Original Article published on The Jerusalem Post

The only time my Bubbeh ever took a break from preparing heavy fleishig (meat) holiday food was on Shavuot. Admittedly, some Jews (mainly Sephardim) do eat meat that day, as they would on any other holiday, since dairy is not considered very festive. Others, to satisfy all opinions, eat a dairy dish, followed by a meat dish, as a reminder of the two sacrifices offered on Shavuot.

But my bubbeh and other Ashkenazi purists eat only dairy foods on Shavuot. Maybe it’s because this harvest holiday reminds us that Israel is a land flowing with milk and honey, or that the Song of Songs (4:11) implies that the words of the Torah shall be as sweet to the heart as milk and honey.

Some commentators point out (perhaps with a bit of a smile) that, with the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the dietary laws were established. Thus, when the people came home from receiving revelation, preparation of meat dishes would have taken too long, and they certainly didn’t yet have fleishig dishes and silverware. Check out these and other comments on holiday customs at: http://www.mazornet.com or

Maybe the custom of eating dairy is as simple as gematriah. The Hebrew word for milk, halav, has the numerical value of 40, the number of days Moses was on Mt. Sinai. You can click on http://www.inner.org and do the math yourself. The site provides a Hebrew letter chart that helps you find numerical values for het, lamed and bet.

I spent my childhood dreading Shavuot. I am a meat and potatoes guy who always hated anything white and creamy. In my older years, though, I have resolved to keep an open mind. And cheesecake has come a long way since my youth – especially since it has come into contact with flavors like margarita.

Those who wish to make cheesecake from scratch (or cook or bake anything, for that matter) should look at http://www.epicurious.com as a first step. For low-fat cheesecake recipes, try http://www.kashrut.com

Are your Shavuot guests real connoisseurs? You can find great recipes at http://www.thatsmyhome.com for, among others, chocolate espresso swirl, and (for those who yearn for Passovers past) coconut macaroon cheesecake.

Thinking of following the dairy/meat custom but worried you’ll never keep your dishes straight? Be on the safe side with a recipe for pareve cheesecake at http://www.jewish-food.org

Face it – many of us are nostalgic for the delicacies of our childhood, but are too busy to bake them. North Americans can order Junior’s Cheesecake, the Brooklyn classic, at http://www.juniorcheesecake.com. Or Chicago-style, at http://www.elicheesecake.com which promises international shipping.

I may just take the plunge and try cheesecake this year. If not, I will sneak into our synagogue’s Shavuot party for children and join them in making my own ice-cream sundaes. After all, Bubbeh taught me that it is important to eat dairy on Shavuot.

Read more

Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

Our small group of campers from the Tikvah (“Hope”) Program of Camp Ramah in New England had planned a 12-day trip up and down Israel and the imminent war with Iraq wasn’t going to stop us. I thought it ironic that the lead story in the Hebrew papers distributed on our flight to Israel in February reported on the panic in America and on the advisories to stock up on duct tape and bottled water.

The three brave young men with special needs, ages 19 and 20, didn’t care much about the war. They were more focused on the 20 upbeat Korean Christians on our overbooked flight and the 30 sixtysomethings from Texas and Oklahoma later at dinner. Their unstinting stare was the beginning of my seeing Israel through straightforward, painfully honest Tikvah eyes.

Jeremy, Jason and Jake – who have a range of developmental disabilities, including neurological impairments, learning disorders and Down syndrome – loved walking down the 1,200 or so stairs at the Bahai Gardens in Haifa, mostly because we were a few paces ahead of 40 young soldiers with guns. They understood that Israelis their age are drafted and were curious to know everything they could about the army. Their questions started off simply: “What did you do in the army?” they asked our two female guides and our various male guards, wondering as well whether Warid, our Israeli Arab driver, also served.

Then their questions became more poignant. “Would people like us, people with disabilities, be able to serve in the army?” Jeremy asked. Our guides told them they might be able to do many of the jobs in the army that are similar to those they do at camp and in their vocational training programs at school: food preparation, mail delivery, supply room worker. But they also learned that many people with special needs, even those with certain food allergies, are ultimately exempted from service.

