Original article published in the JNS

Alone on a snowy Friday night, the sophomore made dinner for 15 of her teammates—“all the classics … cholent, deli rolls, schnitzel, challah. It was really special how interested they were.”

(April 1, 2022 / JNS) For Mia Raskin, basketball and Judaism are essential parts of life. Her deep and simultaneous commitment to her favorite sport and religion never came into conflict; at least, until Raskin began considering her college options.

For Raskin, observance of Shabbat and kashrut were non-negotiable, so playing college basketball seemed out of the question. That all changed when an unusual opportunity presented itself during her sophomore year at Binghamton University in New York. With creative thinking and fancy moves that would make an NBA or WNBA star proud, Raskin joined the Binghamton women’s basketball team in late December, traveled to 16 road games and continued to be a proudly observant Jew.

Mia Raskin grew up in Dallas and moved with her family in 2002 to Potomac, Md., when her father, Adam Raskin became the rabbi of Congregation Har Shalom. Raskin played basketball at every opportunity growing up. “I prioritized basketball almost over everything else,” she says. She played basketball year-round: at the (Orthodox) Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Md., in an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) league and at various summer programs.

“My parents bent over backwards. If my AAU game over Shabbat was even four miles away, we stayed in a hotel and walked,” she relates.

Raskin praises her parents for their support and understanding of both her commitment to basketball and her religious practice. “My father is a Conservative rabbi, and is so supportive of me staying observant. My mother, too—she raised us so that we never felt forced or coerced to be observant; it made me strong.”

By 10th grade, Raskin began to realize that playing basketball in college was unlikely. “I thought about playing, but also thought it was not possible because of being Shomer Shabbat. Ultimately, there were no college basketball programs flexible enough to accommodate my Shabbat observance, kashrut requirements and Jewish communal needs, so I decided collegiate basketball would not be in the cards for me.”

She graduated from Berman, spent a gap year learning at Midreshet Torah V’Avodah in Jerusalem and began attending Binghamton, where she is currently a sophomore majoring in marketing in the Binghamton University School of Management. Raskin serves as an officer in the Alpha Kappa Psi business professional fraternity. She is also actively involved in Jewish life on campus; she is a past student president of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC), is a leader in the BU Zionist Organization, and is very involved at Chabad at Binghamton.

Raskin has also served as manager of the women’s basketball team, where she kept track of player statistics; tended to logistical issues of the gym and facilities; and assisted the coaching staff in practices and games. “I could not stay away from the game I loved,” she says. “Being in that position was rewarding.”

She would soon have an unusual opportunity to take on an even greater role with the team.

‘In the gym a big chunk of the day’

During the fall semester, Raskin noticed that a number of players were unable to play due to injuries or coronavirus precautions. At times, there were not enough players available for a 5-on-5 scrimmage. And so, Raskin mentioned her basketball playing background to head women’s basketball coach Bethann Shapiro Ord, who appreciated her offer to help but was not initially able to take her up on it.

While home on break, on Friday afternoon, Dec. 31, Ord called to offer Raskin an opportunity to join the team.

“You can only imagine my initial reaction to that phone call; I was ecstatic! I finally felt like I would be able to live out my basketball dreams,” says Raskin. Still, she knew that her religious observance would pose issues and require certain accommodations.

Raskin’s parents encouraged her to keep the explanations simple—note that kosher food wouldn’t be so difficult, and telling the coach and teammates that she is unable to use her phone or ride on the Sabbath would be sufficient initially. Raskin drove to Binghamton in the snow to join her teammates—admittedly a bit nervous about how she and her religious issues would be received.

“My mom was going to come up to visit me,” reports Raskin, noting that her apartment mates and most students were off-campus enjoying their semester break. “But a snowstorm hit, and she couldn’t come. I was pretty alone.”

As Raskin got to talking with her teammates in the locker room, the topic of Shabbat and kashrut came up, as did the fact that Raskin had “no one to do Shabbat with.” The teammates immediately replied, “We will come.”

