Original Article Published On The New York Jewish Week

On a recent visit to a Pikud HaOref, Home Front Command base in Ramle, 14 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, a soldier tells me a very animated story about his role in Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s military operation in Gaza: My job was to copy the papers for our soldiers to drop from planes over Gaza this summer! The soldier, in uniform with his bright orange beret on his shoulder, happens to have Down Syndrome.

He is very excited about his job in the base print shop. Another soldier with a visible disability proudly recounts the visit to the base the previous day by IDF Chief of Staff, Benny Ganz. We saluted him and gave him a present olive oil that we made on the base!

Twenty five other soldiers with disabilities perform similarly important jobs each day on the base. If Tiran Attia and other visionaries have their way, Tzahal, or the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), may become a “game changer” in Israel for inclusion and for shaping attitudes about people with disabilities.

Tiran Attia, who served for 30 years in the IDF and was a commander of Sar-El, the IDF National Project for Volunteers, serves as head manager of Yad Layeled HaMeuchad (Lend a Hand to a Special Child), an amuta (non-profit organization) which consists of two programs, Magshimim Chalom Fulfilling a Dream and Shaveh Madim-Equal in Uniform.

I have had the privilege of visiting two such army bases during recent trips to Israel the home front command base in Ramle, and a logistics base near Kiryat Malachi. During our tour, Attia takes me to visit soldiers from the program at various job sites including the supply room, dining room and print shop. Attia emphasizes several times during our visit, It should be noted that in Israel, army service is the gateway to successful integration into society and the work force. The nearby Chevrat Chashmal (electric company) already employs 260 workers with special needs.”

The program is already impacting the other soldiers through what Attia describes as “the ripple effect. Other soldiers on the base think less of their own problems, they think of the soldiers with disabilities as role models, and discipline problems on the base have gone down.

Arianna Goldsmith, an American olah (immigrant to Israel) works with the soldiers with disabilities as her army service: The other soldiers see these soldiers come to work and it teaches them, it changes their attitudes.

Tiran, who admits to being skeptical of the program at first, notes, One mother of a soldier in our program told me, You have made a miracle! Tiran was injured during the Second Lebanon War and was visited in the hospital by people with disabilities. I saw the love and sympathy they gave to the injured soldiers and I realized they have so much to give so I started to advocate for them to join the program.

The program was founded to enable youth with disabilities to realize their dream and serve in the IDF like most young Israelis, for whom service in the IDF is a normal part of life in the years between high school and college. At the same time, the program promotes a more inclusive society and fosters the attitude that people with disabilities can more fully participate in and contribute to society.

I share with Attia our 45 years of experience successfully including campers with disabilities in our eight Ramah overnight camps and three day camps in the United States and Canada. And I stress how both anecdotally and through research, we know that inclusion benefits everyone. For example, a 2013 study, The Impact of Ramah Programs for Children, Teens, and Young Adults with Disabilities: A Strategic Planning Survey of Special Needs Education Professionals, Ramah Special Needs Staff, Staff Alumni and Parents, conducted by Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz, shows quite clearly that “Staff and camper alumni who had contact with a Ramah special needs program report major impact on their personal and professional lives. At Ramah, this happens on a massive scale, as each summer, 7,500 campers-some in each camp with both visible and invisible disabilities–and over 2,500 university aged staff members, populate our camps.

Attia and his colleagues don’t need to be convince and they see the potential for inclusion and shaping of attitudes on a massive scale. Yossi Kahana, Director of Development for Aleh Negev-USA and co-founder of the program, believes strongly that If every soldier in the IDF has the opportunity to work side by side with people with disabilities, the potential to change attitudes in Israeli society is tremendous. Kahana now has a personal as well as a professional connection to disabilities. “I’m the father of a child with special needs. My older son is serving in the army and my younger son, Gershon, who is nine years old, is autistic. My dream is that my younger son will one day join his brother in the army.

As the IDF continues to include soldiers with disabilities on an even larger scale, they will no doubt shape the attitudes of an entire society!

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Original Article in Washington Jewish Week 

by Suzanne Pollak

“Having kids with disabilities is just as normal as having sports at Camp Ramah. It’s what we do,” said Howard Blas, director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah.