At dinner one evening, at the home of Dahlia, who has worked at our camp for many summers, Jason asked, “Did you serve in the Israel Defense Forces?” Dahlia is a Little Person, and the Tikvah guys had their doubts.

She hesitated, then said she hadn’t.

“Why not?” asked Jeremy.

“Because I’m short,” Dahlia replied.

“What does that have to do with anything?” asked Jason.

“Isn’t that discrimination?” Jeremy added, remembering all he’d been taught about the Americans with Disabilities Act and a similar education act.

“Yes,” Dahlia confirmed.

“Did you fight against it?” asked Jason. “No.”

The group persisted.

“Because I was 18. I was small and the army was very big and strong. But I should have.”

Finally, Jason asked, “Wouldn’t being short be an advantage in the army, like in a tank? It wouldn’t be so cramped in there.”

Straightforward eyes. Good point.

Read more

Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

When it comes to our children’s education, most of us accept the sad fact that what we get is what we get. But once in a while, we have an opportunity to step back and assess what our children actually know. As was the case when many kids stayed home during the Scud missile threat in Israel, or were off on Purim (as they will be again on Passover).

What wonderful opportunities to have a conversation with your kids. Yes, they have heard of William Shakespeare. No, they still don’t know their multiplication tables, or why the “q”s in Iraq and Qatar don’t take “u”s after them.

If I’d had a hand in writing the civil defense booklet handed out to Israelis before the Iraqi crisis, I might have suggested adding a PC to the list of items that might go into the sealed room. It’s a good way to keep antsy kids entertained and educated. And a fine place to start might be with an unlimited supply of word puzzles at http://www.puzzlemaker.com Simply put in a list of words – the names of the 10 plagues from the Haggadah, or the Hebrew months – and it generates word searches, crossword puzzles or jumbles.
By far the most comprehensive educational site on the Internet I’ve found is http://www.edhelper.com with 11,443 lesson plans and 5,000 free worksheets. There are more math, reading comprehension and spelling worksheets than your elementary school child will ever need. Also check out http://www.teachers.net The article on Arab-Jewish coexistence is part of an interesting lesson plan on “Islamic flags over the Temple Mount,” recalling a day in 1099 when “Jews and Muslims fought and fell side by side, defending Jerusalem from a common enemy,” the Crusaders.

Not sure where to find Qatar or even Kuwait on a map? Check out the large selection of maps of regions, continents, U.S. states and more at http://www.teachervision.com or at http://www.geography.about.com

If you’re concerned your children are losing ground on their Jewish education, you can access multilingual word searches, a Jewish trivia database, Jewish coloring books, an Israel geography game, and tons of ready-made puzzles by visiting the Jewish Education and Entertainment link on http://www.morim.com Or, go to http://www.akhlah.com for overviews of the weekly Torah portions, Jewish holidays, Hebrew alphabet and Bible heroes.

While http://www.caje.org has a curriculum bank free to members only, there are some useful freebies on the site as well, like “Terrorism, A Discussion Guide,” at http://www.caje.org

Who knows? After all this time spent learning together, you may wish to become a “home schooler.” Find information on the Jewish Home Education Network (http://www.snj.com or http://www.educate.org.uk in England; and in Hebrew for Israelis, or http://www.homeschool.org.il or http://beofen-tv.co.il

Read more

Original Article Published on The Jerusalem Post

Three special needs students came to Israel last week to share a message of hope and support for Israel.

Simone Rosenzweig reports: For three extraordinary young men who visited Israel from February 12 through 24, the fact that others were scared to visit now only fueled their desire to come.

The young men are all members of Camp Ramah in New England’s Tikvah Vocational Program, a project designed specifically for developmentally disabled young adults. During the summer, they spend eight weeks at Camp Ramah, where they learn vocational and independent living skills and focus on self-image, social functioning, and Jewish communal membership.

The three were accompanied by the Director of Camp Ramah in New England’s Tikvah Program, Howard Blas, who was also the trip’s organizer.

During a lunch break in Jerusalem’s Old City, Blas explained that this year’s trip is a continuation of a program that first began about 15 years ago. During that first incarnation, the Tikvah Program took its special needs campers on seven trips to Israel over 10 years. The Tikvah Program’s Israel Trip ended when its directors, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, made aliya to Ra’anana four years ago.