Raskin invited her entire team to her apartment for a Shabbat dinner. “I made all of the food—dinner for 15—all of the classics … cholent, deli rolls, schnitzel, challah. It was really special how interested they were so early on.” She explains that she even prepared a Shabbat dinner “cheat sheet,” explaining Kiddush, hand-washing and hamotzi to her guests.

Their interest in and support for Raskin continued to grow. “Everyone asked questions daily to try to understand. It was cool,” says Raskin.

But she found ways to make it work, including walking home from the field house, often accompanied by teammates, on Shabbat. In all, she was able to join the team for 16 of 20 road games. “That’s 80%! The other four,” she says, “would have required riding on Shabbat.”

Raskin acknowledges underestimating how hard it would be finding nutritious kosher food on the road. “At first, I had lots of protein bars and fruit. Binghamton Chabad was very supportive. They reached out to other Chabads on the road. When Chabad centers at the University of Vermont, University of Albany and University of Hartford found out my story, they came to my support.”

And she discovered how time-consuming college sports can be. “We are in the gym a big chunk of the day—three to five hours.” She does feel that it has taken away from some of the Jewish activities she cherishes, such as daily prayer and study. But she notes, “I have a Gemara [Talmud] in my locker in case I have time to learn.”

‘Respected that I had to make compromises’

Raskin’s parents, her coach and the Binghamton Chabad community say they are proud of how Mia has been making it all work, in addition to her telling everyone right up front what her needs entailed.

“From the first conversation with the coach, she made it clear that Shabbat and kashrut were non-negotiable. But she was also willing to explore how she could make it work within these religious parameters,” say her parents, Rabbi Adam and Sari Raskin. “Along the way, she educated a lot of people—teammates, coaches, fans—about Judaism.”

Ord adds that “Mia was greatly appreciated by cutting her winter break short to come back to campus to help us out. I was so proud of how our team embraced her. It was a total learning experience for all. She gained an understanding of being a Division I athlete, and we gained knowledge of her Jewish observance. Mia came in every day with a great energy and attitude, and it was greatly appreciated.”

Rivkah Slonim, associate director at the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University, reports: “Mia is an inspiration—navigating her sports life while remaining steadfast in her commitment to Judaism. Mia has demonstrated the ability to live by principles. She works hard, plays hard and remembers, above all, who she is.”

Her being on the team has also helped drive attendance at Binghamton Bearcats women’s basketball games, which is admittedly small from the campus community. “There is a huge fan base, but it is more from the local community than from the school,” notes Raskin, who is quick to add, “the people who showed up from school were from the Jewish community—about 15 or 20 per game.”

In the end, Raskin did not see any playing time. But she’s not upset and has an amazingly positive attitude. “I go to live the dream—to work out with the team, to do free throws and lay ups, and come out when the team warm ups.”

She adds that the team “respected that I had to make compromises. There was mutual respect. I loved my time with the girls. They welcomed me with open arms.”

The season is now over, and Raskin will consider her options for next season. “I have no expectations of whether they want me to come back.”

She smiles, “I did get really cool sweatshirts. At the end of the day, it was worth it.”

For now, Raskin is enjoying watching the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, cheering for her favorite player (and non-Binghamton team). “I’m a big fan of Dawn Staley! South Carolina all the way!”

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201 Allen Road

Atlanta, GA 30328

venturesatl@gmail.com

404-500-1921

https://www.venturesatl.com/

Chet Hurwitz Chief Talent Officer

Jordan Greer, Operations Manager

Data management services and product fulfillment service by people with disabilities. Currently trains and employs 20 employees with goal of 50-100 in three years.”

My Visit:

I was introduced to and spoke with Chet Hurwitz more than a year ago and was eager to meet in person while on a visit to Atlanta. Due to Covid, employees were mostly remote during the time of my 1/14/22 visit.

