by Meredith Jacobs

Taglit-Birthright Israel’s 10-day trip to Israel has a mission to connect young Jews, ages 18 to 26, not only with Israel, but with their Jewish identity and each other. Once a year, a very special trip takes place for young adults for whom making connections is a challenge. The participants on this Birthright trip have Asperger’s Syndrome.

“With Asperger’s, the main disability is social,” said Leesa Fields, whose son Jeremy Band was a participant on the Dec. 23-Jan. 3 trip. Even though the family has traveled extensively throughout their son’s life and Band has been on a plane by himself, this was the first group trip he took by himself.

“When he expressed interest [in the Birthright trip], I jumped on it,” said Fields, who had to move quickly because at age 26, her son was about to reach the age limit of the program. “We were thrilled, but nervous. He called us every day. He made at least one new friend.”

Band, who holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in library science from the University of Maryland, is considered “high functioning.” Fields explained that while there are many programs for low functioning, she has found few options for high functioning, something, she believes that makes this particular experience unique.

According to Howard Blas, the trip leader, what presents a challenge for those with Asperger’s Syndrome is that the individuals “look typical.” This means, others “expect certain things, they don’t cut you a break. It’s different if you have Downs [Syndrome]. It can be tough for people with Asperger’s.”

Blas, who directs the Tikvah program for special needs campers at Camp Ramah in New England and runs a trip to Israel for the Tikvah campers every other year, was contacted by Rabbi Elyse Winick, director of KOACH, to help with the Birthright trip. He explained that while, in many ways, this was a regular Birthright trip, some modifications were made for the participants – there were fewer participants (20 versus 40 or 50), a greater staff to participant ratio and some large crowd events, like a concert, were eliminated from the trip. Added to this trip was a meeting with Shekel, a group of Israeli young adults with Asperger’s.

“I would have enjoyed getting to know them more,” said Band of the meeting with Shekel.

While he had been told for years to go on a Birthright trip, it was when he realized that this was his last chance to go that he signed up.

“I’ve been to Israel twice before but only with my family, never with a group of peers,” he said. “And I’m glad I did. I’ve been to many of the same places but never with native Israelis and never with kids who were like me. I got to make friends with people like me, who think the way I do and share experiences with them.”

Band, who was honored with the group’s “paper plate award” for “most brutal honesty,” stays in touch with fellow participants through a Facebook group and shared a recent Shabbat dinner with another local participant. He has plans to travel with a friend to Italy this spring with a group of retired female librarians.

The Asperger’s Taglit-Birthright Israel trip is organized by Shorashim in partnership with KOACH. KOACH, the college outreach project for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, created the Asperger’s trip in 2006. Winick said, “Everyone is focused on the notion of Birthright as a way to connect with Israel, and we all understand that the peer setting reinforces the relationship with Israel. But for this group, the ability to make those peer connections, to find those friends is almost more important than the relationship and connection to Israel. For so many of them, this is the first time they walked away from a group experience knowing what it means to belong.”

Shorashim runs more than 20 Birthright buses a season (community buses, special needs buses and special niche – like an “Israel challenge” competition bus). They partner with other organizations for specific trips. According to Naomi Shapiro, North American director of Shorashim, they are an educational organization that believes in learning about Israel through the people. “We have Israeli participants on the buses all 10 days,” Shapiro said. While the Israeli participants on the Asperger’s trip don’t have Asperger’s, they do have experience with people with special needs. “The idea is Americans get to know [the Israelis] as peers. You can’t really understand a place until you talk to its people.”

She explained that the Asperger’s trip is a “special experience for staff on the bus. Our office staff and logistical staff in Israel feel how powerful it is for the participants, and that trickles down to us.”

Blas believes that other trips may have been a challenge for his participants. “Those with Asperger’s, by definition, have social challenges. They may miss social cues like when the conversation should be over or when someone is not interested in having a conversation.” They may have been tolerated in another group, but here, he said, “they made friends.”

