The Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

The Israeli basketball star notes that he is “excited to play against the NBA greats—all the guys I played against when I was little … in video games!”

Israel’s Deni Avdija recently moved from Israel to Washington, found an apartment, met with the media at a Washington Wizards press conference and ate his first meal at Chipotle Mexican Grill. “I really liked the idea of Chipotle. I like to eat healthy. And it was kind of healthy!”

Avdija, the 19-year-old Maccabi Tel Aviv phenom, was taken No. 9 overall by the Wizards in the recent NBA Draft. The 6-foot-9 inch, 225-pound forward is excited to play in the NBA and understands what it means to make it to the most elite league in the sport and to represent Israel. “I worked so hard to get here. I am here to show Israelis there is no limit.”

In a pre-season debut on Sunday night at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., he played a near-perfect game to the delight of fans—Israeli, Jewish and otherwise. The Wizards have also embraced Israel, where basketball is one of the nation’s top sports, and launched a Twitter account in Hebrew.

Israeli-born Liron Fanan, a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the director of player development for the Canton Charge of NBA’s G League (and a minor league affiliate of the Cleveland Cavaliers) stresses the importance of Avdija drafting so high and playing in the NBA for Israelis. “It is a great accomplishment for Israel to have another Israeli in the NBA. When Omri [Casspi] went, it made a huge impact. We see where Israel basketball has gone in the 11 years that he played. It got bigger and better, and pushed kids to believe it is possible and to give their all—not just to see basketball as a hobby, but they can dream about the NBA. Deni is a vivid example of it. He probably watched Omri at night and dreamed!”

She also points out that another Israeli was picked in the recent NBA Draft.

“Yam Madar is also a great player. I think Deni helped Yam as well since scouts were watching Israel basketball more,” she says. “This is huge for Israel basketball.”

Madar was drafted by the Boston Celtics and will remain with his current team, Hapoel Tel Aviv of Israeli’s Premier League, for at least one more season. “It puts Israel on the sports map in the world and gives kids reason to keep trying their best,” adds Fanan.

Avdija spoke with the media about the contrast between growing up and playing in Israel, and now playing being on a bigger stage in a much bigger country. “I grew up in a comfortable environment where everyone knew me,” he says. “Now is a new beginning, a new career. It’s like starting over again. I am a tough kid who has been through a lot. I am ready!”

And he will have the support of the local Jewish and Israeli communities. Casspi, his mentor and friend who played 11 years in the NBA, has helped prepare Avdija for the experience. Casspi is well-known for representing Israel and Judaism in a positive way, including speaking with and signing autographs for his many fans, and for bringing fellow NBA players to visit Israel—often with a visit to his parents’ home for a meal. Casspi has also participated in Basketball Without Borders, a program sponsored by the NBA and other organizations that brings together the top 60 or more boys and girls ages 17 and under from 22 countries. The group traveled to Israel in 2017.

Once it is deemed safe in terms of the coronavirus, Avdija is looking forward to interacting with audiences. “Israeli fans are the best,” he exclaims. “There are Israeli and Jewish fans in the United States, and I will have their support. I will represent Israel and the Jewish community the best as I can.”

‘A major chapter in the country’s basketball story’

Matthew Levitt, a Fromer-Wexler Fellow and the director of the Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism & Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, appreciates both Avdija’s basketball skills and the educational prospects his playing in Washington have to offer. “It will also be an opportunity for D.C. sports fans to get to know an Israeli athlete who reflects aspects of Israeli culture they may not be familiar with,” he said. “Israeli society is about more than conflict and religion. The child of a Muslim father and Jewish mother who grew up on a kibbutz, Avdija may challenge some common misperceptions about Israel. He will certainly challenge those assigned to defend him on the court!”

