Original Article Published On The PJ Library

Kids today have more exposure and familiarity with all sorts of differences than their parents did. Not too long ago, it was the norm for children with any kind of special needs to be educated in separate programs and schools. Today children with disabilities — both visible and invisible — are integrated in schools, Hebrew school classes, afterschool programs, camps, and sports teams.

When children are taught to regularly include their peers from a young age, inclusion becomes part of their social routine. Play experiences that start at an early age can lead to relationships that may thrive into the teen years and beyond. Playdates are tons of fun, but at times can be intimidating to plan. Here are five tips that work across various playstyles, personalities, and abilities.


Openly share with your children the play styles and potential behaviors of their guests. This pep talk will heighten their awareness of their playmates’ needs. Say, for example, “Maria is the girl who loves to play games, but it is sometimes hard for her to stop if she is having fun. She might cry or get upset when the activity ends.” Being open will help your children better empathize with and accommodate their friends.

Adults should also be prepared to supervise and help with transitions in activities. Kids look to grownups to model accommodating the needs of others and being flexible. While some children are comfortable playing independently, other children may need some help transitioning to new activities. Adults can offer simple coaching, redirection, and also give kids a head’s up before transitions to new activities.

Plan and Organize

Have a plan for the day. Everyone loves structure and predictability, particularly younger children. Make sure the play date or party has a clearly articulated beginning, middle, and end.

In the programs run at Camp Ramah, for example, an inclusion specialist will offer a visual schedule of the flow of the day with pictures, words, or both. These are especially helpful on special days where the schedule is different than normal. 

Offer Variety

Present a range of activities. Not everyone loves baseball, dancing, or drawing.  Try to provide options as well as breaks and safe spaces to help when kids need a positive time-out to recharge. Organizations can help by offering a designated quiet room for children of all ages who may need a place to reset during long services or loud activities. 

Make sure there are food alternatives for children with allergies or arts options for children with sensory issues that make certain textures and smells unpalatable. Consider using non-food items, like stickers, as an alternative to baked goods or candy.

Ask Questions

Ask the parents of the child or children with disabilities what you can do to help maximize success. They may suggest tweaks and accommodations, perhaps something as simple as arriving five minutes early before the rest of the guests to enter a room and get used to the physical space. The parents may appreciate knowing the plan so they can prepare their children and may suggest that their child only stay for part of the activity. 

In the same fashion, encourage children to ask questions too. As parents, the instinct is often to redirect a child if they ask a question that seems too direct or rude in the moment. The parents we spoke with encouraged their peers to let children talk to each other and to ask questions directly, in the moment. This builds communication but also helps build a relaxed environment and set the ground for future playdates.


Diversity Children Friendship Happiness Playful Concept

We will all spend big parts of our lives working and interacting with all types of people. By learning to listen to and accommodate the needs of others from an early age, acceptance and understanding becomes a natural part of a child’s social interactions. By using the tips outlined above, we also incorporate and reinforce important Jewish ideas and values: that we are all created in God’s image, that we are all deserving of respect, kavod, and that we are welcoming and empathetic to others.

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Original Article Published On The Jewish Philanthropy

It is rare that two of my favorite topics – tennis and Judaism – have much to teach each other. A few nights ago, as I watched the New York Empire battle the Washington Kastle on Opening Night of the World Team Tennis season at the legendary West Side Tennis club in Forest Hills, New York, I realized that this action-packed, colorful, fast-paced, family-friendly sport has a lot to teach our synagogues and prayer services.

Mylan World Team Tennis (WTT), co-founded in 1974 by tennis legend Billie Jean King, is tennis with a twist. Players (many ranked in the top 200 in the world) are drafted to six teams and compete in twelve matches, from July 31-August 13th.

This tennis format is family friendly – instead of the traditional “first player to 6 games” set, the first player to win five games wins the set. And there is only one set – no best 2 of 3 (or 3 of 5) like in traditional tennis. Scoring is no ad, so the games end quickly. And team points are cumulative and tallied at the end. If the matches are tied at the end of five sets, there is a supertiebreaker. Fans watch five matches (men’s and women’s singles and doubles and mixed doubles), played back to back on one very colorful court, they can cheer as loud as they want, and everyone goes him in under three hours!