“For me, as someone who works so much with this population, there is such a range of everything. People often highlight the difficulty making connections but we really saw beautiful connections being made – putting their heads on the Kotel, sharing Shabbat. I would have thought more would have opted out of the group meetings, but with very few exceptions, everyone came to everything. I think the wonderful surprise was how people connected. I think what people underestimate is the desire of people with Asperger’s to connect.”

The Taglit-Birthright Israel trip with Shorashim in partnership with KOACH runs every December. Registration opens in September; however, they are collecting a list of interested participants now. For more information or to express interest, go to

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Members of a Birthright group talk about the joys of seeing the country with people just like themselves

More than 20,000 Birthright participants will have spent 10 days in Israel by the end of the 2012-2013 winter season, including 20 participants with Asperger’s Syndrome, now known as the “Mishpocha,” or Bus No. 195.

It’s not the first time that Birthright has included an Asperger’s bus — this one is a project of Shorashim/KOACH, the college organization run by the Conservative Movement — but for many of the participants, who range in age from late teens to mid-20s, it’s been a while since they’ve spent so much time with their own “population.”

“It’s an interesting dynamic — very enlightening to connect with one’s roots,” said Jason Shatz, who is studying at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and had a tough time deciding whether to go on Birthright with the Asperger’s group or with the Wesleyan bus. “In some ways it’s quite nice to be with such a population, even though I’ve developed socially in a significant way ever since I went to college.”

Birthrighter Jason Shatz (right) praying at the Western Wall (photo credit: Courtesy Birthright Bus No. 195)

For the bus’s “other” Jason, Jason Cohen, a 21-year-old sports management major at Ithaca College, the trip felt like an opportunity to return to his “Asperger’s roots,” something he hasn’t done since his high school days.

Funny, smart and personable, and sometimes amusingly out of context, the Birthrighters and one of the three soldiers traveling with them sat in the lobby of their hotel on the last day of the trip last week, speaking about the “quirks” of fellow Asperger’s sufferers, favorite highlights of the trip and what it will be like to say goodbye at the end of their journey.

“It was great to be around other people I can identify with,” said Lauren Katz, a 19-year-old from Eureka, California, who is studying art at College of the Redwoods. “I’ve always been the kind of person who’s never really fit in; I never interacted with people I could really communicate with on the same level.”

Lauren Katz hails from Eureka, CA, where she has never had a large group of friends (Courtesy Birthright Bus #195)

Gathering together a sizable group of young people with Asperger Syndrome was one of the ideas of the trip, said group leader Howard Blas, who has run similar Birthright trips in the past. Despite the high-functioning level of many of the Asperger’s participants, they often feel socially bereft back in their home settings; this was one place where they could experience a particular social bond.

“It’s not common for me to meet other people with Asperger’s or higher-functioning special needs people in Albany,” said Beth Katzer, 25, who works as a teacher’s assistant and part-time administrative assistant. “This trip was so important for me, to make friends I could see myself being friends with for the rest of my life. Even though we all have challenges, we could all come together.”

The Birthright trip was much like any other, including camel rides and orange-picking, trying out Israeli snack foods, floating in the Dead Sea and jeep rides in the Golan Heights. But they also met with Israelis with Asperger’s at Shekel, an umbrella organization for Israelis with special needs. The two groups bonded over favorite television shows and the Birthrighters’ first tastes of peanut-flavored Bamba and chocolate-covered marshmallow Krembos, and there was comfort in the ingathering of fellow Asperger’s sufferers, agreed the Birthrighters.

“There are kindred spirits in this population, and we share the same zeal for sharing the things in which we have expertise and same enthusiasm,” said Shatz. “Regular life has been good to me and my experience with Asperger’s is somewhat of a moot point although I do visit it now and then…. I struggle socially more than other people, but I think I’m getting there.”

