.

If you have a cognitive or intellectual disability, or are deaf of blind, be sure to work with your employer and other key contacts to determine how to best notify you of an emergency and what instruction methods are easiest for you to follow. Always participate in exercises, training sessions and emergency drills offered by your employer or landlord.

Our nation is at its best when we are welcoming, respectful and inclusive of all. As many people are, or feel, at risk, we must show exceptional love and friendship to those around us.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who has a disability and is the mother of a child with disabilities, is the president of, a nonprofit fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. She can be reached at

Special thanks to Elliot Harkavy for ideas and contacts that were used in this piece. 

Calendar: February 24 – March 2, 2017

FRI | FEB 24


Come see the exhibition “Pop for the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A.” during this special night. See more than 70 works that make up this exhibition. Curator-led tours are scheduled for 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Afterward, enjoy a full cash bar, music in the courtyard and dinner available for purchase from Mandoline Grill and the Hungry Nomad. Exhibition swag at no charge. 5-10 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.



Peter Fogel presents his first multimedia solo show, “Til Death Do Us Part … You First!” In this comedic performance, a mensch baby boomer searches for his bashert, finding her after he is dumped on Valentine’s Day. 8 p.m. $23; tickets available at Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 990-2324.

SAT | FEB 25


Explore beliefs about life after death through two panel discussions moderated by the Rev. Gwynne Guibord. Panelists will discuss how different faiths understand life, the afterlife and how their beliefs about death and dying are reflected in their rituals. The morning session will include Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, along with the Very Rev. Canon Mark Kowalewski and Imam Ahmed Soboh. Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh viewpoints will be represented in the afternoon session. Space is limited. 10 a.m. Free; registration required. St. John’s Cathedral, 514 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles.  (323) 325- 5412.


cal-niver-travelLisa Niver, a travel expert, writer and on-camera host on “We Said Go Travel,” an online community of 1,600 travel writers from 75 countries, will be interviewed. Niver has visited more than 95 countries, and will talk about her favorite experiences and offer tips and expertise on a variety of travel topics. 11 a.m. Free. RSVP at Capital One Café, 11175 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles.


Whether single or in a couple, come enjoy an event for folks 50 and older, featuring Tommy Tassi & the Authentics, who will perform hits from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.  There will be a huge dance floor, dance hosts, ice breakers, line dances and more. More than 200 guests are expected. Dinner, dessert and beverage bar, featuring beer and wine. 7:30 p.m. $25. Stephen Wise Temple, 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. Email

SUN | FEB 26


Get a taste of Kollel Yom Rishon presented by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future-REITS and Shaarey Zedek Congregation. Rabbi Hershel Schacter, a noted talmudic scholar, will teach the Inyanei Rosh Chodesh. Then the dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and published child psychologist,Rona Novick will give a talk called “Building Resilience in Ourselves and Our Children in Challenging Times.” 10 a.m. Free. Shaarey Zedek Congregation, 12800 Chandler Blvd., Valley Village.


cal-finkelDirector Taliya Finkel turns the camera on herself and her journey through the world of internet dating. Finkel goes from date to date in Tel Aviv, experiencing the many bizarre aspects of dating in the modern age in this comedy with a feminist tinge. Rated R. 11:30 a.m. $5. Congregation Beth Shalom, 21430 Centre Pointe Parkway, Santa Clarita. (661) 254-2411.


In celebration of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, enjoy activities such as arts and crafts, karaoke, gymnastics, music and dancing, farm activities, games and more. Hosted by HaMercaz-LAJAC Partners. Glatt kosher food available for purchase. Noon. $10 per family; $5 per individual. Vista Del Mar, 3200 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. (866) 287-8030.


Renowned L.A. Yiddish folk singer Cindy Paley will perform an evening of Yiddish love songs. Guest artist Menachem Mirski (from Poland) joins Isaac Sadigursky on accordion and Miamon Miller on violin. The Yiddish songs from the beginning of the century follow the theme of love and courtship. Audience participation is encouraged. 2 p.m. $15; $18 at the door. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Also 7 p.m. Feb. 27; address provided upon RSVP. Tickets available at


Israeli comedian Uri Chizkia is sure to make you laugh. 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $60. Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles.

MON | FEB 27


Learn about how Jews were able to succeed in the Old West using their Jewish values. Each participant will receive a copy of guest speaker David Epstein’s book “Why the Jews Were So Successful in the Wild West … and How to Tell Their Stories.” 7 p.m. Advanced RSVP, $36; $72 on day of event. Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670.



Every community, family and individual has a unique perspective on identity, and Jews are no different. This program for adults and teens on the multiplicity of Jewish identity will feature Joshua Silverstein, an award-winning actor, comedic writer and a bi-racial Jew. Sponsors include Temple Beth Am, Be’chol Lashon (“In Every Tongue”) and Beth Chayim Chadashim. 7 p.m. Free; RSVP requested. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353, ext. 215.


This panel event will celebrate the award-winning book “The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.” Moderated by Rabbi Denise L. Eger, founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami and the outgoing president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). Guest panelists include Rabbi Karen Bender, director of spiritual life for the Los Angeles Jewish Home in Reseda; Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller; and Rabbi Wendy Spears of Woodland Hills.  All four women are local contributors to the more-than-750-page anthology. 7 p.m. Free. Congregation Kol Ami, 1200 N. La Brea Ave., West Hollywood. (323) 606-0996.



Join the Executives Speaker Series Breakfast, featuring Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Commissioner Wendy Greuel and Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, president and CEO of LA Family Housing . 7:30 a.m. Members $25, $30 at the door; nonmembers $35, $40 at the door. El Caballero Country Club, 18300 Tarzana Drive, Tarzana. (818) 774-3332.