That is great news for 18-year old Uriel Levitt of Silver Spring, who has Down syndrome, a genetic condition in which a person has 47 chromosomes instead of the usual 46. This summer will be his fourth one at the camp. “He’s got this amazing opportunity for growth and independence. He’s away from home for two months,” said his mother, Dina Levitt.

She also is thrilled with her son’s summer filled with all-things Jewish. He attends a public school where there are not a lot of Jewish students. But, she said, at Camp Ramah, “he’s got the 24-7 opportunity to hang out with Jewish kids, to learn Jewish stuff.”

“All year long he talk about Camp Ramah. Often, we can’t find his underwear. He’s packed it. Every now and then we have to go and unpack his duffle back,” Dina Levitt said.

When at camp, her son lives in a bunk with other teens to 21-year-olds who are in the Tikvah Program and spends his day engaged in regular camp activities, often with his bunkmates but also with the rest of the campers as well. The Hebrew word tikvah means hope.

The entire camp eats together and celebrates Shabbat as a group. Uriel Levitt also enjoys singing and dancing rehearsals with everyone involved in the camp play, his mother said.

Being included in camp life is so important, because her son learns to model his behavior, she said. “That’s the whole point of inclusion.”

Uriel Levitt also learns responsibility and vocational skills. Two summers ago, he worked at the lake helping the youngest campers learn to swim. “They apparently loved him,” his mother said. Last summer, he helped out in the art room two or three days a week.

Josh Sachs, 21, of Rockville, also attends the Tikvah Program. He has been enjoying his summers at the camp for more than five years. Sachs also has Down syndrome.

As part of his camp life, Sachs has helped make the pizzas the counselors eat after hours. “Basically I chop up stuff. I sauté them and then we put them in the oven,” he explained. “Then we serve them.”

By enabling Sachs to be involved in Ramah’s daily life and work in the kitchen performing repetitive skills, the camp is providing the training to help the young man get a job, Blas explained.

Camp as a whole, but his kitchen work in particular, has “been a great experience” for Sachs, said his father, Steven Sachs. “His maturity and his ability to stay on task” has greatly improved.

The young man also has grown through his positive experiences in Temple Beth Ami’s special needs program and his current work at MOST, the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes’ Meaningful Opportunities for Successful Transitions program. There he is learning employment and social skills, his father said.

Camp Ramah, which is part of the Conservative movement, runs eight overnight camps and each has a program for children with special needs. The programs vary from being totally inclusive in camp life to some combination of inclusiveness and special programming, Blas said. All the programs feature Jewish life, he said, adding, “Everybody benefits form Jewish overnight camping.”

Not only do children with special needs have a true camping experience, but they also help other campers they interact with gain a sensitivity toward anyone who is different than them, Blas said.

Many campers continue on for years, eventually becoming counselors. Older children in the Tikvah Program stay on to learn vocation skills, Blas said, pointing out Josh Sachs. “He can sit for two hours and sauté vegetables that go on the pizza. There are a lot of jobs out there in the world – they might not be too exciting for you and me,” like bagging groceries and making pizzas, but these campers “can do it for hours and hours with a smile on their face.”

spollak@washingtonjewishweek.com
@SuzannePollak

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Original Article Published on The Washington Jewish Week

“Having kids with disabilities is just as normal as having sports at Camp Ramah. It’s what we do,” said Howard Blas, director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah.

That is great news for 18-year old Uriel Levitt of Silver Spring, who has Down syndrome, a genetic condition in which a person has 47 chromosomes instead of the usual 46. This summer will be his fourth one at the camp. “He’s got this amazing opportunity for growth and independence. He’s away from home for two months,” said his mother, Dina Levitt.

She also is thrilled with her son’s summer filled with all-things Jewish. He attends a public school where there are not a lot of Jewish students. But, she said, at Camp Ramah, “he’s got the 24-7 opportunity to hang out with Jewish kids, to learn Jewish stuff.”

“All year long he talk about Camp Ramah. Often, we can’t find his underwear. He’s packed it. Every now and then we have to go and unpack his duffle back,” Dina Levitt said.

When at camp, her son lives in a bunk with other teens to 21-year-olds who are in the Tikvah Program and spends his day engaged in regular camp activities, often with his bunkmates but also with the rest of the campers as well. The Hebrew word tikvah means hope.

