Original Article in The New York Jewish Week

Eight brave young adults with disabilities from across the United States traveled to Israel over winter break as part of Ramah Israel Institute’s Tikvah Ramah Israel Trip. Most of this year’s travelers are current participants in or recent graduates of the various vocational training programs at Ramah camps. They are in transition to the world of work and, in some cases, moving from their parents’ homes to other living environments. Their itinerary included many of the sites and experiences of a “standard 10-day Israel trip” and a whole lot more.

Ramah offers a Tikvah Israel trip every two years.

This year’s trip, the fifth to date, included must-see destinations such as the Kotel and Har Herzl in Jerusalem, Independence Hall and Azrieli Tower in Tel Aviv, Har Bental on the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee. Like previous trips, this trip also took into consideration the unique needs of young adults with disabilities.

In planning Tikvah Israel trips, we create opportunities to help participants gain experiences navigating the world, including self-care, independent living, group dining, food preparation, shopping and more. The unique itinerary masterfully weaves tourist attractions with opportunities to socialize with Israeli friends, often in their homes, and experience Israel through all senses.

A day touring the Old City of Jerusalem, for example, was followed by the group going to various restaurants to order food and dine in small groups. For some meals, we went to (kosher!) food courts at shopping malls and made decisions about what we wanted, within our 40 shekel per person budget. Other days, we purchased an assortment of picnic ingredients and made lunch ourselves.

A trip to visit friends for dinner in their Beit Shemesh home one Thursday evening was preceded by a visit to a large supermarket, where we observed people shopping for Shabbat. We divided into committees, brainstormed foods we might serve guests at a Friday night oneg Shabbat, and went down the aisles in search of the items. We then used Israeli money and interacted with the sales clerks as wepaid.

On visits to homes of friends in Aseret and Kibbutz Alumot (overlooking the Galil), participants learned to bring a host gift, to navigate buffet lines and to have conversations around a big table. We sometimes ate outside under a grapefruit or avocado tree, and we learned that Israeli toilets have two flushers — to save water!

In Givat Zeev (Jerusalem), we serenaded our host, Avram, a longtime advisor in our vocational training program at Ramah New England, and his bride to be, Liron, with singing and dancing. (We returned to the U.S. two days before their wedding.)

While some participants took in much of what our excellent tour guide, Rabbi Ed Snitkoff, Director of Ramah Israel Seminar, shared with them through explanations, stories, songs, and visuals, others connected with Israel through many handson experiences. We baked pita bread on a taboon (outdoor oven) and picked hydroponic lettuce at Kibbutz Tzuba before taking a tour of their accessible nature area.

We visited and played with guide dogs in training at the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind in Beit Oved; we picked beets as part of Leket Israel, The National Food Bank. Our hands turned purple from beet juice, we got mud on our shoes and we interacted for more than an hour with a lovely Birthright group who also came to pick beets. Some participants connected with Israel through climbing into caves at Beit Guvrin and helping excavate at the archaeological “Dig for a Day.” Others enjoyed planting a large olive tree at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, just outside the Knesset.

A highlight for some participants was spending half a day working in the zoo and farm at Kibbutz Shluchot. Some used pitchforks to bale hay; others recycled food and vegetables from the dining room to be used as feed for the farm animals. Some of us actually had the opportunity to feed monkeys; others gathered eggs. Everyone enjoyed a relaxing pre-Shabbat visit to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and a make-your-own picnic lunch on the grass overlooking the ducks and baboons.

Some meals were opportunities to enjoy delicious food while also seeing the amazing talents of people with disabilities. At Jerusalem’s Shekel Café, we enjoyed lunch prepared by workers with disabilities. We had a similar experience in the café of Beit Uri, in Givat Hamoreh in Afula. Beit Uri is home to 110 Jewish and Arab children, youth and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Going to Israel during a period of tension, uncertainty and occasional random violence can be unsettling. But participants on the Tikvah Ramah Israel Trip remained upbeat as they took in the traditional Israel trip sites, met Israeli friends in their homes, worked the land and ate delicious kosher food. These eight brave Ramahniks who happen to have disabilities are proof that people with disabilities — like all people — are capable of connecting with Israel on a very deep level.