Meet five Israeli companies driving disability tech

After a missile strike during the 1973 Yom Kippur War left Omer Zur’s father paralyzed from the chest down, his dad vowed to continue life as normal. But there was one Israeli pastime he couldn’t enjoy: hiking.

“He’d say, ‘I’ll go in the car and meet you on the other side,’” said Zur, a certified Israeli tour guide. “I said, ‘Why can’t he do this with us?’”

In 2008, Zur decided that he and his wheelchair-user father would complete a 300-mile trek in southern Turkey. With the help of dozens of friends who joined them on segments of the hike, Zur and his father were able to complete the trail, sleep in tents and cook meals over an open fire.

The hike sparked Paratrek, a startup Zur founded in 2014 that aims to make hiking accessible to people with paraplegia by outfitting wheelchairs with accessories that enable them to travel over rough terrain.

The company is one of several startups focused on improving the lives of the nearly 1 million Israelis with disabilities.

A3I, a startup accelerator housed at Beit Issie Shapiro, an Israeli advocacy organization for people with disabilities, has helped launch 22 disability projects in the past two years. Tikkun Olam Makers, a three-day competition where tech entrepreneurs design projects for people with disabilities, had three events in Israel in 2014 and 2015.

“We very much think one of the missing approaches in the world of disability is the entrepreneurial approach,” said Shira Ruderman, director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which supports A3I. “We wanted to work with organizations that are not disability oriented.”

Here are five Israeli companies helped by A3I that are making the world more accessible to people with disabilities.


Zur and his co-founder, Ziv Demeter, saw no reason why people in wheelchairs should not enjoy a hike. So they outfitted a chair with oversize wheels, mountain bike-style tires and a wide rod in back for easier pushing. A U-shaped harness attached to the front allows it to be pulled like a rickshaw.

Zur and Demeter also act as hiking consultants for would-be hikers. Understanding their clients’ physical limits and where they want to hike, the company can set up a trek and even join in to make sure all goes smoothly.

The pair have set up hikes across Israel, as well as in France and, later this year, in Switzerland. They’re also looking into using rescue equipment to help people with disabilities climb mountainsides.

IC Touch

A pair of glasses normally would be useless to a blind person. But Zeev Zalevsky’s glasses don’t help you see what’s in front of you — they help you feel it.

Zalevsky’s startup, IC Touch, makes glasses that take and process a picture before sending a signal to a set of tiny mirrors that are millimeters from the wearer’s eyes. The mirrors then send a set of vibrations to the cornea that make the cornea “feel” objects in the space around it.
Instead of guiding themselves with a stick or a dog, Zalevsky says, blind people can feel their surroundings with the glasses, even identifying objects up to a half-mile away.

“It’s like if you close your eyes and feel your surroundings with your fingertips, you can imagine what’s in front of you,” said Zalevsky, an engineering professor at Bar-Ilan University. “Instead of reaching out in front of you, the picture comes to your head.”


The screen looks a little like the classic 1980s arcade game Frogger, in which an amphibian tries to cross a busy street. In this version, a red car has to maneuver through blue cars to reach an open lane — but instead of using buttons and a joystick, players move the car by raising a pole from one notch to the next. Sensors in each notch capture the motion and project the car’s progress on an iPad.

The game, the initial offering from the startup Gemon, helps strengthen the upper back of people with disabilities or those recovering from an injury. The company aims to “game-ify” rehabilitation to relieve the tedium of staring at an exercise machine all day. Co-founders Tomer Yannay and Ohad Doron are also creating a sensor that can be attached to any workout machine to transform the exercise into a game. Eventually, Yannay says, the games could even appear in health clubs.

Easy Stroll

Adira was eight months pregnant and about to become a single mother, but she had a problem: She couldn’t take her baby for a walk.

Adira is in a wheelchair and can’t push a stroller. So she contacted Dana Yichye-Shwachman, a designer with Jonathan Bar-Or Industrial Design. Yichye-Shwachman responded with Easy Stroll, an aluminum attachment to the wheelchair’s footboard that latches on to a stroller.

Yichye-Shwachman posted a video of the product online and received 30 emails for new orders. She is now creating a prototype that will fit a variety of wheelchairs and strollers.

Siman Shenagish

Few children have to accompany their parents to the bank and explain to them that their account is in overdraft. But for Tal Bousidan, days like that were routine.

Bousidan was born to two deaf parents. With sign-language interpreters in short supply in Israel, he would fill the role for his parents, explaining to them what bank tellers and shop clerks were unable to communicate on their own.

Now a professional sign-language interpreter, Bousidan has created a startup that provides instantaneous Hebrew sign-language translation via tablet computers.

The startup, Siman Shenagish — Hebrew for “accessible sign” — has a pilot running at a health clinic in the southern city of Ashkelon. Deaf patients tap on the iPad, and a full-time translator appears on the screen ready to translate for the doctor. The startup has plans to expand to Tel Aviv, and Bousidan hopes to provide translation in other languages in the future.

This article is part of a series tied to Jewish Disability & Inclusion Awareness Month that is part of our partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation. Guided by Jewish values, the foundation advocates for and advances the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the Jewish community. To learn more, visit the foundation’s website.

Lynn Schusterman: Making it possible for Jewish innovators to create

Lynn Schusterman has been at every ROI Summit (see main article) since 2006 and at dozens of other Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation programs year round, to see for herself how her considerable investment in the Jewish future is yielding fruit. Schusterman can be as tough as you’d expect a billionaire to be (Forbes listed her net worth as $3.5 billion), insisting on high standards for foundation programs and projects. But when ROI participants experience sadness or grief, the petite septuagenarian philanthropist with a penchant for wearing pinks and purples is right there with them to offer words of wisdom and comfort. (When my mother died, I got a moving, personal email from Schusterman, as well as an in-person offer to be a substitute mother or grandmother if I needed it.) 