The entire camp eats together and celebrates Shabbat as a group. Uriel Levitt also enjoys singing and dancing rehearsals with everyone involved in the camp play, his mother said.

Being included in camp life is so important, because her son learns to model his behavior, she said. “That’s the whole point of inclusion.”

Uriel Levitt also learns responsibility and vocational skills. Two summers ago, he worked at the lake helping the youngest campers learn to swim. “They apparently loved him,” his mother said. Last summer, he helped out in the art room two or three days a week.

Josh Sachs, 21, of Rockville, also attends the Tikvah Program. He has been enjoying his summers at the camp for more than five years. Sachs also has Down syndrome.

As part of his camp life, Sachs has helped make the pizzas the counselors eat after hours. “Basically I chop up stuff. I saut them and then we put them in the oven,” he explained. “Then we serve them.”

By enabling Sachs to be involved in Ramah’s daily life and work in the kitchen performing repetitive skills, the camp is providing the training to help the young man get a job, Blas explained.

Camp as a whole, but his kitchen work in particular, has “been a great experience” for Sachs, said his father, Steven Sachs. “His maturity and his ability to stay on task” has greatly improved.

The young man also has grown through his positive experiences in Temple Beth Ami’s special needs program and his current work at MOST, the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes’ Meaningful Opportunities for Successful Transitions program. There he is learning employment and social skills, his father said.

Camp Ramah, which is part of the Conservative movement, runs eight overnight camps and each has a program for children with special needs. The programs vary from being totally inclusive in camp life to some combination of inclusiveness and special programming, Blas said. All the programs feature Jewish life, he said, adding, “Everybody benefits form Jewish overnight camping.”

Not only do children with special needs have a true camping experience, but they also help other campers they interact with gain a sensitivity toward anyone who is different than them, Blas said.

Many campers continue on for years, eventually becoming counselors. Older children in the Tikvah Program stay on to learn vocation skills, Blas said, pointing out Josh Sachs. “He can sit for two hours and sauté vegetables that go on the pizza. There are a lot of jobs out there in the world “they might not be too exciting for you and me,” like bagging groceries and making pizzas, but these campers “can do it for hours and hours with a smile on their face.”

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There is an unwritten rule that sports reporters simply do not root for a sports team or player while covering an event. Admittedly, this is difficult. A life-long Bostonian covering the Super Bowl February 1st in Glendale, Arizona may have a difficult time sitting poker-faced as Tom Brady and the New England Patriots take on the Seattle Seahawks. And an Argentinian reporter in Brazil covering the 2014 Germany vs. Argentina World Cup Finals may just be tempted to put on a light blue shirt to go with her light white slacks.

For me, covering the US Open Tennis Championships each year, and more recently, reporting from the Israel vs. Argentina Davis Cup matches in Sunrise, Florida pose similar dilemmas.

How is it possible not to cheer for Dudi Sela just after midnight when he outlasts an opponent in the 5th set on the outer courts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York? How can I not be moved to clap — or cry — when Andy Ram is lying on center court in what may be his last match ever, as he and partner and friend, Jonathan Erlich win an epic Davis Cup doubles match against the Argentinians? Like that Argentinian reporter at the World Cup, I am careful not to put on a royal blue shirt to go with my white shorts — lest anyone think I am partisan.

But I am.  Perhaps it is a sense of landsmanschaft — pride in a member of the tribe, usually an underdog, competing on the world stage. I feel it in my kishkes when Julia Glushko or Shahar Peer make a great shot, or when Amir Weintraub makes it through the qualifiers, in to the main draw of a prestigious tournament.

I hold it together until I get to the media center, to interview the players.  While remaining professional, the Israeli players sigh a sigh of relief when I offer to do the interview in Hebrew, and when I tell them which Israeli or Jewish publication I am writing for. We move from questions about the just-completed match, to traveling the world as a Jew and Israeli, to “where will you be for Rosh Hashana.” We are fellow travelers.

In 2013, Israel was about to compete against Belgium in the World Group of the Davis Cup Play-Off, to be held in Antwerp, just one week after the US Open. A Belgian reporter and I requested a US Open post-match interview with Dudi Sela. Players are required to honor such requests. After I asked my questions, the Belgian reporter asked a series of questions — about the upcoming tournament, likely match ups, and about the timing of the match; the Israel Tennis Association had just received at $13,000 fine for refusing to play its match on Yom Kippur.