Participant Ezra Fields-Meyer sums up his experience as follows: “The Israel trip I went on was great! It was so much fun! It was the best opportunity I have had in a lifetime! I loved going to the Biblical Zoo, Cinema City, the Kotel, the museums, the kibbutz, and much more!”

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director, observes, “These trips are so wonderful, not just because of the inspiration it they provides for the participants, but also as a statement that providing inclusive options for travel to Israel is not only possible but essential.” Rabbi Ed Snitkoff notes, “After guiding and teaching in Israel since 1980, I do not recall feeling as inspired as I do now, after taking part in this trip. What an amazing experience this was, to see Israel, God, Ramah, the Jewish people, and everyday life, through the eyes of incredibly special people.”

We look forward to our next Tikvah Ramah Israel Trip in two years and to a Tikvah Ramah FAMILY Trip this December. For details, please contact Howard Blas, National Ramah Tikvah Director, at howard@campramah.org. For more information about Ramah Israel Institute’s programs for congregations, schools, and families, contact Moshe Gold, Director, atmoshe@ramah.co.il.

Read more

by Aaron Herman

How do you you create a meaningful Israel experience for young adults with special needs? Video blogger Aaron Herman spoke with Covenant Award winner Howard Blass, Director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, Tali Cohen, Director of Tikvah Vocational Services and participants about their unique Israel experience.

The Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England is an eight-week overnight camping program for 60 campers with special needs that is integrated within a summer camp for 800 typically developing children. As Director, Howard manages four separate special needs programs, including a full-time overnight camp, a Vocational Training Program, a Camp Employment Program, and an Inclusion Program.

Read more

Original Article in Jewish Ledger:

Every year, I approach Kosherfest with a healthy dose of both excitement and skepticism. How can there possibly be anything new in the world of kosher, I wonder? But there always is. And this year’s Kosherfest did not disappoint.

Kosherfest 2015 – held in the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, New Jersey in mid-November — marked its 27th year with an event featuring 400 booths and 300 new products. The more than 6,000 who passed through the doors of the two-day represented just about every area of the kosher food industry — chefs, cookbook authors, restauranteurs, grocery and specialty store owners, buyers, distributors, caterers, representatives of summer camps, nursing homes, kosher supervision agencies. and manufacturers of products from organic chicken to mock shrimp, knishes to falafel balls, chocolates to wine and liqueurs.

Simply put — kosher is big business. According to a 2015 report by Lubicom Marketing Consulting, there are 12,350,000 kosher consumers in the United States (not all of whom are Jewish), and 205,000 kosher certified products manufactured by 11,400 kosher companies and plants. Also, Lubicom reports, 3,400 products received kosher certification in 2015 alone.

Here are some of the new products featured at Kosherfest 2015:

Two new brands of hummus surfaced at Kosherfest 2015. Mediterranean Chef representative, Eyal Schmerling, was giving out samples of its matbucha, pesto sauce, roasted pepper strips, cooked beets, and various hummus flavors. Schmerling boasted that his products have “fewer preservatives and a 65-day shelf life.”   Meditteranean Chef, which according to Schmerling has been a fixture in Israel for 35 years, is now based in Lincoln Park, N.J. Also new to the hummus market is Fountain of Health. Founded in 1990, Fountain of Health is just now hitting the U.S. market. With unique hummus flavors such as sesame ginger, roasted beets, caramelized onions and chipotle.

RC Fine foods showed off the company’s various gluten-free soup bases; and Glutzero of Helsinki, Finland featured fresh gluten-free fetuccine and other pastas. Healthy snack products on display included Amrita’s five flavors of energy bars — all raw, peanut and tree nut-free and grain and wheat free. A man sampling both a cranberry raisin and chocolate maca bar was overheard telling the Amrita rep, Alex Alam El-Din, “This is the best product I tasted in the show.” He was delighted to learn that the product is currently sold at Whole Foods. Another delicious, healthy snack product on display was Matt’s Munchies, the premium fruit snack. Based in Santa Ana, California, Matt’s Munchies comes in eight flavors.