It is Schusterman’s unique balance of sense, sass, collaboration and compassion that endears her to ROIers and other Schusterman program participants. And she, in return, deeply respects her staff team and the young innovators and creators in her orbit. She is more than satisfied that her money is well spent; in an email interview with the Jewish Journal, she said that the response to ROI has “exceeded our expectations on every level” and “helped to shape her philanthropy over the past decade.”

The past three decades have seen the blossoming of many Schusterman seeds. In addition to funding individual initiatives spearheaded by ROIers (see main story), the foundation also has been inspired to develop opportunities that expand those efforts. During Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the foundation created Eitanim micro-grants to support ROIers who were providing relief for families whose loved ones were serving in the Israel Defense Forces, and also to help people better understand Israel’s position internationally. A partnership with Indiegogo helps support ROI network members through matching grants, and Schusterman also is a major sponsor and proponent of the Natan Fund’s Amplifier, a network of giving circles engaging young people to give in meaningful, fun and impactful ways. 

This spring, the foundation launched OLAM, a partnership with many organizations to deepen Israel and the Jewish community’s impact on global humanitarian issues. REALITY trips bring socially minded individuals to Israel for a life-changing leadership development experience. And the foundation is always bringing more young entrepreneurs and influencers into the ROI Community; a partnership with Forbes launched a Social Impact Competition at the Under 30 Summit in October. 

Schusterman is passionate about many things — strengthening Jewish community worldwide and in Israel, investing in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla. But she also has an intensely passionate commitment to what she described as the “strongest thread that binds us as a global people [is] our shared commitment to repair the world, to serve others, to build strong families and communities, to ensure all have the opportunity to learn, to seek justice and to treat everyone with mercy, kindness, care and respect. I am passionate about helping the next generation of Jews draw on these values to inform the way they work, love, live and give. And I am passionate about helping to build a future for the Jewish people that is diverse and welcoming, deeply connected to Israel and committed to making the world a better place.”

An unflinching supporter of Israel, Schusterman notes special pride in the work of young campus and community leaders supporting Israel during what she called a “critical time.” 

“While some of their fellow students and colleagues are focused on isolating and de-legitimizing Israel, they are defining a new narrative. They are finding ways to help more people discover Israel’s promise and potential as a haven for diversity, democracy, innovation and progress. We need more voices, to be sure, but their efforts are a model to all those who believe change is possible.”

At ROI Summits, Schusterman is known to repeat what has become a mantra for her and for the foundation that bears her family name: Her money may “make it possible” for ROIers to pursue their visions, but “they make it happen.” 

When her husband, Charles, known as “Charlie,” died in 2000, Lynn took over as chairwoman of the foundation, moving into a largely male-dominated philanthropic world. “It was not easy, but I was determined, and had benefited from the wisdom and partnership of many incredible role models and peers. I learned to develop my own leadership style, find the core issues on which to focus my energy and, most importantly, develop a talented, professional staff to help me guide the foundation into the 21st century. My experience has taught me that women must play a major — and equal — role in shaping the Jewish future.” 

With more women rising to high positions in Jewish philanthropy and communal leadership and leading the way in Jewish innovation, she sees a future of “smart, passionate, capable Jewish women — my own granddaughters included — who will influence and change our community in unimaginable and positive ways.”

Schusterman continues her relationship with her late husband through her work: One early Schusterman young leadership program was known as “the Charlies”; and she quotes him often in speeches and conversations. 

“Charlie used to say, ‘When you can get a bright and talented mind at a young age, you’ve got a lot with which to work.’ I imagine that when he said those words, he had in mind the types of young Jewish leaders we are engaging today,” Schusterman said. “I see in so many of them the qualities that made Charlie such an inspiring and unique leader. He was an iconoclast, willing to take calculated risks in the pursuit of success. He continued to push himself to defy the status quo, to forge ahead no matter the forecast or circumstance and, time and again, he went out of his way to care for others. Charlie would be so proud of what these young people are accomplishing today and, in true Charlie fashion, would encourage them to walk to the very edge of their comfort zone and then take another step.” 

Despite her loss and her serious approach to philanthropy, Schusterman knows there is much to celebrate — she is famous in ROI circles for always being one of the first on the dance floor. 

“People often ask why I remain so optimistic, even in the face of the complex challenges we are facing in the Jewish world, in Israel and beyond,” Schusterman said. “It’s because I am so impressed and inspired by the young people I meet. It is their ideas and their belief in what we can accomplish together that gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me traveling the world at 76 years old.”

Schusterman formally speaks at least once during each ROI Summit, providing inspiring overall context, but the rest of the time, she sits with participants between sessions or at meals, asking them about their communities and learning about their projects. While other funders might avoid contact with potential grant applicants, Schusterman seeks it out. 

“ROIers are always reaching out to me to share their appreciation for the experiences, opportunities and connections we have provided and also to express their excitement about taking the next step in their leadership journey,” she said. “I am investing in them because they hold the keys to a vibrant Jewish future, and that investment is paying off. Every day I get to see how much potential rests in the next generation and how eager they are to create positive change. We need their passion, creativity and resolve. And we need it now.”

Much of today’s Jewish organizational energy focuses on drawing young Jews — a demographic ranging from as early as 18 and extending, in some organizational cases, to age 45. With the foundation targeting this demographic with many of its programs, Schusterman explained, the key is to be less “proscriptive” and “rather, to provide opportunities to explore their identities, to connect with the global Jewish community and to find their place in a world that needs them. They will make the magic happen.” 

As for ROI, Schusterman is most proud of the network’s diversity: The ROI Community has members from big cities and small towns in more than 50 countries, including those who are “secular, religious, gay, straight, liberal, conservative and everything in between.” 