I was invited to join the zoom team meeting and listened as excited employees described new projects including doing price analysis for a local restaurant chain. Some spoke about being productive while doing remote work; others expressed appreciation at the consistency and variety of the work.

Chet is the “chief talent officer” who also interfaces with potential and current clients including large telecommunications company, a big private equity firm, a large healthcare company and a global professional services firm. Chet notes the high rate of unemployment in disabilities population is “out of line with their skills” and that Ventures ATL helps to “bridges this gap “ by creating jobs that utilize their areas of strength.

The Ventures ATL Management Team meet with the client and help create a set of “granular instructions” so that project is broken down into small pieces. The majority of employees at Ventures ATL work on data management projects while others work in product fulfillment.

From Website:

Ventures ATL is a nonprofit whose mission is to provide opportunities for meaningful and sustainable employment to qualified adults with autism or other developmental differences.

Ventures ATL is designed to address an important issue – Approximately 80% of these adults are unemployed (or underemployed), while at the same time, there is a strong demand for people with the skills these adults possess. While these adults may face several challenges in the job market (limited “soft skills”, transportation barriers, diminished community support in adulthood), they often have a relatively strong ability to perform the essential functions of many jobs. Ventures ATL bridges the “supply and demand gap,” enabling our employees to derive the personal satisfaction of meaningful employment and providing qualified resources to our business partners. We enable adults with autism to have access to a career path that is not otherwise available to them.

Operational Model:

The Ventures ATL model differs from those of other organizations in Atlanta that support the employment goals of such adults. The Ventures ATL approach is not based on a placement model but rather the concept that we employ these adults as we operate a portfolio of businesses that line up with their strengths and interests. In that respect, we take a fundamentally different approach that is designed to complement the existing efforts in the Atlanta market.

There are two aspects of sustainability that are essential to the operating principles of Ventures ATL. First, we operate businesses for which there is expected to be substantial and sustainable commercial demand for the services and products we provide. Second, the businesses we operate will provide jobs that line up with the abilities and interests of the individuals we employ. This is designed to ensure that our employees will have a strong chance of deriving long-term success and job satisfaction.

We recognize that engaging with Ventures ATL may have a certain corporate social responsibility element by providing jobs to an underutilized but capable domestic resource. However, it is critical that our engagements with customers support their primary business objectives and specific needs. We are committed to providing high quality services at a competitive price in areas of need for our clients.

While we are structured as a nonprofit, we believe that our organization’s enduring success is tied to our application of disciplines and practices typically found in successful for-profit business enterprises. Therefore, we will maintain a focus on identifying areas where the skills of our employees can be deployed to produce true business value to our customers in areas of genuine commercial demand.

Services:

Data Management Services: Our data management service line involves the provision of data management and other related services. Many enterprises wrestle with various data issues. This issue is particularly acute with respect to raw or unstructured data. This type of work is frequently outsourced to many third-party service providers (sometimes to offshore locations). We believe that we can successfully fill a niche by using an underutilized domestic talent pool to provide top-quality service at a competitive price. The data management business represents a very good fit for many adults on the autism spectrum as their ability to focus on information and data in a highly literal way makes them particularly effective in this role.

Product Fulfillment Services: Facilitating the fulfillment process by performing the pick, pack, label, and ship steps in the delivery of products to customers, employees, and other stakeholders.

Lessons Learned:

The primary lessons involve staying focused on one’s strategic objectives and operational model while remaining open-minded about potential new business opportunities. The first lesson-there are many companies who like our mission and may want to carve out some work we can perform for them. However, this well-intentioned gesture may not be the best utilization of our resources or the best chance for us to add value to a client. While it is hard to say no to a client that wants to give us business, it is sometime important to engage in projects where we can add the most value as the client will appreciate our skills even more in the long run.

