Original article

When I started teaching Max, it was unclear if he’d even set foot in the synagogue on his bar mitzvah day. As his parents explain in this beautiful, moving video, Max loves “Blues Clues” and is motivated by French fries. Aliyah l’torah and d’var torah were not likely to be part of Max’s bar mitzvah–we did not know at first what a Max bar mitzvah might look like. Max is a young man with autism and limited expressive language.

After several sessions working with Max in his home—singing songs, clapping, reading stories and putting “Blues Clues” on such objects as challah, candle sticks and a kipah, we began taking Max to his synagogue, Town and Village Synagogue in Manhattan, to meet with Cantor Shayna Postman. The synagogue had never celebrated the bar mitzvah of a boy with autism, but they were open to working with Max and his family.

Shayna knew of Max’s love of music and began playing guitar for and with Max. Max enjoyed looking at Shayna’s mouth as she sang—and he had a special pick for strumming on her guitar. Together, they sang the Shema. And played drums for Halelu. Little by little, it seemed Max just might celebrate his bar mitzvah in the shul.

On the Sunday of Chol Ha Moed Sukkot, Max entered the synagogue—with his IPad and headphone. He didn’t agree to wear a tie or jacket, but he did wear nice khaki pants, a white shirt and a kipah. The cantor welcomed the guests, and his parents told Max it was time to put away the Ipad. His family presented Max with a tallis, which he wore proudly. He carried a small torah, shook a lulav and etrog (for his Sunday of Sukkot bar mitzvah), and stood at the torah offering one word answers to the cantor’s question about things he loved (“mommy, daddy, music, French fries, baby sitter Stacy…”). 

While Max did not say the Torah blessings, read from the Torah or deliver a d’var torah, Max truly became bar mitzvah that day. The cantor’s love for Max was obvious to the fifty guests in attendance. She bothered to get to know Max and appreciated Max’s abilities while also understanding his limitations. 

Cantor Postman delivered a beautiful mi sheberach prayer for Max. My hope and prayer is that more rabbis and cantors will continue to create caring communities where the Max’s of this world will have a Jewish home.

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Original Article Published on the BabagaNewz

This unique Tel Aviv restaurant is committed to helping kids at risk turn their lives around.

Israeli restaurants are often known for their delicious hummus, mouth-watering kebabs, and colorful Israeli salads. One Tel Aviv restaurant, however, is also known for its unique staff. That’s because every year Liliyot Restaurant and Bakery, in partnership with ELEM, the Israeli organization for youth at risk, trains and employs 15 young adults with some of the most difficult backgrounds and family situations in Israel.

-I used to walk the streets drinking brandy, reveals Mor*. It’s easy to get lost, to disappear from the world.

-At 15, I ran away from home and wandered around Israel with a group of friends, reports Gal*.

-My mother married young to a drug addict. My childhood was spent visiting her in jail.

-I lacked everything. There were long periods when I went hungry; there were days at a time when I wandered the streets and didn’t return home.

Just over ten years ago, Karen Kremmerman, an American-born, Tel Aviv restaurant owner and ELEM volunteer, came up with a novel way to help these teens out of their tragic circumstances. She offered her restaurant, near Tel Aviv’s upscale Sderot Rothschild, to be part of an experimental program which would offer hope, inspiration, and training in the culinary arts to high school drop-outs and other youth in distress. As an ELEM volunteer, she was painfully aware that more than 200,000 youth in Israel between the ages of 12 and 18 experience ongoing difficulties which include alienation, vagrancy, drug and alcohol use, sexual abuse, school problems, and family issues.

ELEM, through more than 40 programs, reaches out to troubled kids of all ages and backgrounds. Those who are fortunate enough to receive training at Liliyot spend up to a year and a half learning to cook, bake, serve, and bartend. A full-time social worker supervises the program participants, and they receive guidance and advice from the chef. They also participate in workshops with guest chefs, hear lectures, and take trips to local produce markets, ice cream factories, and sweets import companies.

Inbar Palmor, an ELEM social worker in the early years of the Liliyot restaurant program observed, This is a unique program because here we have a real restaurant. This is a real-life setting. There is no room for playing around!

Some program participants concede that the process of learning, growing, and changing their lives around is a big challenge. It wasn’t always easy getting out of bed. I was tired after a few hours on the job. It was hard to change my attitude and habits, notes one trainee.

Lily Misgav, social worker and director of the Liliyot project for the past four years, observes that the program participants generally begin their training feeling “full of failures in life their parents are used to hearing only bad news and to feeling disappointed. As a result of their training, Misgav proudly reports, Many feel successful and worthy for the first time in their lives. Their self-confidence increases, and it influences all areas of their lives their parents now believe in them. They now have a profession, money, and independence.