Nancy Kalish, the gregarious owner of Pure Genius blondies and brownies – a vegan delight that is both gluten- and nut-free, said, “We launched just five weeks ago and received our OU kosher certification practically on the way to the show!” adding, “I have an unbelievably terrible sweet tooth. When I had kids, I had to find a healthy treat that tastes good.”

Other sweet new products include gourmet soft caramels in five flavors from Shay’s Chocolate (my personal favorite: sea salt and espresso) and chocolates by CocoArt Artisan Milk Chocolates. According to the CocoArt CEO Yoseph Schwartz, the company boasts 26 chocolate products. He thinks they’re all winners – but the one that garnered the best feedback thus far, he admits, is orange creamsicle.

There was no shortage of wines and liquors at the show, with the countries of Argentina, Italy and Israel each manning large pavilions. Odem Mountain Winery of Golan Heights was on hand offering samples of Alfasi Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot. Michel Murciano, owner of Hevron Heights Winery, was offering samples of various wines from his vineyards. When the Ledger asked how he planned to handle the European Union’s new policy requiring special labeling on products “made in the territories,” Murciano said, “I called the printer to make 1000 labels which say, ‘Achtung Juden” (Caution, Jews). For me, this is the same thing the Nazis did [to the Jews].”

In addition to a slew of new products introduced by new manufacturers, many of the veteran kosher companies — like Gold’s, Gabila’s Knishes, Mansichewitz and Empire Kosher – proved that they’re still on the grow by introducing a long line of new products. Empire, for example, unveiled a brand new line of organic chickens and soups.

Read more

Original Article in The Times Of Israel:

NEW YORK – By age four, Jason Fuchs was a TV addict. But unlike most kids, he didn’t want to just sit in front of the boob tube, he wanted to be on it.

“My parents would call out to me while I was watching, and I didn’t respond to anything. I remember pointing to the TV and saying, “I want to be in the box–the thing I was staring at,” Fuchs told The Times of Israel last week.

Back then he was too shy to talk with his father’s agent friend; he’d been taught not to speak with strangers. But a follow-up meeting three years later put Fuchs ‘in the box’ – and on the big screen.

Over the past 20 years, the former child actor has appeared in plays (“Abe Lincoln in Illinois”; “A Christmas Carol”), TV shows (“Law and Order: Criminal Intent”; “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”; “All My Children”; “The Sopranos”) and movies (“Flipper”; “The Hebrew Hammer”; “Mafia!”). The Columbia University graduate has also written scripts, including “Ice Age 4” and “Rags.”

And it his screenwriter chops that has Fuchs, now 29, poised to become a hero for other little television-obsessed boys, with the October 8 debut of his family blockbuster, “Pan.”

Growing up, what were some of your childhood interests outside of TV, movies and acting?

My parents insisted I attend a regular school [as opposed to a performing arts school] until high school. And I never got too successful! It is harder when you are Macaulay Culkin – always working on a regular basis.

My two great loves are basketball and foreign affairs. I have always been a diehard New York Knicks basketball fan. I remember watching the Gulf War on CNN. I knew who Dick Cheney was even when I was a little kid and I had a Gulf War trading card collection.

When 9/11 took place, my father worked across the street from the Twin Towers. He saw them fall and came to get me at school that day, covered in soot. I sort of dove in to learn about the Middle East after 9/11. I wanted to understand everything.

Has this interest in the Middle East continued?

When I was 17 years old, I had an internship at GIS-Global Information System, an independent government intelligence service which gives second opinions to governments. During freshman year of college, I was their UN correspondent.

GIS is run by a brilliant Australian Gregory Copley and Israeli Yossef Bodansky, author of “Bin Laden, The Man Who Declared War on America,” which is ironically the first book I read after 9/11. Bodansky is a rock star to me – he is brilliant and kind. I still have an obsession with current affairs and the Middle East and keep up as closely as I did when I worked there.