The second lesson is to choose to work in areas where there is real commercial demand for our services. Staying connected to market trends is one of the best ways to ensure long-term financial sustainability for Ventures ATL and success for our employees. It is also a good way to learn of new opportunities for growth and expansion.

The third lesson is to do everything we can to make the experience of working at Ventures ATL rewarding and enjoyable for our employees. While we perform many “mission-critical “projects for our clients, we try to do it in a way that promotes personal growth and enjoyment for our team members.

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Original article published in the JNS

He broke records in the 1972 Munich Olympics, refusing to let the devastating events of those games break his spirit or his Jewish pride.

BY HOWARD BLAS

Mark Spitz at his Los Angeles home during a webinar where he received an award for his volunteer work with the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, Photo by Howard Blas.

(March 18, 2022 / JNS) Fifty years after the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich, swimmer Mark Spitz is still a household name and a Jewish legend. He is best known for winning seven gold medals in the 1972 games. This achievement lasted for 36 years until it was surpassed by fellow American swimmer Michael Phelps, who won eight golds at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Spitz, a father of two sons, humanitarian, businessman/entrepreneur, television personality, motivational speaker and “almost dentist,” was recently honored by the Israel Guide Dog Center in Israel. The Los Angeles resident shared stories from his illustrious career at a Zoom event that also featured Achiya Klein and his guide dog, Night; Kline recently competed in the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics.

Michael Leventhal, who has served as executive director of the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind for the past 14 years, recalled growing up being one of only six Jews in a school of 1,000. “We felt the sting of anti-Semitism,” he said. He credits Spitz and his accomplishments in the 1972 Olympics, as well as for “making me proud to be a Jew again.”

The center, based in Beit Oved, about 14 miles south of Tel Aviv, raises and trains guide dogs for Israelis 24,000 blind and visually impaired citizens.

Spitz recounted some of the behind-the-scenes, emotional story of the storming of the Olympic Village apartments of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists in the early morning of Sept. 5, 1972. Two Israelis were immediately killed and nine others taken hostage by a group known as Black September. After hours of negotiation and an attempted getaway by helicopter, the world learned that all 11 were, in the words of ABC Olympics announcer Jim McKay, “all gone.”

Swimming champion and winner of seven gold Olympic medals Mark Spitz at the Olympic village in Munich, Germany, September 1972. Credit: Giorgio Lotti/Mondadori Publishers via Wikimedia Commons.

He also shared sometimes humorous stories about where his medals—and his Olympic bathing suit—are kept (the medals are in a bank vault; the bathing suits are on display in his home). And, of course, he spoke about his famous trademark mustache, which he no longer sports, and about why people (incorrectly) think that he is a dentist.

“I am the most famous dentist who never became a dentist,” noted Spitz playfully. “Don’t come to me with a toothache!”

Spitz explained how he had planned to go to dental school after his swimming career (his signature strokes are freestyle and butterfly) and actually attended during the 1972 Olympics. He attributes his not returning to dental school in part to the massacre of the 11 Israelis.

Spitz recounts, “Two-and-a-half weeks after the last event in 1972, I was supposed to be on a plane to Indianapolis for the Indiana University dental school. The tragedy sidelined my plans. I elected to go home to Sacramento and ask the dean for a one-year leave of absence. I had the intention to go back but never made it.”

Spitz still clearly remembers the tragedy that took place in the same Olympics where he broke seven world records.

“They had just finished a documentary. I describe how I got out of the Olympic Village.” Spitz left Munich early and was escorted to London out of concern that Spitz, who is Jewish, might become a target for the Palestinians.

The jacket worn by Mark Spitz during the 1972 Summer Olympics, from an exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach. Credit: Alexf via Wikimedia Commons.

Spitz is proud of being Jewish, saying he and his two sisters were the only Jewish students in his California high school. “I advocate that when you get picked on, you allow it to happen. It can’t be escalated when you don’t put on a face.”