She is passionate about inclusion and equality, and has been a particularly ardent supporter of Jewish LGBTQ causes; ROI’s Connection Point gathering for LGBTQ leaders, Eighteen:22 (


Reform movement will continue to push for transgender rights

On Nov. 5, delegates to the Union for Reform Judaism’s 73rd biennial convention unanimously adopted a resolution on the rights of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. It was a moment of great pride and celebration, tempered by the knowledge that just two days earlier — and reflecting how much work remains to be done to ensure full inclusion and equality for the LGBT community nationwide — Houston voters overturned an ordinance that had established nondiscrimination protections for gay and transgender people.

The URJ resolution was crafted and sponsored by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and the vote came after the adoption of a similar resolution by the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. It not only affirms the work our movement is doing to make people of all sexual orientations and gender identities feel included, but also makes a clear and unequivocal statement of the values that are a hallmark of Reform Judaism.

In the spirit of the deeply held belief that all people are deserving of dignity and respect, our tradition teaches that every person is created “b’tzelem Elohim,” “in the image of the divine.” We are all God’s children, with special and unique gifts to share with each other and the world.

We are also informed by our own history and are acutely aware that our journey out of slavery from Egypt didn’t happen overnight. The implementation of this new policy will take time, though in many ways this resolution is a reflection of a reality we are already living in many of our congregations, at summer camps and among our clergy. That is why the resolution calls on Reform movement institutions “to begin or continue to work with local and national Jewish transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual organizations to create inclusive and welcoming communities for people of all gender identities and expressions.”

The ordination of transgender rabbis, the cultural competency trainings for religious school staff, the education programs on gender identity and expression, the sermons on the topic of gender identity and gender expression, the act of ensuring to the extent feasible the availability of gender-neutral restrooms and other physical site needs that ensure dignity and safety for all and the use of language in prayers and in documents that ensures people of all gender identities and gender expressions are welcomed is already happening within many Reform movement institutions.

The resolution will be an added catalyst, supporting Reform movement communities in work that will make us stronger and more inclusive across North America.

We are intensely aware of the challenges ahead. As we mark Transgender Awareness Week, including the Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20, we memorialize lives lost due to violence and prejudice targeting transgender people. And we reflect with pain on the record number of murders of transgender people, the tragically, persistently high suicide rates among transgender people, the disproportionate likelihood of a transgender person to live in poverty and the setbacks in anti-discrimination laws such as that which we recently witnessed in Houston.

It is clear that our dedication to equality, inclusion and safety must extend beyond our synagogues or camps. The Federal Equality Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. It is the most comprehensive piece of civil rights legislation for LGBT individuals proposed to date and the Reform movement will continue to advocate forcefully for its passage as we continue to work and pray to ensure that the dignity of every person is protected and celebrated.

Barbara Weinstein is the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the director of the movement’s Commission on Social Action.

For kids with disabilities, time to move from inclusion to normalcy

Just the other day, I overheard someone saying that they had a wonderful interaction with the “Down syndrome employee” at their local cafe.

Though it happened to have been a sweet story, I cringed. It also got me thinking about the limitations of our campaigns promoting inclusion in the classroom, at work and in other areas of life. Though we have definitely come a long way, it’s clear there is still much to accomplish if an individual can still be defined as someone with Down syndrome, if it’s still something we see.

Unlike other health-related awareness months, Down Syndrome Awareness Month (October) is less about personal health and more about societal wellness. It’s a call to action to celebrate the accomplishments and abilities of individuals with special needs and promote full inclusion for all. But why do we continually have to try so hard to reach this goal? It may be because the goal itself isn’t ambitious enough.

It has been 40 years since the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Children with disabilities across the United States are today being educated in “least restrictive environments,” as the law calls for – namely, the general education classrooms in their neighborhood schools. After four decades, the numerous benefits of this kind of inclusion have been well documented, both for children with disabilities and those without.

Inclusion has exposed children with disabilities to socially acceptable behaviors they would otherwise not experience in a separate class. Through increased social interactions with peers without disabilities, they have developed relationships and peer role models and found encouragement.

One such young woman is Madeline Stuart, an Australian with Down syndrome who graced the runway as a model during this year’s New York Fashion Week. Stuart’s mother credits inclusion for her daughter’s rise. As she put it, “This was all possible because the world was ready.”

During my tenure with ALEH, Israel’s largest network of residential facilities for children with severe intellectual and motor disabilities, I have witnessed the successful implementation of inclusion programming and its astounding effects on our children’s growth and development. But while inclusion has made great strides in recent years, and continues to change lives inside and outside the classroom, I can’t help but wonder if it has reached its limits and if we should be expecting more from ourselves as a society.

We may we have set the bar too low. Perhaps it is now time to push harder, to trade inclusion campaigns for the promotion of normalcy.

What does normal look like?

Normal means a sweet anecdote about an angelic cafe employee doesn’t need to mention his genetic disorder. Normal would entail a fierce runway catwalk by a young blond model followed by interviews focusing on who she’s wearing — rather than her bravery for participating “against all odds.” Normal is allowing ourselves to see people, rather than causes or movements or wars to be won.

Where inclusion encouraged us to pull individuals with disabilities out of the shadows and see them as individuals deserving of the same services, resources and experiences, a push for normalcy encourages us to live in a world where inclusion is second nature. In essence, normalcy is daring to aim ever higher.

We will never soar if we become too comfortable in any nest, and I humbly submit that it’s time to look beyond our bastion of inclusion, because even that has become too comfortable. It’s time to spread our wings and embrace normalcy so that the next generation won’t even understand why the promotion of inclusion was ever necessary.

(Rachel Fishheimer is the director of education at the Jerusalem facility of ALEH, Israel’s largest network of residential facilities for children with severe intellectual and motor disabilities.)