Marc Stein, the NBA correspondent for The New York Times, notes a wonderful irony in Avdija, a Maccabi Tel Aviv star, who is now joining the Washington Wizards. “People may not remember that the Wizards, then known as the Bullets, were the first NBA franchise to play Maccabi in the late 1970s, and now Deni goes to the nation’s capital as the first NBA lottery pick in Israeli history,” he writes. “It’s a great opportunity for him because the Wizards wanted him badly and never thought he would slip to them at No. 9, and it’s obviously a major chapter in the country’s basketball story.”

An additional irony is that Avdija joins the team whose name was changed from Bullets, stemming directly from the sadness then team owner Abe Pollin felt when his dear friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a bullet in 1995.

While eager to start his NBA career, Avdija realizes that he will miss a lot of things about Israel, including friends and family. He quips that he will also miss good Israeli hummus, but adds that “hopefully, good guides will show me some.”

One reporter on the recent Zoom media session pointed out that there indeed is a restaurant that serves the iconic Middle Easter dish very close to the Capital One Arena. Avdija was pleased.

He also acknowledges he will miss Israel’s stunning shorelines. “I love to go to the beach, but it is not an option. I will find new hobbies for sure.”

The youthful Avdija playfully notes that he is “excited to play against the NBA greats—all the guys I played against when I was little … in video games!”

In fact, he continues to be positive about all that awaits. After all, he declares: “You gotta do what you gotta do!”

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Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

“I thought, ‘Whoa, you are in the Barclay Center, playing against all those players you saw on TV, and now you’re just playing against them on the court,” said the 6-foot-9-inch Israeli forward.

Coach Scott Brooks liked what he saw in his newest player, Israeli Deni Avdija, during the short Washington Wizards pre-season. He decided to start Avdija in the first NBA pre-season game on Sunday evening against NBA legends Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets. Brooks wasn’t sorry—Avdija was flawless in his NBA debut at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Avdija, sporting No. 9, kept excited Israeli fans up until after 3 a.m. as the Wizards nearly battled back against the Nets. They were unfazed by the 119-114 Nets victory. They stayed awake to see their 19-year-old future NBA star. The 6-foot-9-inch forward scored 15 points in his 24 minutes, shooting with 100 percent accuracy. He was three-for-three from three-point range and scored six points from the field. Avdija also had four rebounds and had two assists.

Brooks like what he saw.

“I liked that he competed,” he said, “that he took the challenges and that he was playing against some high-level players who have had a lot of success and experience in this league, but he took the challenge. I talked to him before the game and said the only pressure I will put on you is that you will go out there and play hard. I said, ‘You do that already, so the pressure is gone. That’s how you gain respect from your teammates, opponents and referees. Go out there and play hard, and don’t complain about anything.’ I think he did that tonight.”

Brooks admired his perfect game, though is mindful that won’t happen every time. “He’s not going to go every game and not miss a shot, but he played the right way; he wasn’t looking to force anything. If there was a pass to make, he made the pass; if there was an open shot, he made the shot. He drove when he had to drive. He was solid, and in order to have success in this league, you really got just be solid. If you are solid, you will have big-time success in this league.”

Avdija was proud of his performance and confident, although he acknowledged some initial nervousness when he stepped out onto the court. “At the beginning, I thought, ‘Whoa, you are in the Barclay Center, playing against all those players you saw on TV, and now you’re just playing against them on the court. It was cool at the beginning. I think my teammates were with me and pushed me forward, and as soon as I broke through, I felt comfortable. I played hard, and look what happened.”

‘It was a helluva journey to get here’

Avdija reported that his confidence comes from his three years playing professionally in Israel in the EuroLeague.

These days, he said, he is “repping a lot and keeping up with my mechanics. What is going to happen is going to happen. If I have the confidence, I am going to shoot it, so I may as well not be afraid.”

Avdija also has the support of his teammates. NBA veteran Russell Westbrook didn’t play on Sunday, but appeared to be sporting a clipboard and offering guidance on the sidelines to his teammates.

Brooks said he is “always into the game and was helping one of the young players.”

Avdija appreciated that. “He brings a lot of happiness and smiles and makes us love the game. He is a super competitor; he will always be there, and he is someone to learn from. I am glad he is on my team.”