Blas recalled that when he took over as head of the Ramah New England’s Tikvah Program three years ago, reinstating the Israel trip became a top priority. Neither the current Palestinian conflict nor the threat of war with Iraq could derail Blas’s plan.

“I’d been thinking of bringing back the trip since I took over. Maybe any sensible person would postpone it, but I really wanted to bring them now,” Blas explained. And so, with the help of Camp Ramah’s Israel Program, Blas put his plan into action.

“Part of the decision was to make the trip precisely now, to make it symbolic. There are high schools backing out, and even Ramah had to cut back on its Israel programs because people are scared to come, but here we are with a special needs group,” Blas explained. “Really, it’s bravo, all the credit to the parents. Even people they know in their communities don’t know why anyone would come to Israel now. I was worried that parents would call and say ‘We’re out of here, our child isn’t going.’ I was checking my phone and e-mail every day, expecting cancellations but in the end they felt it was important and allowed their sons to come.”

In the days proceeding the trip, one mother sent Blas almost daily warnings from the United States’ State Department regarding travel to Israel, but she still allowed her son to come. “She just wanted me to be aware of the situation,” Blas explained. To keep parents abreast of the trip’s progress, Blas and the Ramah Israel staff sent them daily e-mail updates, complete with digital pictures.

Although this year there were more staff members than Tikvah campers on the trip (in addition to Blas, the group included tour educator Dvora Greenberg, counselor Maya Freedman, an armed guard, and a bus driver), Blas hopes they will be able to build on this year’s success and bring more campers next year. Despite their friends’ doubts, this year’s group is already eager to sign up again for next year.

In between bites of bagel sandwiches, the Tikvah program participants eagerly explained their reasons for coming and the reactions they received when they announced their plans.

Jeremy Jacobson, a 19-year-old participant from the Washington, DC area, said, “My whole family is jealous that I got to come. I have a really Zionist family. My brother organizes pro-Israel rallies at the University of Michigan. Ever since my first trip to Israel (for Passover 2000) I wanted to come back, and I followed through on it. In the United States you don’t find people in the malls. Terrorism has conquered people. Me, Jason and the other people on this trip are scared, but we don’t let it stop us from coming here. If we want to have fun, we’re not going to let terrorism stop us.”

The trip is Jason Belkin’s first. The 20-year-old from Westchester, NY said, “My parents weren’t as in favor as I was, and even my teachers thought I was crazy for coming at this time.”

But the incredulity he faced only made Belkin more excited about coming and filled him with a sense of purpose. He decided to photograph everyone and everything he could in order to be able to show those who questioned his plans what life here is really like.

“When I get home, of course I will speak about my trip,” he said. “People will be asking questions left and right. I want to tell them that the media lies and this area is really quite safe. I don’t even know which country is safer now, America or Israel.”

Belkin’s shutterbug tendencies influenced Jacobson as well. “I already have five rolls of film to show to my class and my family. Maybe I’ll even bring them to camp and to my Hebrew school. The rabbi in my synagogue may even have me speak about my experience in Israel.”

In addition to touring and sightseeing, the trip included a dinner with many of the Israelis who came to Camp Ramah as delegates last summer. Belkin had spent the summer working closely with an Israeli carpenter, who paid him a surprise visit at the dinner.

When rain cancelled the group’s planned trip to Latrun one Friday, the young men stopped by Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Hospital instead. At the hospital, they blew up close to 50 balloons, attached ribbons to them, and distributed them to patients in the pediatric and geriatric wards.

Jacobson noted that the patients, “thanked us because they were very thrilled to have someone give them a balloon. It made me feel very good inside. It was a great way to start off Shabbat. The reactions I saw were like ‘wow.’ It was a very powerful moment for me.”

In addition to questioning some of the young patients and their parents about the political situation, the Tikvah Program visitors began to photograph some of the hospital’s empty beds in order to show friends back home that the hospitals are not constantly packed with terror victims and that Jerusalem is not as dangerous as they imagine.

All three Tikvah Program visitors hope to speak about the trip at camp this summer and use their numerous pictures to encourage others to come.

“These guys will go back as delegates and tell people what’s going on here,” Blas explained. Jacobson added, “After I leave, I don’t want to stop coming back because I love this place.”

Read more