This month, members of Camp Ramah in New England’s Tikvah Program returned to their home communities in New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Florida and California. Unlike their neurotypical peers who have year-round opportunities to participate in Jewish life, learning and socialization, our campers with such special needs as autism, cognitive impairments and cerebral palsy will sadly return to isolation and a lack of meaningful Jewish connection. And they will long for their return to camp in 10 months. How can the campers and their beloved counselors stay connected year-round? “Shabbos Is Calling!”

“Shabbos Is Calling” is a Ruderman Family Foundation-funded weekly video conference program for members of the Tikvah community. Each Thursday night, campers and staff members log on and the faces and names of their friends appear, Brady-Bunch style, across the screen. Staff members prepare stories about the weekly Torah portion and upcoming holidays, lead songs and facilitate 30 minutes of weekly “schmoozing” where the campers share their week – birthdays, school plays and sports meets – and what they’re looking forward to that Shabbos.

As Roberta, Sam’s mother, reports, Sam’s camp friends are his only Jewish friends, so “Shabbos is Calling” is the only Jewish activity he does with friends during the year. Sam looks forward to his weekly computer chat with camp friends all year. Or as Betty, mother of Ilyse, writes: It makes summer camp life and not just camp.

“Shabbos Is Calling,” underway in four Ramah camps so far, is a wonderful tool for keeping children and adults with and without special needs connected and engaged year-round.

Read more

Original Article Published on The Jerusalem Post

The story of Israel’s first Jewish-Arab tennis team at the Special Olympics

Four special Israeli athletes are true champions of tennis and coexistence. Two Israeli Jews and two Israeli Arabs represented Israel at the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece. This is the first time Israeli Arabs have been chosen to represent the country in the Olympics.

The four players, who competed in both singles and doubles tennis matches, joined 7,500 Special Olympics athletes from 185 countries, from all ability levels, in 21 Olympic-type sports. Since 1968, Special Olympics has offered more than 3.4 million children and adults with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to compete in sports events.

The story of the Israeli delegation and their road to Athens is inspiring and heartwarming. It shows how people with so-called disabilities often have amazing abilities.

Additionally, people with long histories of not getting along can come together around a common goal.

Elad Gevandschnaider, a 22 year old Israeli Jew from Be’er Sheva, is a volunteer with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and trains at the Israel Tennis Center (ITC) in Beersheva. He won a silver medal at the European Championships in Poland a few months ago. He also has down syndrome. Athletes with intellectual disabilities receive free equipment and coaching at each of the 14 Israel Tennis Centers (ITC) throughout Israel. Gevandschnaider reports proudly, I will do everything to win. I want to be a champion.

Tamir Segal, a 34 year old Israeli Jew from the Golan Heights town of Katzrin, lives in Kiryat Shemona and practices daily at the ITC center there. He is the most experienced player on the team; he won the gold medal at the 2006 European Championships in Berlin and the bronze medal at the Olympic Games in 2007 in Shanghai.

Muhammad Kunbar, a 20 year old Israeli Arab from East Jerusalem and Jafar Tawil, a 20 year old Israeli Arab from Beit Safafa, owe much of their success to the dedication of a very special teacher. Mahmoud Qaraeen, a physical education teacher at the El Salam special education school in Beit Safafa, noticed that Kunbar and Tawil had excellent athletic skills. He encouraged them to train twice a week at the Israel Tennis Center in Jerusalem. They worked with many coaches and they competed in tournaments. They eventually began training at the Wingate Institute, Israel’s national center for physical education and sport.

Kunbar, Tawil, Gevandschnaide and Segal began playing together at the Wingate Institute’s training camp. Some may wonder how two Hebrew speakers and two Arabic speakers, all with special needs, would be able to communicate? “Communication has been one of the main challenges for these athletes, as their mental disabilities are at different levels, said Shaya Azar, director of the ITC in Ashkelon and coordinator of the Special Olympics tennis program. Tawil speaks Arabic, but he cannot read or write in Arabic and he does not speak Hebrew. Kunbar, who communicates on a higher level, often functions as a translator between Tawil and the coaches. Despite some communication difficulties and their cognitive challenges, the four athletes have a very special relationship. Segal notes, I’m good friends with Muhammad and Jafar and love them and love joking with them. Similarly, Tawil adds, I have a great relationship with Elad and Tamir. I love playing tennis and I hope to be a good player and to be among the world’s best. The men simply enjoy playing tennis.