The Wizards will play two more pre-season games (both at home against the Detroit Pistons) before starting their shortened season on the road on Dec. 23 against the Philadelphia 76ers. Unlike last season, NBA teams will not play in a special bubble in Florida. Each team will play 72 regular-season games, which is 10 games fewer than in a typical, 82-game NBA season.

The reality of Avdija’s journey from Israel to the NBA is beginning to set in for him. “It is amazing; it is a dream coming true,” he said. “I worked so hard for it.”

He knows that fans, family and friends don’t fully understand the effort required to get to the place he’s in now, saying “it was a helluva journey to get here.”

Avdija explained that “four years ago, I was just a kid going up to the professional league. I was so nervous about going to the court and scored one point. I woke up early and stayed late to shoot. I was in the gym while my friends were hanging out. That’s what brought me here, and that’s why it’s so fun. I see what it brings me, so I’ll never take my foot off the gas.”

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Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

Michal Rimon, CEO of Access Israel, recently put an important note on her door: “Do Not Disturb—I’m With Dubai.” Rimon’s two extended meetings and webinars in one day with colleagues in the United Emirates offer an important window into collaborations already in progress between the disability inclusion communities of both countries.

Rimon started her day at the Hod Hasharon offices of Access Israel. She attended the virtual two-day Tolerance & Inclusivity Week at Expo 2020 Dubai. The conference’s goal was to “work together as global citizens to foster greater common understanding for more inclusive societies,” and to “reimagine how social spaces, physical environments and modes of storytelling can be more inclusive and foster greater multiculturalism and co-existence.” She participated on a panel with five disability-inclusion colleagues from around the world. The panel was titled, “Accessibility Spotlight: The Value of Difference.”

Minutes after the discussion, Rimon was back on Zoom, this time with her colleague and new friend from the United Arab Emirates, Dr. Ayesha Saeed Husaini, founder and director of Manzil, a not-for-profit organization based in Sharjah. She started the first support group in the UAE in 1999 and founded Manzil in 2005 to serve people with disabilities in the areas of educational inclusion, employment, social support, consultancy and research.

Israel and the United Arab Emirates only recently entered into the Abraham Accords, signed in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 15 and ratified by the Knesset on Oct. 15. The UAE became the third Arab country, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, to agree to formally normalize its relationship with Israel—the first Persian Gulf country to do so.

While the relationship is formally still in its infancy, Husaini and Rimon actually met in person before the countries had formal relations—in February 2020 in Austria at the Zero Project Conference, which brought together accessibility leaders and organizations from around the world. “My first real memory of Michal was from breakfast at the Zero Project, reports Husaini. “Someone said, ‘You have to meet Michal!’ ” Rimon, an ambassador for the project, took an instant interest in Husaini. “She was amazingly helpful, taking me table to table introducing me to people.”

Michal Rimon, CEO of Access Israel, attending remotely the Tolerance & Inclusivity Week at Expo 2020 Dubai. Credit: Courtesy.

The two knew they could not, at the time, continue their relationship with in-person meetings in Israel or the UAE. They remained determined. “I like to think out of the box. I was very impressed [after talking with Michal] but just couldn’t think of any way we could possibly exchange knowledge,” says Husaini. “We discussed what options we do have,” recalls Rimon. At the time, Rimon had no idea that in a few short months, Israel and the UAE would sign historic accords.

‘What we can change is tomorrow’

Husaini and Rimon both have distinguished careers advocating in their own countries for people with disabilities and in creating programs for them. In the late 1990s, Husaini learned from students in the university classes she taught of the stigma they felt having a sibling with disabilities. She created a support group for families and began to engage her students as volunteers. “I had to start somewhere,” she reports, reasoning that she could begin to change attitudes in her country towards people with disabilities if she started with the younger generation. She playfully notes, “What we can change is tomorrow!”