Tomer Daloomi (far right), was amazed by the forthright outlook and conversation on the bus (Courtesy Birthright Bus No. 195)

It was that kind of disarming honesty that charmed and humbled Tomer Daloomi, one of the three soldiers who joined Bus No. 195. Told just four days before the trip that he would be placed on a Birthright bus, he didn’t know what to expect, but has unexpectedly found himself seeing Israel through a very different prism.

“I’m usually cynical, like most Israelis, but these guys are just not sarcastic,” he said. “They were saying how they felt with no masks on at all. They’re just always themselves.”


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Annual convention shows the kosher and calorie-minded food industries are each taking a page from the other’s cookbook.

SECAUCUS, N.J. — When Scott Gantwerker and Wayne Silverman were roommates 40 years ago at Michigan State University, they regularly made granola.

“Then came Passover, and we couldn’t make it — until Wayne started using matza,” Gantwerker recalls. “He sent Passover granola each year to family and friends.”

After graduation, Gantwerker went on to a career in the food industry, working for such companies as Quaker Oats, Pepsi and Pepperidge Farm. Silverman, for his part, embarked on a career at communal organizations, including leadership roles at the Jewish Federation in Austin, Texas, and Hillels of Georgia. But the two men never lost their love for granola, and eventually found their way back to it — and each other.

“We put our careers on pause so we could do it full-time,” says Gantwerker, speaking at Kosherfest 2012, where the pair’s holiday-friendly cereal — branded Matzolah — was named the best new kosher-for-Passover food.

‘Most Passover breakfast products are so bland that the box often tastes better than what’s inside’

“Most Passover breakfast products are so bland that the box often tastes better than what’s inside,” Silverman says. “So I experimented with making a delicious granola that had matza and quality ingredients that were permitted on the holiday” — such as coconuts, California raisins and three types of nuts.

Foodman LLC, which makes and markets Matzolah, was one of 325 companies promoting their wares earlier this month at Kosherfest, the annual trade show of the kosher food industry. Now in its 24th year, the convention attracts thousands of kashrut professionals to Secaucus, NJ, where visitors range from chefs and cookbook writers to representatives of supermarket chains, specialty food stores and Jewish summer camps. Much is at stake for those with products to push: Already valued at $12.5 billion, the kosher food market is growing at an annual rate of 15 percent, according to a 2010 study by Lubicom Marketing and Consulting, which specializes in kosher products.

While Kosherfest showcased a wide spectrum of foods — featured products came from countries including Vietnam, Argentina and the Philippines — a growing number are attempting to capitalize on consumer enthusiasm for health food, highlighting their bona fides as sugar-free, gluten-free, organic or vegan.

As its name suggests, Matzolah combines matza and granola as a kosher-for-Passover cereal. (Courtesy of Kosherfest)

On one side, kosher food companies are responding to demand from health-minded customers, with Adama Naturals rolling out a line of meats that contain no nitrates or artificial ingredients. Skinny Kosher Creations offers soy-based meals for those trying to lose weight.

At the same time, some traditionally non-kosher companies have realized that going kosher expands their customer base — and that a kosher label can also have a positive association among the non-observant.

“Even some non-Jews look for the kosher symbol,” says Viki Sater, who runs the Port Washington, NY-based Viki’s Granola. “People associate it with cleanliness. It’s one more certification on a product.”

Like Viki’s Granola, a number of additional nutrition- and fitness-minded companies have obtained kosher status despite having no direct connection to anything Jewish. Kickbutt Amped Energy Ballz, for example, a dietary supplement made in Canada, offered its wares not far from Transition Nutrition’s Bliss Mix, a combination of nuts and dried berries.

While not every Kosherfest product reflected the trend toward healthier eating — high-calorie deli meats, pastries and candy remained in abundance — many traditional Jewish food producers are evolving, creating healthier versions of familiar dishes or venturing into entirely new terrain.

