Today was a day of sadness and disappointment for thousands of campers, families, alum and supporters of Ramah camps across the US and Canada.  By the end of the day, nearly all overnight and day camps announced they will not “open for business” at all this summer.   So many sad posts on Facebook, moving videos from camp directors and tears from oldest edah campers who won’t have the final camp experience they have been dreaming about for years.

On the same day, over 100 educators from across the US (and some from abroad) gathered for a Zoom webinar sponsored by the Jewish Education Project, entitled “Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education”-A Conversation with David Bryfman and Meredith Lewis.   While Dr. Bryfman, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of The Jewish Education Project, is an impressive educator and an excellent interviewer, it is Ms. Lewis who has a most impressive job title: Director of Content, Education, and Family Experience for PJ Library in North America.  As part of her job, she manages the creation of books and other new content, oversees PJ Library's role in the field of Jewish education, and serves as the chief “knower” of families for the PJ Library enterprise.  She truly is a “knower,” as evidenced by the thoughtful, informative answers offered to the questions asked by Bryfman and webinar participants.

Lewis shared the impressive history of PJ Library.  Thanks to the generosity of Harold Grinspoon and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, more than 200,000 families in the US and over 750,000 around the world have had their knowledge of Jewish life and their connection to the Jewish People expanded and enhanced.  Perhaps more importantly, they have been exposed, as Lewis describes, to “the diversity of the Jewish population.”  Through Jewish books, readers learn about families with two fathers, and about Jews of color.  As someone who spends so much time in the Jewish disabilities inclusion space, I was delighted to learn PJ Library is looking for manuscripts about disabilities inclusion and is thoughtfully trying to address how to portray (in children’s picture books) people with invisible disabilities and mental health issues. 

What a treat to hear how PJ Library works with over 200 partners in North America on the important and evolving work of Jewish Engagement.  Keep up the great work!


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It is no secret that people with disabilities experience much higher rates of unemployment than those without disabilities—EVEN in a good job market.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with disabilities are still twice as likely to be unemployed, compared to those without a disability—and that was BEFORE the coronavirus pandemic.  According to a February, 2020 RespectAbility study, https://www.respectability.org/2020/02/best-states-2020/, Only 29,893 people with disabilities entered the workforce in 2018, a ten-fold decrease compared to the more than 343,000 new jobs for people with disabilities two years ago.

The RespectAbility report further notes:

‘Out of the more than 20 million working age (18-64) people with disabilities, only 7.6 million have jobs. There remains a serious gap in the Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) between people with and without disabilities. In 2018, 37.6 percent of U.S. civilians with disabilities ages 18-64 living in the community had a job, compared to 77.2 percent for people without disabilities. That means there is a stunning 40-point gap in employment outcomes between people with and without disabilities. Even as other minority groups are entering the workforce in larger and larger numbers, people with disabilities are being left behind.”

What will the job market look like for people with disabilities once the pandemic lifts?  We don’t know for sure, and it is likely to be “not good”–but I am pleased to report that many of my colleagues are giving a lot of thought to this issue. I look forward to reporting more on what I learn in future blogs.  It may be time to “get creative.”   

I continue to identify and report on creative job sites and training programs which are doing an amazing job offering “out of the box” opportunities to many people with disabilities.  Have a look:

https://howardblas.com/disabilities/job-sites/

Howard Blas,
Director-National Ramah Tikvah Network
cell: 413-374-7210
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Many b’nai mitzvah students and families have been forced to rethink their plans since the coronavirus began taking its toll in March.   Some families cancelled bar and bat mitzvahs with synagogues agreeing to reschedule at a later date.  Others have gotten creative, gravitating to Zoom or other settings.

Just before Passover, I participated in my first bar mitzvah on Zoom.  The family had planned to go to Israel with Jake reading Torah at the Kotel in Jerusalem.  Instead, 90 guests witnessed Jake read his portion from his torah sheets in his Manhattan apartment with the background of the Kotel visible all to see. He was “escorted” to the “Kotel” by a musician singing, and I had the honor of addressing him.  It was a lovely day, and Jake round out his bar mitzvah by sharing with his Zoom seder guests the haggadah commentary he had written.  This was “Phase I” of Covid-19 b’nai mitzvah. 

Today, I participated in a “Phase II” Covid bat mitzvah, a blended experience with Noa, her mother and father, the senior rabbi, the cantor and me—in suits, tallis and tefillin—in the chapel of their Upper West Side of Manhattan shul.  Noa and I stood at the bima, facing the computer (elevated on an upside down Pirate Booty cardboard box!), with a bright light behind in, assuring the participants would not appear too dark.  Noa and family greeted guests from New York, California and other destinations before the bat mitzvah started.   We wore masks, maintained social distancing—and even showered Noa with candy after her torah reading and d’var torah.  She is looking forward to a dance party for her friends at a future date. 

I am eagerly awaiting a “Phase III” Covid bat mitzvah later in the summer—scheduled to take place on 2 acres—with each family unit seated together, a safe distance from other guests.

My heart still breaks for children and families who had to reschedule or rethink this important life cycle event at the last minute.  Perhaps out of this unfortunate situation will come more innovation in the age old rite of passage.  Stay tuned!


Howard Blas,
Director-National Ramah Tikvah Network
cell: 413-374-7210


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