Husaini continued to spread awareness about disabilities and founded Manzil in 2005. Soon after, the UAE began changing its laws around the inclusion of people with disabilities. “UAE lawmakers were always very open-minded,” she reports. “The challenge was not from the government, but from being in a nascent stage; we needed more professionals and best practices.”

Ayesha Saeed Husaini. Source: LinkedIn.

The process of moving towards greater inclusion in the UAE was actively promoted by Husaini and her colleagues. Husaini serves on several advocacy committees and boards as Governor of Inclusion. In 2005, she implemented a program at Manzil with a “reverse inclusion” approach, inviting people without disabilities to join programs serving people with disabilities.’ She smiles. “We got a lot of attention in the media and from people in the government.” UAE Law # 29, which was passed at the end of 2006 to protect the rights of people with disabilities, finally gave wings to her inclusion project.

Rimon notes that Israel passed an equality law in 1994. And in 2005, around the same time that the UAE was passing similar legislation, Israel passed an Accessibility Clause requiring every ministry to issue regulations to require accessibility. Access Israel was established the same year to increase awareness and assist in the implementation of the accessibility laws. Husaini was pleased to add that “this was the same year that Manzil was formally launched.”

Rimon speaks with admiration and appreciation to Access Israel’s founder, Yuval Wagner. A wheelchair user, he requested a meeting with the CEO of a large cinema chain in Israel, expressing concern over the lack of accessibility in 11 theaters. The CEO was impressed with Wagner’s professional response and his making a strong business case for accessibility. As Wagner stated, “An accessible business is a more profitable business.”

Yuval Wagner. Credit: Courtesy.

In Access Israel’s early years, they worked to address physical accessibility, then social accessibility. Rimon, like her colleague, Husaini, then turned her attention to working with young children. “The kindergarten students learned that people with disabilities are like everyone else, and that inclusion is accepting everyone and treating them the same.”

Now, Husaini and Rimon have an unprecedented opportunity to move forward together. “I have spent many a sleepless night dreaming about all the different ways in which we can collaborate,” says Husaini. “There is so much potential, so much synergy between the two organizations; there are so many similarities. When the skies are open, we are ready to fly.”

Adds Rimon: “The excitement is there. The sky is the limit. We can do amazing things together.”

‘Both can learn from each other’

Fred J. Maahs Jr., president of FJM Solutions, chief operations officer of Travel for All and editor of Melange, Accessibility for All, is enthusiastic about the potential of this relationship. “I am overjoyed that Israel and the UAE have entered into a peace agreement that will restore business relations, direct flights, tourism and even sharing of best practices on some levels. As a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair, I am hopeful that both countries will also share what’s working and what’s not when it comes to accessibility for people with disabilities.

“The UAE has abundant resources,” he says, “and is using them, along with advice from experts from all over the world, to help make the UAE the top accessible tourist destination in the world. They are in a position to share their resources—financial and otherwise—with Israel, which tends to struggle to a degree with a budget, especially when it comes to accessibility. However, this does not minimize Israel as a resource to the UAE.”

Maahs says Israel has done an excellent job with making more modern cities like Tel Aviv and ancient cities like Jerusalem, including its holy sites, mostly accessible. And they have been able to do it with far less financial support. “Both can learn from each other,” he assures.

He is in the UAE for meetings this month and hopes to attend the next Access Israel conference in Israel.

Laura Kam, president of Kam Global Strategies, an Israel-based communications firm that is working with UAE clients and media, says that “building truly deep bonds between Israel and the UAE will come not from business deals alone, but through relationships formed between civil society groups. Individuals who come together to work on solutions for issues related to disability issues will develop ties that will be more personal in nature—not simply transactional—and those are the type of relations that are strongest and longest-lasting.”

James A. Lassner, executive director of Friends of Access Israel (FAISR), found the recent Zoom meeting with Husaini and Rimon meaningful, encouraging and one more step in forging ties between the two organizations and countries.