Liliyot’s trainees look back fondly on their experience and speak openly about the positive changes they see in themselves:

-I liked the pleasant atmosphere and the chef was very nice they talk to you politely and respectfully not like in other places!

-This place taught me right from wrong and I can no longer ignore difficult, complicated problems. And the schooling really opened my eyes.

-Here I feel like I am part of a team and that I belong. This place was a home for me!

-It feels like family here. The chef sits with you at eye level and really talks with you.

-I always had responsibility for the kitchen they were relying on us. I’m the only one with a key to the restaurant; I’d open in the morning.

-I had a stable, safe place here!

Revital Halperin, one of the current owners, notes that the trainees receive not just a job with a salary, but a profession for life. Many go on to become cooks, sous chefs, or chefs in restaurants and hotels. Those who don’t are still success stories many enter the army, and most stay out of trouble, stay away from drugs, and they find their way.

A 2008 study of the program’s graduates by Bar Ilan University Professor Aharon York supports Halperin’s observations. York’s study indicates significant improvement in participants circumstances as a result of the training they received at Liliyot. Most of them became independent, useful citizens, and half of them even succeeded in finding placement in the leading restaurants on Israel’s culinary map.

Halperin describes the magic of Liliyot when she notes, There is something in the kitchen even though it is very hot and stressful it is also calming. There is soul, and there is discipline. When you enter the kitchen, you forget all your problems. They get recognized for what they do with their own hands they forget all their problems and concentrate on success.

Perhaps Halperin speaks for the trainees, chefs, social workers, partners, and ELEM when she says enthusiastically, We all love what we do here!

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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Original Article On The Jerusalem Post

Currently ranked 708 in the world for singles and 848 for doubles, Valeria Patiuk is the youngest player on Israel’s Fed Cup team.

NEW YORK It is hard to resist the comparisons between Valeria Patiuk and her idol, Shahar Peer.

Both are hard-hitting tennis players who grew up on the courts of the Israel Tennis Centers, and both reached their first professional final at the age of 15 Peer in 2002, and Patiuk earlier this year in Ra’anana, at an Israel Tennis Federation tournament.

Shahar is my role model. She is a fighter, she plays with her heart and soul, and she does a good job representing Israel, noted Patiuk, at a pre-US Open match interview, in front of Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York.

The 15-year-old Patiuk, known as Lera, earned a spot in the juniors tournament after winning two matches in this week’s qualifying tournament.

The number 16 seed defeated Katrine Steffensen of the United States 6-3, 4- 6, 7-5, and Natalia Maynettoof the United States 6-2, 6-4.

After earning her spot in the main draw, Patiuk scored a 6-4, 6-3 win over Ukraine’s Ganna Poznikhirenko on Monday before facing Grace Min of the US late Tuesday night.

Patiuk, born in the Ukraine, moved to Israel at age one, and has been playing tennis since age six. She trains daily in Ramat Hasharon as part of the Elite Program of the Israel Tennis Centers.

Currently ranked 708 in the world for singles and 848 for doubles, she’s the youngest player on Israel’s Fed Cup team, where she plays with Pe’er.

Lera is a unique young lady, said Asaf Yamin, Patiuk’s coach for the past year. She is dedicated, likes to practice, and she is open.

I hope she can keep her character on the court. She is serious, and intense, and enjoys what she does.

Everybody compares Lera to Shahar on a daily basis, he added. Shahar is a good role model, but Lera has to focus on Lera and keep progressing. I hope she’ll have a career similar to Shahar’s.

Yamin is delighted that three Israelis have qualified for the main juniors draw: Patiuk, Or Ram-Harel and Bar Botzer.

It has been more than ten years since three Israelis have made it into the main juniors draw, noted Yamin.

All three will also play in the junior doubles tournament.

A fourth Israeli, Daniel Skripnik lost to Brazilian Karue Sell 7-6, 6-1 in his first-round qualifying match.

Danny Gelley, CEO of Israel Tennis Centers, is similarly pleased.

“We are very proud and happy with the progress of our top juniors this year, Gelley said. The long and winding road to the top is paved by thousands of grueling hours in the sun, on the court and in the gym. I take my hat off to the players and their dedicated coaches for this milestone success and look forward to many more good things which I am sure are going to happen.

All three Israelis played their first round singles matches Monday, on court 15.

In the first match of the day, Ram-Harel, a 16-year-old right-handed player from Haifa, defeated Dennis Novak of Austria 7-6, 3-6, 6-3.

The trainer was called to attend to Ram-Harel in both the first and second sets.