He is also a longtime supporter of the Jewish state, using the country and its citizens as an example: “Israel wouldn’t exist if she was timid. Everyone wants to bully Israel.”

His experiences at the 1972 Olympics solidified his feelings about being Jewish. Competing in Germany, “we were five or 10 miles away from Dachau. What better time to stand up for who we are?”

He added, “I never bargained for becoming a de facto spokesman for being Jewish, but I couldn’t hide under a rock!”

‘We affect the lives of so many’

Spitz, who also won two medals in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, retired from competition at age 22. He attempted an unsuccessful comeback at age 41 for the 1992 Summer Olympics.

His career has taken him through many interesting and successful ventures. In the years following the Olympics, he appeared in various ads (in a bathing suit, with his medals); in various TV skits, commercials (he was in an ad for the California Milk Advisory Board as well as for Schick razors and PlayStation); and worked for ABC Sports.

He has also been involved in a number of business ventures. “I had a product line of swimsuits was a co-partner with Adidas shoes; was a real estate developer, involved in the stock market, started a public company that was on the NASDAQ and have always stayed busy in the charity world.”

Spitz is an academy member of Laureus Sport for Good, a global charity that uses sports as a powerful and cost-effective tool to help children and young people overcome violence, discrimination and disadvantage in their lives. “The reward is that we affect the lives of so many who wouldn’t have a chance,” he said.

Spitz offered his audiences hope and inspiration and often uses humor. “Things don’t happen by chance, but by decisions we make, so challenge yourself. You may fall down, but it is how well you get up … it is never too late to be the person you thought you could be and continue to want to be.”

On swimsuits and swarthy mustaches

In Spitz’s quest towards personal growth and self-improvement, he noted that he recently lost 35 pounds. “Now, I am within two pounds of my weight at age 22, when I swam!” (In fact, he just may fit into that famous bathing suit he wore in the 1972 Olympics.)

“I wore the same suit in all seven events!” he reported, offering the somewhat humorous, embarrassing backstory. “They issued three suits per event, so I had 21 suits. But 20 had a revealing spot in front, so I chose to do all of the events in one suit.”

Mark Spitz and wife, Susan Weiner, May 1973. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Spitz also shared the famous story of his mustache, which he said he “grew out of spite.”

It started when a college coach said he couldn’t. “I grew it after senior year of college, and it took five months to fill in.”

He noted that he had planned to shave it off at the Olympic trials, but all everyone did was talk about it.

The media began asking questions, and the Russian coach asked him if it slowed him down. Spitz replied: “No, as a matter of fact, it deflects water away from my mouth, allows my rear end to rise and makes me bullet-shaped in the water, and that’s what had allowed me to swim so great. Within a few weeks, all Russian swimmers had mustaches!”

Spitz shaved off his mustache on Valentine’s Day in 1988. His wife of 48 years, Suzy (née Weiner), reportedly said: “He looked great with it; don’t get me wrong. But he also looks so handsome without it.”

(Spitz pointed out that he didn’t like seeing his mustache as it started to turn gray.)

Still, he looks belie his 72 years, and the Jewish athlete is still going strong and continuing to inspire audiences around the world.

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85 Oak Street

Hackensack NJ 07601

https://www.greensdogood.com/

https://www.reedautismservices.com/

Chantelle Walker CEO (Reed Autism Services): cwalker@reedfoundationforautism.org

Lisa Goldstein-sales director: lgoldstein@reedfoundationforautism.org

Jessalin Jaume-workforce development coordinator: jjaume@greensdogood.com

Matt Ravetier–farm manager

Jen Faust, Director of Operations-Workforce Development program, contact jfaust@reedfoundationforautism.org.

From Website:

vertical hydroponic farming for people with disabilities, one of innovative programs of REED Autism Services of New Jersey. Farm supplies fresh greens to groceries, restaurants and food bank. Grads of REED’s teen internship program have access to placement in “green collar” field.”