“The blessing of peace brings with it many seeds,” he says. “It is humbling to be part of a warm connection that is beginning to blossom between Manzil and Access Israel based on the common goal of ‘leave no one behind.’ ”

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Original Article Published On The Chabad.org

Professor Stephen Shore has an important place at the tablenot only in the world of autism but at Shabbat and study tables at Chabad Houses around the world.

Shore, who is autistic himself, is clinical assistant professor at Adelphi University’s Ruth S. Ammon School of Education and a universally respected authority on the condition. For a number of years, he has been a frequent visitor of Chabad Houses from Texas to Moscow to Shanghai.

“I travel around the world and am usually in at least one country a month to talk about autism,” he tells Chabad.org. I always try to visit the local Chabad wherever I am.”

Shore does not keep his love for Chabad to himself. While in a city for a conference, he has been known to bring fellow conference attendees to Chabad as well. Shelly Christensen, a disabilities inclusion advocate, author of From Longing to Belonging—A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions in Your Faith Community and a member of the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII) core team, first met Shore at an Autism Society of America conference and they kept in touch, presenting together at conferences and often sending each other “Shabbat Shalom” text messages.

“When the Autism Society of America conference was in Milwaukee, we were excited to receive an invitation to come to Shabbos dinner from Rabbi and Rebbetzin Shmotkin of Chabad-Lubavitch of Wisconsin,” reports Christensen, who attended with her colleague and friend. “Sitting at their table, warmed by the glowing candles, we each said a blessing, enjoyed a meal that reminded me of my bubby’s Shabbos dinners, and shared our stories and how Judaism inspired our work.”

With his experience on campus as a professor and with Chabad worldwide, Shore was asked four years ago by Rabbi Yankel Lipsker of Chabad at Adelphi, right, to serve as a faculty advisor to Chabad.

Lectures and Presentations Around the World

Shore has taught and given workshops—impromptu and formal—at Chabad Houses around the world. In China, Rabbi Shalom D. Greenberg of the Shanghai Jewish Centers invited Shore to speak about autism. He has delivered more formal presentations on autism at Chabad of West Hempstead, N.Y., and at the Friendship Circle New Jersey in Livingston, N.J.

Closer to home, Shore has delivered Shabbat lectures for Chabad on Campus-Garden City at Adelphi University. With all of his experience both on campus as a professor, and with Chabad worldwide, he was asked four years ago by Rabbi Yankel Lipsker of Chabad at Adelphi to serve as faculty advisor to Chabad. He graciously accepted the offer.

In addition to Shore’s hundreds of conference presentations and articles, he has written three books: Understanding Autism for Dummies (2006), Ask and Tell: Self-Advocacy and Disclosure for People on the Autism Spectrum (2004) and Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome (2003).

Shore with a mitzvah-tank outside a Russian center where he was lecturing

Shore, who holds a doctorate in education and a master’s degree in music education, has been known to play “Tumbalalaika” on random pianos he discovers in such public places as international airports. “It is one of the songs my parents played as part of the early intervention period.” Shore lost language skills before the age of 4 before starting to get them back. He was deemed “too sick” for outpatient therapy, and his parents were told to institutionalize him. Shore openly shares his personal story at conferences and at Chabad Houses around the world.

Found Chabad on the High Holidays

Shore was introduced to Chabad “about five or six years ago,” when he was commuting between his home and family in Newton, Mass., and the university. “The High Holidays were coming, and I said, ‘Let me see if I can find a shul,” he reports. Shore was warmly welcomed at Chabad of Mineola by Rabbi Anchelle Perl. “They called me for an aliyah, and I kept going.”

He returned to Chabad for Shabbat dinner. “Rabbi Perl invited me for dinner in his home. It was a pretty cool thing.” Shore learned that there were also services on Saturday morning. He was curious, attended one Shabbat and was delighted. “It was worth it. There was Kiddush after davening.” He playfully notes, “I’ll go anywhere with food.”

Shore says, “I learned that if I stuck around a little longer, there was mincha after lunch. That seemed reasonable.” He has been hooked ever since, regularly attending services at the Chabad both Fridays and Saturdays when he’s on Long Island.