In May, 44 players competed to represent Israel at the World Special Olympics event. The special foursome was chosen to represent Israel in Athens. “They are a great bunch of young men that enjoy every second they can spend on the court. They appreciate the (Israel Tennis) Center and they appreciate the coaches and the efforts of their school,” said Ilan Maman, the director of ITC-Jerusalem.

The Israel Tennis Centers have always prided themselves on their inclusion of athletes, regardless of religion, mother tongue or ability. They have a range of programs for people with developmental challenges such as autism, hearing impairments, ADHD and for children in wheelchairs. In addition, there is a link on the ITC website for, Arab Jewish Coexistence, noting that, We believe sport is a powerful tool for promoting tolerance, developing good, productive relationships and ultimately peaceful coexistence. According to Yoni Yair, Israeli Development Associate for Israel Children’s Centers (the American organization that supports ITC), Our coexistence programs teach kids how to respect one another, how to appreciate different beliefs and cultures, how to listen and how to just have fun on the court. We need to understand that we are human beings who can live together in a peaceful way. By coming together on the tennis court, I feel it’s a beautiful vehicle to achieve our dream of making a huge impact on the future of the kids. Step-by-step, things will change.

Many take great pride in the accomplishments of the Special Olympic tennis players and their medals at the Athens games. At press time, the Israeli doubles team of Elad and Muhammad and the other doubles team of Tamir and Jafar, each won bronze medals! They were also likely to be medal winners in singles.

However, the real victory for Israel’s tennis players is on the court of coexistence. As Azar wisely states, This shows that everyone is equal and sends a message of coexistence. It is important that both sides understand that there is room for cooperation, especially when such athletes are involved. You can build something with them and I’m sure that they are our best ambassadors. Indeed, these special athletes have a lot to teach Israel and the world.

Read more

Bike Ride (  Three riders have deep connections to the Nutmeg State:  Dr. Cliff Nerwen of Riverdale, N.Y. grew up in West Hartford;  Rami Schwartzer, a recent graduate of Columbia University/Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) List College Joint Program and incoming JTS rabbinical student, is a West Hartford resident.  And the author has been a long-time resident of the New Haven Jewish community.  The following is an excerpt from a diary I kept of this once-in-a-lifetime ride:

I am standing in the El Al line at JFK airport, behind hundreds of Birthright Israel participants, waiting for my purple suitcase to return from being x-rayed.  The packed plane is a welcome sign that no one is scared away by Nakba Day, commemorated today in Israel.  The tall, dark glasses-wearing Israeli security guard looks at me and says in a serious voice, “I know you!”  I look confused and he says, “Amir-Camp Ramah New England 2004 — I was on the mishlochot (Israeli delegation) and worked in Nivonim (the oldest division).”  I knew we were in for a safe flight.

We land and claim our luggage.  The only person to have a problem clearing customs, ironically, is a Manhattan assistant DA.  They suspect his bike is new and force him to open his bike box and take his bike apart.  We are soon on the road to Kibbutz Ein Gev, where we arrive in time for a delicious dinner and sunrise over the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee which we will ride all the way around in exactly seven days.  We meet Oded and his staff from Gal Galil, a tour company specializing in Israel bike rides, receive our ride shirts and two water bottles.  This is starting to feel real!