My Visit:

I initially met Jake through his participation on an Israel trip where I served as group leader. As I got to know Jake during the trip, I learned that he is an entrepreneur and an incredibly interesting young mI was eager to visit Greens Do Good after a colleague mentioned their work. I had previously visited Vertical Harvest in Jackson, WY. It is not easy to find Greens Do Good as they are located in an industrial area of Hackensack, New Jersey in a complex of warehouses and garages. Behind the garage doors is a most impressive operation where people with disabilities are trained in hydroponic farming. Every aspect of the training, farming and distribution are carefully thought out and clients learn valuable work skills.

The tour started with work force development specialist, Jessalin explaining the training and showing state of the art visuals displayed on the walls (to serve as reminders of every step of the process) and a large computer screen displaying other relevant coaching tools. The workplace has various stations for each aspect of the work. There are two work slots per day of anywhere from one to three hours each. Three training semesters are offered per years.

Matt, the farm manager, provided a tour of the plant and described the technical aspects of watering, lighting and harvesting in detail. Microgreens and four main greens including basil, lettuce, kale and arugula are grown. Greens Do Good has many community partners and participates in the Bergen County Food Security Task Force.

LFrom Website:

Our mission is to transform the way our local community sources healthy produce by providing the freshest ingredients in a sustainable and socially responsible way. The program utilizes hydroponic farming, an innovative method of growing plants in a controlled, indoor environment. We use energy-efficient watering and lighting systems to nurture our crops, which are planted in stacked trays.

When you walk into Greens Do Good, among the stacked trays of basil, microgreens, and lettuce, you’ll see teens and adults with autism hard at work. Each person takes on tasks that match their interests and abilities, including crop maintenance, packaging, and inventory.

Through our Workforce Development Program, we provide more than 800 hours of training each year to teens with autism, teaching them environmentally sustainable practices along withessential job skills. This helps them build their resumes and lays the foundation for future employment. For our adult participants, we offer paid employment opportunities, valuable work experience, and meaningful community integration. To amplify the progress we’re making, we’re also working to grow our employment pipeline in partnership with other “green” businesses.

Our environment-friendly farming methods allow for year-round growing, using less space, water, and energy than traditional farms. We sell our products through home delivery and to local restaurants, country clubs, supermarkets, and food service providers — raising autism awareness as we go. We partnered with the Bergen County Food Security Task Force to provide surplus produce to families in need, right in our community.

Greens Do Good is part of the REED Autism Services family of programs, which provides support for individuals with autism so they can thrive and achieve their full potential throughout their lives.

Workforce Development:

Through our Workforce Development Program, we provide pre-employment training to teens with autism, teaching them environmentally sustainable practices and offering hands-on experience.

With the anticipated growth of the global hydroponics market approaching 22.5% through 2025, Greens Do Good provides a unique opportunity for job training within an expanding industry and works with many area schools and programs including:

Lessons Learned:

-I think first of all, we’ve learned that the demand for novel employment settings and experiences is significant. We were shocked by the response we received from a few press pieces after we launched the program.

-Employing the autism community continues to require a very individualized, methodical and supportive approach. Our interns who have lower support needs often work quickly and may want tasks of increasing responsibility, but in some cases don’t know how to advocate for that. Instead they may become frustrated when the work isn’t meeting their expectations, but perhaps cannot articulate the ‘why’. It’s required our team to hone a different set of skills that we are still refining.

-My third, and favorite lesson, is really just how we’ve observed the farm as its own ecosystem – and I’m not talking about the produce! On any given day you tour the farm and you see people with autism working alongside their neurotypical counterparts, talking about music, or politics, or life in general and I’m reminded that this is why Greens Do Good is so important. It’s work, yes, but it’s also fun. There’s a sense of accomplishment, belonging, and camaraderie. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my career – I’m grateful to the team who had this wild idea many years ago to start an indoor hydroponic farm with the goal of employing adults with autism.

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