Many traditional Jewish food producers are evolving by creating healthier versions of familiar dishes, or venturing into entirely new terrain

Gold’s, long known for its borscht, horseradish and schav — an Ashkenazi soup — now makes salsa and Wasabi. Manischewitz, synonymous with kiddush wine and gefilte fish, is now described by CEO and co-president Alain Bankier as “a food company which happens to be kosher.” Having “rebranded and expanded,” in Bankier’s words, “to be better, healthier, tastier,” the company now offers products such as Moroccan roasted vegetables; a chicken couscous sauce; a flaxseed bar made with almonds and cranberries; and “exotic root” vegetable chips.

If the number of visitors lining up for a sample was any indication, however, Kosherfest’s most popular new item was relatively healthy — at least on the scale of kosher desserts.

Gelato Petrini’s chocolate/peanut butter gelato, made with soy milk, received the convention’s awards for best new dessert and best overall new product. Dawn Petrini, the company’s director of sales and marketing, emphasized its benefits for the calorie-conscious: “Gelato is a healthy, natural alternative to ice cream. It tastes great and satisfies that little urge for something sweet.”

As one of the gathering’s biggest hits, the company has high hopes for how its product will do among kosher consumers.

“Now that we’ve moved from a 500- to a 7,500-square-foot plant,” Petrini said, “we just hope we can satisfy the demand.”


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Adam Greenberg

NEW HAVEN – Even before Adam Greenberg made headlines a couple of weeks ago by signing a one-day contract with the Miami Marlins and swinging his bat as a one-day-only Major League Baseball player, the Guilford native was making the Connecticut Jewish community proud by stepping up to the plate for the State of Israel during the recent World Baseball Classic (WBC) qualifiers. And Greenberg wasn’t the only Connecticut native to do so – Josh Zeid, who grew up in New Haven, was right there with him.

It all began when Greenberg, who now lives in Branford, and Zeid were among those selected to Team Israel’s 28 player roster, which was managed by Brad Ausmus, the former Major League catcher who was born in New Haven.

Team Israel had a very strong showing in its first ever WBC qualifying tournament, held Sept, 19-21 at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. The modified round robin format tournament featured teams from France, Spain, South Africa and Israel. Israel defeated South Africa 7-2 in game 1, and Israel defeated Spain 4-2 in its second game. Israel played Spain again in the final game of the tournament — the winner would advance to the main WBC tournament, to be held in March 2013. Israel lost a heartbreaker, 9-7 in ten innings, before a crowd of 1,500.

The World Baseball Classic is considered to be the premier international baseball tournament. Run by World Baseball Classic, Inc, it is sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Player’s Association together created the event, which has thus far been played twice. Team Japan, the reigning World Baseball Classic Champion, won the tournament in both 2006 and 2009.

Haim Katz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) was excited when he was approached by the World Baseball Classic to “present motivation and a potential roster” for a team to potentially participate in the 2012 qualifiers. “Somewhat to our surprise, they accepted us,” notes Katz with a laugh.  “We would have preferred to play the tournament in Israel, but we have no field — we’re are working on it!”  Katz reports that there is an initiative underway to build a $5 million field and ballpark in Ra’anana.  The city has reportedly agreed to provide land and the Israel Sports Authority will pay $1.5 million; the IAB would be responsible for the rest of the funds.  Katz reports that he and the IAB have always sought to increase awareness of Israel baseball in the U.S. and Israel, to try to engage North American Jews around Israel baseball, and to build bridges with the U.S. and Israel.

Josh Zied pitching for Team Israel

Fortunately, Team Israel was able to reach far beyond the Jewish state’s borders for its pool of potential players. According to WBC tournament rules, countries are allowed to field players who are eligible for citizenship in a given country.  Thus, in Israel’s case, anyone eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return was permitted to try out for Israel’s team. In fact, only three Israeli citizens actually made the team. The rest were American Jews — like Zeid and Greenberg.