The reporter was working hard to understand what this holiday is and why Israel wasn’t going to play on that day. “It is a special day,” reported Sela. “A serious day.” The reporter probed further. “We don’t eat or drink.” The reporter (see photo) asked more questions. “So you don’t eat or drink? That must be hard just before a big match.”

“Well, I do, but….Amir Weintraub doesn’t…and my grandparents were religious and they didn’t eat or drink…”

The reporter was even more confused. At that point, Sela turned to me and asked for help explaining Yom Kippur. I took off my tennis writer’s hat and put on my Jewish educator’s hat. I explained Yom Kippur and the range of observances on that day by Israelis and Jews around the world. Now he was getting it, and Sela was so appreciative!

(Belgian reporter with Dudi Sela-US Open Media Center)

That same year, I was out to dinner with family in New York City.  Several blocks from the restaurant, I spot a blonde woman in a green dress with a male companion. She spots me and smiles.  My curious family wonders why she comes up to me to give a hug and kiss—and speak to me in Hebrew. “That is Julia Glushko—I just interviewed her today for a Times of Israel article!” I am not sure that professional athletes from other countries stop to greet reporters in the street.

I have since bumped into Dudi Sela many times, in many settings. I have observed him sticking around to sign autographs and pose for pictures for anyone who asks. And I have seen him show up at Israel Tennis Center sponsored clinics for poor children in New York. He is a real mensch, and I feel proud. I may try to hide my pride at matches, but I—and the players—feel a strong connection with fellow Jewish and Israeli-loving people.

I am not privileged to be Down Under this week in Melbourne covering the Australian Open tennis tournament. But lucky fans and reporters will witness something never seen in professional tennis—a first ever match up between Israeli Dudi Sela, 29 years old and currently ranked 106 in the world, versus Spaniard Rafa Nadal, 28, the number 3 player in the world. It is amazing they have never played since both have been at it for a long time. Nadal turned professional in 2001 and Sela in 2002. What are the odds? Nadal has won 64 titles including 14 Grand Slams—and has earned $71 million; Sela has earned $2 million over the course of his career but has yet to win a major title.

So who is a Jewish sports reporter to root for? The landsman you say?  Which one? In 2013, Simcha Jacobovici carefully argued in “Rafael Nadal: A Jewish Story?” that, perhaps, Rafael Nadal of Majorca may descend from Jews! He may be a converso.  While he flat out denied this when I asked this question at a US Open press conference, it is possible that Nadal either felt uncomfortable addressing the question in this forum, or he simply did not understand the question as it was posed in English.

Sports writer Sandra Harwitt, who has covered more than 70 Grand Slams tennis tournaments, takes up this question in her recently published “The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All Time.” (2014, New Chapter Press). While she doesn’t include Rafa on her list, she included Nadal in a section “Jewish Connections.”

Harwitt acknowledges, “Not that long ago, the Internet was alive with the suggestion that Rafael Nadal Parera might have a Sephardic Jewish heritage…it is known [that] the converted [to Catholicism] often chose the names Parera and Nadal as their new last names.” Harwritt asked her friend, ATP Tour Communications Senior Vice President, Nocola Arzani if he would approach Nadal and ask if these rumors were plausible—and she asked him to address Nadal in Spanish. Harwitt writes, “Nadal, it turns out, wasn’t surprised by Arzani’s query. In fact, the family was aware of the history of Sephardic Jews and had wondered themselves about the possibility they might have a Jewish past. Rafa told Nicola that his grandfather had done some research regarding both sides of the family — the Nadals on his father’ side, the Pareras on his mother’s side — but hadn’t turned up any evidence that ponted to a Jewish ancestry. How his grandfather went about the research and how far back he was able to dig is not known, but it could be an interesting pursuit for a genealogy specialist.”

For now, I’m rooting for Dudi Sela in Friday’s 3rd Australian Open round match.  But, I hold out hope that, perhaps Raphael Nadal will one day discover he is Jewish  and may even make Aliyah and play tennis for Israel. May the best Jewish man win!

(Source: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com)

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