My body was hurting, Ram-Harel said. “I had cramps in my legs, and my head felt like it was spinning.

The three hour, ten minute match took place under very hot, humid midday conditions, and Ram- Harel – playing in his first Grand Slam event appreciated the support and chants of the pro-Israeli crowd.

He played Joao Pedro Sorgi of Brazil (the 14th seed) in the second round on Tuesday.

Coach Yamin describes Ram-Harel as a big fighter with good court presence. He plays every point with his heart.

Yamin is impressed that he is already in the main draw at age 16, still with two years of junior eligibility left.

Yamin, who is traveling with and supervising all four players while in New York, coached the 17-year-old Bar Botzer when he was 13.

[Botzer] is very unique and very mature, Yamin said. “He is always improving and has great potential.

Botzer squandered a firstset win in his first round match against Kaichi Uchida of Japan, and Uchida went on to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.

Today I lost because my biggest weapon, my serve, didn’t work,” Botzer said.

At the conclusion of the Botzer match, Lera Patiuk took the court against Poznikhirenko.

Patiuk experienced abdominal pain while up 5- 4 in the first set, but went on to win 6-4, 6-3.

“I served very well today. My serve was the key for the match, reported Patiuk. I have had pain in my stomach muscles for the past two weeks. It is getting better day by day, but I felt stomach pain while serving.

The hard-hitting, grunting Patiuk gave herself encouragement through shouts of Come on! and “Kadima! This is my first time playing in the US Open and my first Grand Slam, she says.

I think my two qualifying matches gave me confidence and I am beginning to believe in myself again.

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

NEW YORK – Israeli tennis players competed in male and female singles and doubles events in this years recently completed US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York.

Peer, Sela, Ram and Erlich, and their juniors counterparts Patiuk, Ram-Harel and Botzer proudly represented Israel; only Ram-Harel advanced past the second round.

A lesser known Israeli tennis player, Noam Gershony – also Israel’s highest ranked player – participated in the 2011 US Open Wheelchair Competition, in both wheelchair quad singles and doubles.

Gershony, is the third ranked quads singles player in the world and 9th ranked doubles player.

Signs outside the courts informed spectators that “wheelchair tennis began in California in 1976. Since then, it has grown to be played on six of the seven continents (all but Antarctica) and currently there are more than 170 tournaments on the wheelchair professional tour.”

The US Open Wheelchair Division was established in 2005 as one of the premiere wheelchair tennis events in the world.

There are two divisions – wheelchair division and quads division.

Athletes in this first division have disabilities only in their lower extremities.

Quad athletes have disabilities in both lower and upper extremities; they are classified based on disability, rather than by gender.

Quads tennis is therefore one of the only sports where both men and women compete against each other equally.

US Open wheelchair matches are identical to other US Open events –they are played on regulation courts, there is a chair umpire, line judges and ball children.

The only difference from other tennis events is that balls are allowed to bounce up to two times before being returned.

This years US Open Quads featured four top male players, who faced each other over three days in a roundrobin tournament.

On Thursday, Peter Norfolk of Great Britain, ranked No. 1 in the world and nicknamed “The Quadfather,” defeated Nick Taylor of the US, 6-2, 7-5.

Taylor is the defending US Open quad doubles champion and one of the top American wheelchair tennis players in the world.

Gershony, the 24 year old player from Kfar Saba, served as an Apache helicopter pilot in the Israeli Army. Ironically, Gershony reports, he had taken his first tennis lessons (five in total) prior to the crash of his Apache helicopter in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War; the crash left him paralyzed.

Coach Nimrod Bichler, accompanied Gershony to the US Open and has worked with wheelchair tennis players at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv for the past fifteen years.

In Thursday’s match, Gershony defeated David Wagner of the US, 6-3, 6-1.Wagner is the world’s No. 2 singles player and No. 1 doubles player; his career singles record is 448-72; his doubles record is 299-49.

In a post-match interview, the good natured Gershony reports, “It is always easy being the underdog – there is no expectations and less pressure.”

Gershony attended the 2010 US Open as a spectator.

He spent much of 2011 competing.

He has captured four singles titles, and he has climbed to No. 3 in the world in singles.

“My main goal is to get the points needed to reach the 2012 Paralympics in London, England.”

In Friday’s second-round matches, Wagner defeated Taylor 6-0, 6-2 while Norfolk defeated Gershony, his doubles partner, 7-5, 6-2.

“As usual, he kicked my [butt],” reported the smiling Gershony.

“If I win tomorrow, I get to play him again in two days.”

Saturday’s quads doubles championship was a Wagner/ Taylor walkover victory over Norfolk and Gershony, due to a Norfolk injury.

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