How synagogues can prioritize disability inclusion this High Holy Days season

With the High Holy Days just around the corner, Jews all over the world will be asking themselves how they can lead more meaningful and moral lives. Synagogue communities, too, will be asking how they can become more holy and inclusive communities.

In my years of involvement with disability inclusion, I’ve observed that change often occurs when a rabbi, a professional or a lay leader understands the value of inclusion of all people and makes it a priority. If there ever was a time for leaders to step up to the plate and help their synagogues become more inclusive — to welcome diverse people with varying abilities and find a place for them in the community — it’s during the Days of Awe.

Liz Offen, director of New England Yachad, an Orthodox Union-affiliated organization that works toward the inclusion in Jewish life of people with disabilities, said the High Holy Days seem almost designed to raise awareness of people with disabilities. “Every aspect of the High Holiday experience is infused with rituals that draw on the senses,” she said. “From the food we eat to the sound and vibrations of the shofar, we are reminded of the varied ways people experience life.”

So how can congregations take advantage of this calling to become more inclusive communities?

The obvious answer is that they can implement best practices in making their physical spaces more inclusive for people with disabilities. They can print books with larger text, embrace hearing loop technologies to assist people who are hard of hearing, train ushers to recognize and assist people with disabilities, make every part of the building wheelchair accessible and establish an inclusion committee to continually expand inclusive practices.

The broader answer is that they can demonstrate leadership and work to create a powerful culture of inclusion among congregants so that inclusion pervades all aspects of congregational life, and thereby change basic attitudes toward people with disabilities.

Ed Frim, an inclusion specialist at United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that true inclusion goes much deeper than making synagogue life accessible. 

“Inclusive congregations are mindful of everyone who is part of the community,” he said. “They establish a culture that takes for granted that all, including those with disabilities, have the right to fully participate as part of the congregation.”

“It’s not just about training ushers to be welcoming to people with disabilities and helping them find their way. It’s about turning the entire congregation into ushers who seek to create a welcoming environment,” he said.

Just as important as building a culture of inclusion is effecting a shift in attitude about how we think of disabilities. Rabbi Noah Cheses of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto recalls a moment when his perspective on disabilities changed from seeing only the disability to seeing the whole person.

A senior in high school had come to speak at a retreat Cheses was attending. The student had a muscular disorder that required him to use a wheelchair. It was clear from the moment he began speaking that this charismatic young man was not defined by his disability.

“He asked us to take out a piece of paper and make a list of [perceived] personal shortcomings,” Cheses said. “We were then instructed to introduce ourselves to the person next to us in the following way: “Hi, my name is X, and I have such and such …

“For a moment, I felt what it was like to be identified by my personal limitations … as if my passions and talents were being overshadowed and pushed aside by something beyond my control.”

It was that realization, among others, that motivated Cheses to seek change in his congregation. The congregation made physical changes — such as building an accessible ark, among other things — but the rabbi also sought to make spiritual changes and help his congregants experience the same moment of recognition that he had at the retreat.

Indeed, it is these spiritual changes — viewing all of God’s people as bringing unique contributions to the world — that can turn a congregation from a collection of people to a holy community. This time of reflection and renewal provides the perfect moment for such a shift to take place. 

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities in our society. The foundation is holding the 2015 Ruderman Inclusion Summit Nov. 1-2 in Boston. He’s on Twitter @jayruderman.

Opposition continues despite new Boy Scout policy

In 2001, Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) overwhelmingly decided to end its sponsorship of Cub Scout Pack 1300 to protest the Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) policy banning openly gay scouts and leaders. It ended a nearly 50-year tradition of scouting at the Reform congregation.

Now, in the wake of BSA’s decision last month to end that policy for children — but not openly gay scoutmasters — the question remained: Will TIOH and other synagogues that acted similarly re-establish ties?

“Until they change their policy, all around, we would never even consider it,” TIOH Rabbi John Rosove said. 

Rosove was one of 500 rabbis and cantors — 24 of whom were from the Los Angeles area — who signed a letter that was delivered by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America on May 21 urging leaders to change its membership policy for children and adults. BSA made its partial change two days later.

For A.J. Kreimer, former chairman of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting (NJCOS), that change was a victory — one that he, like Rosove, hopes soon extends to adults as well. 

The NJCOS has, since 1926, been an officially chartered BSA committee. Among other things, it helps grow Jewish membership in the Scouts, develops programming for Jewish troops and packs around the country, and works with the national BSA to schedule major events so that they don’t conflict with Shabbat and holidays.

[Related: Jewish scouts say lifting of ban on gays is ‘momentous’]

Kreimer, speaking by telephone from his home in New Jersey, recounted how he has opposed the Scouts’ membership policy since the Supreme Court, in 2000, ruled 5-4 in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale that the Scouts, as a private organization, has a First Amendment right to set its own membership standards, including its exclusion of openly gay scouts and leaders.

Until BSA’s leadership completely amends the policy, Kreimer said, he will use his influence and position as president of BSA’s Northeast Region board to “continue to advocate for full inclusion.” But he and the NJCOS insist that efforts to reform the Scouts are more effective from within rather than from the outside. 

The Reform movement has taken a different position. As Ellen Aprill, a professor at Loyola Law School and a TIOH member who was the congregation’s president when it voted to end its sponsorship of Pack 1300, told the Journal, “We were convinced by everything we knew that there was no way we could fight from within.”

Since the Reform movement called for its synagogues to break with BSA in 2001, scouting in Reform congregations has dropped to the point where “now the number is infinitesimally small,” according to Barbara Weinstein, the RAC’s associate director.

“There were plenty of congregations that had those relationships,” Weinstein said. “Now there are very, very few that do.”