Adam Greenberg, interviewed by this reporter for a Dec. 1, 2004 Jewish Ledger article, attended Hebrew school and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison, excelled at baseball, soccer and basketball at Guilford High, and was a scholar/athlete at the University of  North Carolina.  In 2002, Greenberg was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the ninth round of the First-Year player draft.  He spent several summers in the Florida State League, then a Double A team in  West Tennessee, then a Triple A team in Iowa.

Greenberg’s promotion to the Major League Chicago Cubs was watched with great excitement.  He was called to the plate as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of a July 9, 2005 game against the Florida Marlins.  Sadly, the now 31-year old was struck in the back of the head by a 92 mile per hour fastball in his first and only major league appearance. He suffered a concussion and many months of dizziness, headaches, double vision and nausea.

In recent years, Greenberg has gotten married, started Lu Rong Living, a dietary supplements company, and returned to playing baseball. Greenberg was invited by Manager Ausmus to serve as his special (non-playing) assistant for Team Israel.  When former Major Leaguer Gabe Kapler bowed out of the roster due to a groin injury, Greenberg was invited to join the 28-man roster.

Prior to the qualifiers, mother Wendy Greenberg reported, “I am so excited and proud of Adam—and even more excited that he is getting the opportunity to do what he loves to do. Adam loves the game. He plays his heart out and it shows!” After the first game, Wendy said, “I felt so many emotions—I was overwhelmed and proud—to hear Hatikvah played was just, wow! And when he had his first at bat, I had tears in my eyes.”

Adam Greenberg was pleased with the opportunity to be part of Team Israel and to play the game he loves. “I am honored to have this opportunity,” he said. “It is the start of part two of my career. It was such an amazing group of guys. They were all in it for the right reasons — it didn’t seem like we were only together for ten days.”

Greenberg is excited that plans are underway for a team trip to Israel—with possible clinics for Israelis. “It will change the game over there,” he noted.  Greenberg was excited “just wearing the uniform with the word ‘Israel’ across my chest. I have always wanted to go to Israel, but I haven’t been yet.”

Following the World Baseball Classic, Greenberg decided to stay in Florida to work out with his hitting coach and stay in shape.  While there, he found out that the Miami

Marlins would sign Greenberg to a one-day contract that would earn him his first and only official Major League at-bat on Tuesday, Oct. 2 against the New York Mets. While he struck out on three pitches against the Met’s ace, RA Dickey, it was a dream come true.

Zeid, 25, is a 6’ 5” pitcher who was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the tenth round of the 2009 Major League baseball June amateur draft. Zeid just finished his season with the Corpus Cristi Hooks, a AA affiliate of the Houston Astros. Zeid’s parents, Ira and Karen Zeid, currently live in New Haven and are members of Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge. Zeid lives in Houston, Tex. with his fiancée, Stephanie.

“We are very proud of our son,” says Zeid’s mother, Karen Zeid, of her son’s participation on Team Israel. “As we watched the games from our home computer, we loved seeing Josh in his uniform, spectators wrapped in Israeli banners, Israeli flags being waved, Hava Nagilah being played between innings, the sense of cultural pride – the nachas and kvelling that goes deep into our hearts. When Josh became a bar mitzvah in the year 2000, he shared during his bar mitzvah speech that his dream was to play professional baseball. He also referenced his admiration for Sandy Koufax.”
Zeid was scheduled to go to Israel in 2001 to play in the Maccabia Games.
“Josh was the youngest player to be named to the U.S.A. Jr. baseball team,” Karen  notes. “Because of the unrest in Israel, all of the junior sporting events were canceled. This was a big disappointment as he had looked forward to playing and traveling in Israel. This was to be our first trip to Israel as well.”

Zeid has not yet traveled to Israel, but he did get several chances to play for Team Israel.  He pitched in all 3 games, got out of a tough inning with one out and two on against South Africa, and earned a save in Israel’s victory over Spain. Zeid  also pitched two innings in the championship game against Spain, Zeid’s size 13 New Balance game-worn cleats are currently listed on eBay, with half the proceeds from the sale going to charity.


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