Did this interest in Middle East Studies continue at Columbia University?

I took some Middle East courses. I studied with Rashid Khalidi [the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University]. He is a nice guy, but he didn’t like me. We did not share all the same perspectives. It is not so much a Professor Khalidi issue as a Columbia issue – there is some intolerance for a diversity of opinions and they don’t foster an atmosphere of healthy dissent.

What does Israel mean to you?

I have never been to Israel. It is very important to me, I feel a very strong connection and affinity, and I NEED very much to go at some point – sooner than later. I went to Hebrew school, and had a strong sense of yiddishkeit and appreciation for Jewish history.

I am the grandson of two Holocaust survivors (my grandfather is still alive). I am also cognizant of the threats the Jews have faced historically and am aware of how significant it is to have a national homeland like Israel whose founding ethos is “Never Again.”

So knowing that your grandparents were in the Holocaust and didn’t have an Israel to run to, it is a very powerful thing to know that such a place exists.

I also feel a strong connection with it as a lover of democracy. I like living in a democracy, I vote, I do jury duty, I think it is a good way to govern. Jewishness aside, I also feel a kinship to Israel in the same way I feel a kinship to democracies all around the world.

You sound pretty ‘connected’ Jewishly. Do you have a favorite holiday or story?

The holiday that on an emotional level I registered with has always been Passover. For me, the story of Passover is the best story in the Old Testament. It is kind of the template for every movie that I enjoy. The savior motif, the idea that there is someone destined for something special, to lead his people – that is Moses, that is the Exodus story.

You see echoes of that in Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter and in this version of the Peter Pan story. Peter is, in this telling of the story, the Chosen One. He is a messiah-like figure who is fated to do something extraordinary. He rises up from essentially, bondage – he is an orphan in a horrible orphanage – he nuns mistreat him and the other boys – and he rises up to be The Pan, the savior of Neverland.

And that’s not an original idea at all. It is a very traditional idea, one that resonates for me in some of the stories that mean the most to me, and hopefully resonates for so many people.

How did the Pan story make it to to the big screen?

When I was 9 years old, I got stuck on a Peter Pan ride with my dad, and was stuck for 20 minutes in a pirate ship. I was always a curious kid with an insane number of questions for my dad: Why is Peter Pan, Peter Pan? Why can he fly? Why do he and Hook hate each other so much? What is Neverland? Why is he there?

By the way, that’s not an un-Talmudic way to approach things for a nine year old.

What kept me motivated is when no one bought the script. I didn’t write it on spec. I was too passionate. I thought I’d pitch it and maybe someone would bite but no one did. Finally, I met with Warner Brother’s exec Sarah Schechter and she told me to do it. It is a fairy tale story within itself!

What was it like working with Hugh Jackman?

Hugh Jackman is amazing. With a movie star of that kind of measure, you don’t know what to expect. Hugh is the most normal, kind, decent human being you’d ever hope to work with. When your most famous actor is as big of a mensch as Hugh Jackman is, everyone has to be a mensch. It sets the tone for the entire crew.

What does it mean to you personally to have Pan coming out in Israel?

I love the fact it is opening in Israel. It is very meaningful that something that meant so much to me, the story I told my agent, my parents and my girlfriend – is out there for people in Israel who have no clue who I am to go and see.

You’re rumored to be writing the “Wonder Woman” script starring Gal Gadot.

Anything related to DC Comics is like working with the CIA – there is a code of silence. I have read what you have online about what my involvement with that project might be. I can only speak as a fan – I always loved comics as a kid. I am as hardcore a DC Comic fan as there is. But in terms of my involvement, I cannot comment. I think Warner Brothers has set the film “Wonder Woman” to come out in June 2017.

What do you have in the pipeline? What are you currently working on?

I recently wrote a movie script for “Break My Heart One Thousand Times,” a supernatural thriller where ghosts are part of everyday life and a TV pilot for TNT, “Black Box,” a conspiracy thrillerish TV show.

Read more