One of the few Reform synagogues to sponsor the Scouts is Temple Beth Hillel (TBH) in Valley Village. It never ended its sponsorship of Troop 36 and Pack 311, but it also effectively wrote into its charter that the congregation could disregard BSA’s policy restricting membership to openly gay scouts and leaders.

Although BSA has the power to revoke the charter of a sponsoring organization that de facto rejects its membership policy, Rabbi Sarah Hronsky said that it has never taken any action against the synagogue. Like NJCOS, Hronsky thinks pressure from the inside is more likely to change BSA than external pressure. 

“They tried to change it from without. They went through the court system,” she said, referring to the Dale case. “You can’t change something from without.” 

Hronsky said that to the best of her knowledge, the RAC has never pressured TBH to break from BSA and did not ask her to sign on to its recent letter.

The decline in Jewish scouting in general has not quite matched the pace of that in Reform synagogues, but in the last few decades it has declined significantly, according to Kreimer and Rabbi Peter Hyman, the national Jewish chaplain for BSA. Kreimer estimates that there were around 75,000 to 100,000 Jewish scouts in the 1950s. Now, he thinks there are closer to 40,000.

Hyman, who lives in Maryland and is the spiritual leader of a Reform synagogue, said, “There were times when there were troops in almost every synagogue, coast to coast, irrespective of theological leanings.” 

Both Kreimer and Hyman are lifelong Scouts and have reached the highest attainable rank — Eagle Scout. The latter spoke about the intersection of Jewish and scouting values. 

 “Don’t we want our kids, as Jews, to be trustworthy, loyal, to acknowledge God and to embrace tradition?” 

Trust and loyalty are two elements of the “Scout Law,” which is composed of 12 virtues that every scout is expected to uphold.

According to Kreimer, Hyman, and current NJCOS Chairman Bruce Chudacoff, several congregations that had been boycotting the Scouts have expressed interest in re-establishing a connection following the May vote on membership.

[From our archives: Rob Eshman — Scout’s honor]

Chudacoff, who lives in Wisconsin, said that one possible explanation for the decline in Jewish scouting is opposition to BSA’s policy. The recent change, he thinks, “is a good foundation for us to build and increase membership.” 

In Los Angeles, TBH and at least two other synagogues — Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills and Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village, both Orthodox — sponsor Scout troops and packs. 

Jeff Feuer is the Cubmaster for Pack 360 at Beth Jacob and the chairman of the Jewish Committee on Scouting for the West Los Angeles County Council. He has been Cubmaster for 13 years, and one of his main tasks in his role as chairman is to organize events among the Jewish units that also include Jews from the non-Jewish units. In Los Angeles, as nationally, most Jewish scouts are not in Jewish units. For the handful of observant Jews in scouting, though, a Jewish unit is a must.

“It’s very difficult for an observant Jew to participate in scouting unless it’s in a Jewish unit,” Feuer said. “Non-Jewish units meet on Shabbat, they meet on chagim [holidays], they serve non-kosher food.”

From describing a 200-scout Memorial Day weekend campout in the Santa Monica Mountains to a pinewood derby (a race involving handmade wooden model cars), to any number of activities designed to build character, leadership and survival skills, Feuer’s position is that synagogues that are holding out until BSA further reconsiders its sexual orientation policies should reconsider.

“I understand the objection,” he said. “But the loss to the community is a great one.” 

Scouting, Feuer thinks, does for boys what few other institutions can do in terms of building character, and though he understands some synagogues’ objection to scouting’s historical position on gays, he hopes they “weigh in their own minds what they think the trade-off is” and become more accepting of the Scouts. 

In 2000, the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center — the Orthodox equivalent of the RAC, representing nearly 1,000 Orthodox synagogues in America — issued a press release supporting the Dale decision that protected BSA’s membership policy as a First Amendment right. Unlike the RAC, the OU Advocacy Center has not been particularly vocal about BSA’s policy. It did not release a comment following BSA’s recent vote and has not publicly issued any memoranda to its member synagogues advising any position vis-à-vis the Scouts.

In the fall, Feuer and the local branch of the NJCOS will, as they do every year, try to bring local synagogues into the scouting fold. He is hopeful that some that have recently given BSA the cold shoulder may warm up. 

For now, he acknowledges that what could be a strong relationship between the Scouts and many congregations is “tarnished by this big political problem,” one that, if it disappears, could reopen the doors to a renaissance of Jewish scouting.

“It’s so much in keeping with Jewish values generally, you’d think every synagogue would want one.”

Jewish Scouting leaders vocal on gay inclusion

Jewish Scouting leaders are taking a vocal role in efforts to pass a historic resolution that would partially lift a ban on gays in the Boy Scouts of America.

In a meeting of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting in February, members voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution lifting the BSA's longstanding ban on gay members. Now the Jewish Scouting group is working to shore up support for a resolution to be voted on at the Boy Scouts of America's annual convention in Dallas later this month that would prevent the Scouts from denying membership to anyone younger than 18 on the basis of sexual orientation. The resolution would not change the BSA's ban on gay adult leaders.

“I am advocating for complete change and inclusiveness,” NJCOS Chairman A.J. Kreimer told JTA this week. “I'm speaking with other people and as an area president, one of 26 in the country, I have advocated for fellow Scouters to do the same.”

The struggle over the BSA's position on gays has divided the national youth organization at a time when public opinion has grown markedly more accepting of homosexuality. Most recent public opinion polls show a majority of Americans supporting the right of gays to marry — a right the U.S. Supreme Court could grant as early as this summer. Meanwhile, the number of states recognizing such unions has grown to 11 — Delaware became the most recent on Tuesday — along with the District of Columbia.