Riders who brought bikes assemble them; the rest of us are fitted for our rental bikes. Our name signs are attached to the front and to our helmets.  Some members take their bikes on a short spin around the kibbutz. Shawna, a rider from Montreal, befriends Eric, a kibbutz member, who offers to take our group on a tour of the 200 acres of banana plants.  Who knew plants only give fruit once, and that the blue plastic bags often seen covering bananas in Israel are there to protect the fruit from the huge leaves smacking against and bruising the fruit?!  We left for a tour of Gamla, sometimes called “The Masada of the North,” and saw vultures soaring above. Then, the ride became a little more real with our first “evening briefing,” a nightly activity required for all riders, where we reviewed course routes and elevation maps

The bus brought us to Katzrin in the Golan Heights where we had a beautiful pre-ride ceremony, consisting of psalms, songs, and readings in the ancient Katzrin synagogue.  Then, on our bikes!   The first hills heading south to Hispin and Ramat Hamagshimim reminded us Connecticut riders that the familiar rolling hills and even the elevations of Woodbridge, Bethany and West Hartford, and our training rides in Central Park and up the Palisades of New Jersey were no match for the Golan Heights!  What makes a ride like this so special — other than the great cause — special needs camping programs, and the camaraderie — 40 riders — ages 13 through 70 — is riding through Jewish and Israeli history.  Today, we ascended to Tel Saki, famous site of a battle during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where the Nahal Brigade and the armored Brigades 7 and 188 fought against a whole Syrian division!
We ended the day with a steep ascent to Har Bental, overlooking Israel’s tallest mountain, Mount Hermon, which some brave riders would climb tomorrow.

Perhaps the most interesting day of all—biking through the Druse village of Mass’adeh, a climb up the Hermon by some brave riders.  The first to make the climb to the top was Matthew Goldstein, the youngest rider who had celebrated his bar mitzvah at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires five days before!  All riders descended from Mount  Hermon (cool seeing Israel’s one and only ski area, in the summer!), ate an amazing soup and sandwich lunch at Hurshat Tal Park, and biked on to Agamon Hahulah Reserve—famous for the half billion birds which pass through each year on their way from Russia to Africa.  A particular highlight of our night at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi was the tour of the sleek, an underground arsenal of guns and ammunition.

Imagine riding along the Lebanese border for so many miles—just days after tensions in the area related to Nakbah Day. You wouldn’t know it — except for the fact the road we just traveled on was closed when we attempted to get back on, following our tour of the Galil Mountain Winery.  Oh, well, what’s a few extra mountainous kilometers for the sake of our safety!  The beautiful descent through an Arab village, followed by a huge climb to our beautiful C Hacienda Forestview Hotel in Maalot was worth it!  The riders spent Shabbat together—swimming, playing miniature golf and ping pong, and eating like royalty.  All riders had the opportunity to hear from Tikvah Program founders, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, founders and directors for 29 years of this visionary program for campers with special needs.  I felt honored to be on a panel with my mentors, who moved to Israel 12 years ago. The riders truly felt connected to the cause they were raising money for—and they were treated to stories about campers with special needs–from forty plus years ago!

Saturday May 21 – Monday May 23:
After Shabbat, the riders were joined by members of the singing group, The Shuk, for a Lag B’Omer kumsitz (marshmallows, bon fire, and great singing).  Sunday two part ride—Upper Galil to Lower Galil (with lunch and a tour of Kibbutz Hannaton), and mountain biking on the Israel Trail, starting in Tiberias, offered breathtaking views of the Kineret, the Sea of Galilee.  On Monday, we set out from Tiberias and rode around the entire Kineret. About half the group did the optional hour and a half climb up the Golan Heights for a final look over the breathtaking Galilee and Golan Heights — which we had just proudly experienced by bike over the past five days.  We covered approximately 250 miles, and climbed 15,000 feet.  We leave with the wise words of Ramah Israel director Dr. Joe Freedman in our ears;  “Israel is a smorgasbord — you can’t have everything at once, so you have to keep coming back!”  See you soon, Israel!


Read more

Original Article Published on The Jerusalem Post

Checking out great new digital talent in Jerusalem

The new animated film Rango stars the voice of Johnny Depp and follows the life, adventures and struggles of an aspiring hero in the form of a pet chameleon (Rango) as he becomes local sheriff in the Old West town of Dirt. When the movie is over, viewers can go home and continue to enjoy the great chase scenes, think about the chameleon in a Hawaiian shirt and have an Israel experience. In which case, you might now be wondering what Israel possibly has to do with a film about an animated chameleon?