Shore has spent many Shabbats at Chabad in Moscow, where he was given a tour of the 11-story building by Rabbi Yaakov Klein, executive director of the International Jewish Community of Moscow.

An International Travel Companion

“When I realized that Chabad was international and is a big network, I thought, ‘Maybe I can go wherever I am,’ ” exclaims Shore, who began seeking out Chabad Houses and rabbis whenever he was in town for a conference over Shabbat. “I have probably been to more Chabads than anyone I know.”

“It is fascinating to see the variations and similarities,” the professor continues, noting that “wherever Chabad is, when you step over the threshold, you may as well be in Brooklyn.” Shore notes that some services are longer, some are shorter; there is more singing in some places and less singing in others; there are different melodies sung during the services, and the physical setup varies widely. “It can be really small, with services in the rabbi’s house, or it can seat hundreds,” yet there is something that makes them all seem as one, observes Shore.

When Shore is at a Chabad center, he is happy to give back. Once the local Chabad rabbi learns of the professor’s impressive credentials, he is often invited to give a short talk on the spot or a longer one the next day. “I tend to connect my Chabad talk to my life as an autistic person, so I focus on that, and throw in things I will be presenting at the upcoming conference.”

In his discussion, Shore often shares a moving story and video of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—speaking on two occasions with the parents of an autistic boy who lived in an institution in England. “I like to talk about these two short video clips of the Rebbe. He seems to intuitively know and use a strength-based approach. He tells the father that the son should have a pushke [charity box] in his room and remind all visitors to put money in the pushke for tzedakah.”

Shore with Igor Shpitsberg, Director of Our Sunny World, a rehabilitation center in Moscow for children with autistic spectrum disorders.

Shore will sometimes go to great lengths to get to a Chabad House. “I was speaking at a conference and hunted down a Chabad House a few miles away,” reports Shore, who chanced upon Rabbi Yitzchok Schmukler and Chabad of the Bay Area in League City, Texas. “I had such a good time that when I was back in Texas and was 90 miles away, I rented a car so I could drive over!”

In Vancouver, Canada, Shore was pleased to find the Chabad-Lubavitch Okanagan in Kelowna, British Columbia, was within walking distance of his hotel. “I called up and came for Shabbat dinner. I got there and found the smallest Chabad I had ever seen. It was just the rabbi—Rabbi Shmuly Hecht, his family and one guest. Despite the small crowd, Shore observes, “I never saw more enthusiastic singing and dancing!” The rabbi intended to walk Shore halfway to his hotel. Before they knew it, they were at the hotel, where Shore reports there was “more dancing.”

The next day, Shore learned that the rabbi had a profound Jewish experience on his way home. Rabbi Hecht spotted a group of college students, potentially drunk, and he was a bit fearful. One person asked him, “Hey, are you Jewish?” The rabbi replied tentatively, “Yes, I am.” A Polish youth from the group explained that he, too, was Jewish, and was having a hard time fitting in. The rabbi, in his traditional Shabbat attire, replied, “Well, do you think I fit in?!” The two connected. The rabbi called Shore to tell him, “Hashem had a reason for me to walk you all the way to the hotel.”

Shore with Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia

Shore has spent many Shabbats at the Chabad in Moscow, where he was given a tour of the impressive 11-story Chabad building by Rabbi Yaakov Klein, executive director of the International Jewish Community of Moscow. “It is the biggest Chabad I have ever seen,” reports Shore, noting their two restaurants, gyms and study halls. “It is like Chabad meets JCC!” When Klein learned of Shore’s work, he felt Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar should meet him. Shore was delighted, affirming that “they do a mean Shabbos. The dinner was amazing, and I got to do a good tefillin wrap while in Moscow.”

While his travels have slowed down due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, he is eager to get back on the road to share his experience with and knowledge of autism with the world—and, he says, to “nourish his neshamah [soul] with Chabad in places near and far.

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