As in the wider debate, BSA religious groups, which make up about 70 percent of Scouting units, are bitterly divided. Southern Baptist and evangelical churches are adamantly opposed to changing the organization's policy, while Presbyterian, Lutheran and Jewish Scouting leaders have come out in support of gay inclusion.

The Mormon and Catholic churches both officially denounce homosexuality, yet their Scouting branches — the largest and third largest within the BSA, respectively — have signaled a willingness to endorse the current proposal lifting the ban on gay youths only.

Kreimer said the proposed compromise is a deeply flawed one. The notion that a gay Scout would be expelled upon turning 18, or that a gay rabbi might be barred from hosting a Scouting unit at his synagogue, is “untenable,” he said. Still, Kreimer said most Jewish delegates will back the resolution as a temporary compromise.

“We are going to hold our nose and vote for it because it's the best we can do today,” said John Lenrow, BSA's Northeast Region executive vice president and a former chairman of the NJCOS. “But it doesn't mean the fighting is over.”

Jews have a long history in American Scouting. One of the group's first vice presidents was Mortimer Schiff, a German-Jewish financier who joined with Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller to help found the BSA in 1910.

With 7,000 teen Scouts meeting at synagogues, Jewish community centers and B'nai B'rith lodges across the country, NJCOS is tiny compared to other religious Scouting groups. The Church of Latter-Day Saints, the BSA's largest chartered organization, counts 420,000 Scouts under its aegis. NJCOS does not even represent a majority of Jewish Scouts.

“Most are not registered with Jewish organizations and belong to units that are public, nonreligious or are organized by churches,” Kreimer said.

Still, as one of the oldest BSA charters and the sole representative of a major religion, the NJCOS, which was founded in 1926, has been forced to rebuff opponents of gay inclusion who try to sway the Jewish Scouts by quoting biblical passages.

“I respond by saying until you tell me you keep kosher, don't try to tell me you read the Bible in its entirety and do everything it says,” Lenrow said.

Kreimer said the vote on gay inclusion was too tight to call. But whichever way it goes, he said it will certainly have a long-term impact on the Boy Scouts of America.

“It's a defining moment for Scouting,” Kreimer said, “and a test for the character and future of the movement.”

The Schwartzes and me

When Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz gave his wife, Olivia, a surprise party for her 60th birthday in Mar Vista Park a few weeks ago, it was filled with the usual assortment of Schwartz family members and their devoted entourage.

Present were their 12 children, 24 grandchildren, friends (both religious and secular), fancy Hollywood powerbrokers and international celebrities.

Reggae/rock star Matisyahu was swinging his kids; Dov Rosenblatt, the newest Schwartz son-in-law, was on a park bench playing guitar with his band, Blue Fringe; high-level lawyers from Loeb and Loeb were plotting and planning with Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, talking about the next Shabbat on the Croisette at the Cannes Film Festival, which has become a well-attended annual event; and Rabbi Mashye Schwartz and Hindel Schwartz were teaching bites of Torah amid the gourmet food, served courtesy of son and Cordon Bleu chef Rabbi Josef Schwartz.

The afternoon was spent singing, dancing and learning Torah. It was the usual Schwartz family moveable feast — an island of inclusiveness and tolerance set amid what is often a divided and parochial L.A. Jewish community.

The Schwartzes are Lubavitch Chasidim. Twenty years ago they created the successful Chai Center, which they operate out of their home. The Schwartz home also serves as their corporate headquarters; shul; scene of weekly Shabbat dinners (advertised as “Dinner for 60 Strangers”); and classroom for the constant flow of groups that come to learn (Women’s Torah and Nails on Tuesdays!) or study with Olivia Schwartz or various high-level Torah scholars (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz or Rabbi Yitzak Ginsburg) who frequent the Schwartzes’ salon.

All these events — which are open to all who are lucky enough to know about them — are either free or require a minimal donation.

Their High Holiday services at the Writers Guild of America building in Beverly Hills are free, as are their Shabbat dinners.

Their open-minded tolerance and acceptance of any Jew who moves makes them all the more astonishing, whether hosting a large-scale event or offering comfort, sympathy and Olivia’s homemade challah to those who require it.

The Schwartzes have been my friends for more than 21 years. Their learning and charisma has had a deep effect on many Jews, not least among them Jews in Hollywood’s Jews. In the late ’80s, many friends and clients of mine in the entertainment industry were getting involved with Lubavitch and studying Jewish mysticism. We eventually started a class at the Schwartz home on Sundays. Among those who participated were Richard Dreyfuss; music executive Brooks Arthur (who produced Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” and his albums); record producer Linda Perry; comedian and writer Bruce Vilanch, who at the time was working for Bette Midler and Billy Crystal and writing for the Oscars; and attorney Andy Stern with his wife, Jackie.

My personal Jewish journey began in New York City, where I was a guest at the home of Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, whose Shabbat dinners were home to his friends Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan. It was through Wolfe that I first met Simon Wiesenthal, and as an agent realized I could weave together my growing love of being Jewish and my work at William Morris: I have since represented Wiesenthal on several of his projects.

When I moved to Los Angeles in the ’80s, I had hoped to continue to weave my growing Jewish identity with my work. I shul hopped, met amazing teachers, but didn’t find my community until I met Rabbi Shlomo and Olivia Schwartz. Back then, I was representing Bob Dylan, and a friend of his brought me to one of the Schwartzes’ free Shabbat dinners.

In a way, I’ve never left the table.

So, naturally, I was with the Schwartzes for a week of sheva brachot for Aura, their youngest daughter, and her marriage to Dov Rosenblatt. The wedding was also typical Schwartzie — a sit-down dinner for 150 at the elegant Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, where a blend of Schwartzes danced, laughed, ate and toasted with the East Coast Rosenblatt family. (The groom’s father, Gary Rosenblatt, is editor of The Jewish Week; his mother, Judy, is equally accomplished). They were surrounded by a contingent of rabbis from Yeshiva University who married the couple.