Well, thanks to Israeli company, Funtactix, fans of Rango can go home and play Rango: The World, an online game based on the movie. Funtactix, the browser-based game developer, is releasing a game where players can meet characters from Rango, create an avatar, explore film environments and take on quests – all with their online friends. Imagine entering the world of your favorite film!

Funtactix is one of several hot, innovative Israeli companies making a difference in animation, gaming, social networking and more! Working out of the recently renovated national Mint of the British Empire and the Ottoman warehouses next door to the area surrounding Jerusalem’s old train station, over 300 artists, animators, programmers, engineers, storytellers and others huddle together in the Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) Media Quarter in Jerusalem, where they work enthusiastically on animated films, websites and video games. All of this exciting, high quality innovation is taking place a short fifteen minute walk from the Western Wall, the City of David and archaeological excavations which are over 3,000 years old. Welcome to Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) Media Quarter-home to Funtactix, Animation Lab, AnyClips, Qlipso, and more!

The JVP Media Quarter, started in 2002, is the brainchild of Erel Margalit, the founder and managing partner of JVP, a leading Israeli venture capital firm with over $820 million under management. The JVP Media Labs house a dozen companies, as well as a performing arts incubator and theater, The Lab (Hama’abada), and a social profit organization JVP Community (Bakehila).

Margalit playfully noted that, Unlike most labs, our focus is not on molecules and atoms, but rather, colorful, exciting stories and characters. Our employees are hard at work creating games, movies, virtual environments, web applications and mobile/iPod content for both children and adults. The Animation Lab team is currently hard at work on its animated feature film about a group of wild flowers that must contend with an evil gang of genetically-engineered plants. It follows a teenaged daisy (named Daisy) who was raised in the Sacred Meadow. According to the Animation Lab website, Daisy “now has to brave the great, dangerous world outside the Meadow’s walls and team up with a secret society of plant spies who have worked covertly to protect the planet from human activity since the beginning of time. Daisy discovers that she alone can save her Meadow, and the world at large, against an attack by an army of genetically modified corn stalks.

The film is currently in production in the Jerusalem animation studio. It was originally called The Wild Bunch when the filming first began, but the title is sure to change before its release in late 2011 or early 2012. It combines action, comedy, adventure and romance and features the voices of famous actors including Abigail Breslin, Willem Dafoe, Chris Klein, and Elizabeth Hurley.

Ayelet Weinerman, CEO of Animation Lab proudly said that, “Most of the work will be done in the studio in Israel. Some of the animators will come from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, as part of the planned future cooperation between the design academy and Animation Lab.

Weinterman added, “We plan to compete with the world’s big studios. The films are being designed for international distribution, at movie theaters worldwide. The budget for the film is about $20 million.

On a recent visit to the Media Lab, I began to get curious when I saw the phrase I’ll have what she’s having stickered on every light switch. I smiled, remembering that is a line from the movie When Harry Met Sally. Little did I know, this was also PR for a new company! Thanks to AnyClip , another Israeli company housed in the Media Lab, finding any clip is easy. is basically a search engine to find any moment from any film ever made.

Did you ever love a movie scene so much that you wished you could just watch it over and over again? Is there line from a movie or funny scene that pops into your head and you suddenly wish you could share it with a friend? Your dream just came true! AnyClip maps, indexes, and tags entire films for you!

Another cool project of the media center is Qlipso. When we find a funny video on YouTube or someplace else, we often send the link to a friend or tell them on Facebook. Now, with Qlipso, there is a way to view or listen to content online with our friends. Qlipso calls itself a multi- user content-sharing platform.

With Qlipso’s Multiuser Content- Sharing Platform, we can now bridge those experiences we share in real-life with our online social network. They let us share the things we love with our social networks. In March 2010, Qlipso purchased Veoh has a library of more than one million videos, TV shows, online games and other interactive content. Qlipso allows you and your friends to interact with this amazing content photos, music, video and games!

These are only a few of the many amazing innovations coming out of a small old warehouse in Jerusalem. Next time you watch an impressive animated movie, or connect with a friend online, think of Israel – the technology may easily have been developed in the land of milk, honey and computers!

Read more