Friends and family mingled easily with the usual collection of haute Jewish life who surround the Schwartz family. Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and wife, Doreen, schmoozed about their upcoming trip to India with William Morris agent Shai Steinberger, life-long friend of the groom. Movie producer Scott Einbinder and powerbroker attorney Craig Emmanuelle were seen toasting with Miriam Rhodes from Jerusalem, who weekly takes women in armored cars to learn in Kever Rachel.

Watching this effortless blend of joy and learning, family and strangers and friends and chasidus, I realized how the Schwartz family embodies chesed, or kindness.

It was easy to see why so many people like me come for a Shabbat, and spend a lifetime.


First Person – Like Any Other Child

By his size and handsome impression, our son, Max, appears to be like any other boy his age, however when you meet him in his wheelchair, you quickly learn that he is severely disabled, both cognitively and physically. He’s unable to talk, use a device to communicate, propel himself or use his hands. You realize that he’s dependent on others in every aspect of his life. Yet, that didn’t stop our family and friends from all over California, our community and Max himself from celebrating his becoming a bar mitzvah. In January, 160 people gathered for a Havdalah service at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes to recognize our son’s turning 13 and to share in the joy and inspiration he has stimulated within each of us.

As my wife, our 9-year-old daughter and I proudly joined Max to sit on the bimah, Rabbi Isaac Jeret and Cantor Sam Radwine conducted a beautiful service filled with tradition. Music, an aliyah, prayers and sensitive words recognized the significance of the evening. With the intent of highlighting the joy of the occasion rather than focusing on the uniqueness of the situation and Max’s disabilities, the service was purposely kept simple and accented with lots of singing. On the bimah, we sat in a semicircle just one step above the congregation. With Max seated between my wife and me, and, with our daughter, the rabbi and the cantor all sitting alongside us; we were so close to family and friends that I felt as if we were at home, in our living room, for a family event. It was a warm, supportive and loving environment that everyone was able to share in, up close and personal. My wife and I, the cantor and the synagogue president each were called for an aliyah. Then, as Max is fortunate to have a 92-year-old great-grandmother, four grandparents, six aunts and uncles and seven first cousins, each was called upon to participate in the Havdalah ceremony. Max’s grandparents held the candle, his cousins held the Kiddush cup and his sister and great-grandmother held the spice box. The support of our families was overwhelming.

Appreciating the sensory stimulation, Max laughed and smiled throughout the 45-minute service. Building on the moment, I shared an interpretation of the relevant Torah portion to speak of how our family has matured from having Max in our lives and experiencing his disabilities. Max has taught us, both figuratively and literally, the value of being kind, doing mitzvot, not taking things for granted, liking people for who they are and recognizing that there is purpose and meaning for everyone in what we do and in everything that happens. I acknowledged that through Max’s disability, he has demonstrated a kind of strength we all need to make the best of situations, to welcome and invite diversity and to appreciate how people, even when they cannot communicate in the ways to which we are accustomed, can enjoy life in different ways.

For me, Max’s bar mitzvah was a very emotional event. It was not just the occasion of his becoming a bar mitzvah that was momentous. It was the feeling and recognition that our son, who doesn’t understand and is not easily included in regular activities and holidays, was being recognized and confirmed. For several years, I had found myself becoming very emotional during bar and bat mitzvahs as the 13-year-old would read from the Torah and recite his or her speech. I couldn’t imagine how we could enable Max to have the opportunity to experience such a crucial life-cycle event. However, about nine months ago (prior to Max’s bar mitzvah), my wife and I had a conversation with Cantor Radwine. We talked about a simple, creative and musical service to recognize Max turning 13. Then, following a discussion with Rabbi Jeret, we decided to have a bar mitzvah; the date was set for a Saturday night when we could all share in the experience of Havdalah. So, there we were, with Max, my wife and daughter on the bimah and I could not have been happier.

As with any bar mitzvah, the service and reception is tailored to child’s abilities and interests. The reception, in the motif of a carnival atmosphere, was dinner with live background music. The theme for the evening, inspired by a Yiddish proverb, was “Each child carries his own blessing into the world.”

“Inclusion” for the disabled has many different meanings. In the broadest sense and as demonstrated in our son’s bar mitzvah, it means to open doors and provide experiences and opportunities for people of all abilities. The value of inclusion is in the pleasure we know the recipient receives. Equally as important, however, is the value that the community experiences from the event — particularly the support we offer one another.

Max’s bar mitzvah celebrated our rich Jewish traditions; recognized Max within the community; reflected on the significance of life, family and friends; and illustrated how, thinking outside the box, we can celebrate life-cycle events with people of all abilities.

Anton Dahlerbruch is deputy city manager of the city of Beverly Hills.


Special Needs Family Retreat

Families of individuals with special needs often feel a sense of helplessness and isolation from the community, as well as confusion about how to best help their loved ones. In an effort to give families the tools to cope with these issues, Etta Israel Center (EIC) will hold its second annual retreat May 20 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in North Hollywood

Launched last year by EIC board chairman Aaron Bloom and his wife Ricky, the first retreat drew more than 20 families, according to organizers. This year’s event includes a keynote address by Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman on "Balancing the Needs of All Family Members" followed by workshops on "Religion as a Tool," "Community and Synagogue Inclusion" and "Religious Obligations" as well as discussions addressing more secular concerns such as social skills and working with Regional Center.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for Jewish families who have a family member with a special need to come together, meet one another, exchange ideas, learn from one another and forge new friendships," said Dr. Michael Held, EIC executive director.

Cost for the retreat is $10 per person, with a maximum of $50 per family. For more information call (310) 285-0909.