These slight modifications to the traditional game preserve the essence of the sport, while adding excitement. Here are some lessons synagogues across the denominations can take from World Team Tennis and apply:

Give the court a makeover: courts are painted a very colorful purple, green red and blue – a far cry from traditional, monochromatic green or blue. It is amazing what a little fresh paint, polish, and color can do. Paint and freshen up that old shul building. And consider some new lighting as well.

Mix up the order of play: Each night, the home team coach determines the order of play for the five matches. Some nights, women’s singles leads off, while other nights, it is mixed doubles. It keeps the fans engaged and on their toes. While the matbeah tefillah – the order of prayers – is important, there is room for “mixing it up.” Experiment with new tunes. Consider adding or even “skipping” certain prayers some evenings or mornings.

Time limits get us out of here faster! In WTT, the clock is ticking. As soon as a point ends, the clock counts down from 25 seconds. Consider time limits to your synagogue service. Does a service really need to be 3 or more hours? A traditional service with a full torah reading in Israel takes no more than 90 minutes! (Basketball and even baseball are using clocks to keep the action moving). We have an important principle in Judaism of tircha d’ziburah – “paining” the community. Long services feel like torture!

Team consists of regular team members and special guests and is diverse: The core team, consisting of players from around the world, is on the roster all season, but several times a season, special guest players join the team. It is nice when the rabbi delivers the weekly sermon and the cantor leads the davening (prayer service), but guest d’var torahs – by congregants, visiting guests, other rabbis or educators in the community – add new perspectives. And lay leaders with the skills to lead the congregation in prayer add a lot to the team.

Make the players accessible to the fans: Following the match, all kids 16 and under are invited to the court. Players are seated at tables where they sign autographs and schmooze with the fans. Rabbis, cantors and members of the shul leadership should be accessible, reachable and relatable to community members of all ages.

Players are real people and model that no job is beneath them: The players come across to the fans as “real people” – they cheer for their teammates, and bring them towels, water and power drinks during the match. When rabbis and cantors relate to congregants as “fellow travelers” – parents, community members and citizens of the world, congregants can relate to them better.

Friendly staff do wonders for the franchise: Ticket takers, ushers, volunteers and on-court announcers are gregarious, friendly and helpful and help the guests feel good about being here. While ushers and volunteers smile and engage you as they walk you to your seat, playful announcers encourage audience participation. Helpful, friendly, welcoming synagogue staff who come over to introduce themselves to guests, bring over a siddur or Chumash and show guests the proper page make people feel welcomed – and inclined to come back again in the future.

The World Team Tennis season runs through August 13th with the finals taking place in New York City on August 26th. If you live in New York City, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, PA, Springfield, MO, San Diego, CA or Orange County, CA, come watch a match – and consider what this exciting tennis format can do to spice things up in your shul!

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Social Justice may be understood through the many lenses found in Jewish texts, but perhaps none as foundational as “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). In an interview conducted by Covenant Award Recipient and Director of National Ramah Tikvah Network Howard Blas, Shutaf Inclusion Programs Founder and Executive Director Beth Steinberg explores how, from a Jewish perspective, “disabilities is a Jewish peoplehood issue.”

Q: Tell us about Shutaf

Shutaf was born out of parental need. Miriam Avraham (my co-founder) and I are both parents of children with disabilities who are now teenagers. We were tired of people saying, “No, there isn’t a program for your kid and no, we don’t want your kid.”

When we started, Shutaf was a summer program; we quickly realized how great camp was and that there was a significant need in Israel for programs for people with disabilities.

Since Shutaf was born in 2007, we’ve grown tremendously. Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem now offers year-round activities for children, teens and young people, with and without disabilities. Our programs include day camps during the Passover and August vacations; afterschool youth groups; a Young Leadership Program for teens and young adults; Inclusion-Accelerator Workshops and parent gatherings.

Shutaf is a place of complete acceptance and inclusion for all kids of all abilities; religious and secular, rich and poor, from all cultural backgrounds.

Q: How can we understand inclusion as a social justice issue?

Including people into the larger Jewish community is a critical social justice issue. In fact, the word “inclusion” itself implies ex-clusion, and therefore warrants a social justice approach. Allowing every member of the community–especially those with disabilities–a way in means equal opportunities for all. That’s a good thing to work towards. That’s a good thing to believe in.

We need to X-out the word inclusion and come up with a better word. (The URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) is using a new term; “audacious hospitality.”) I recently taught at a synagogue in Philadelphia and people said, “Let’s just call it “welcoming!”

In the end, all words have limits and the issue is big—so many people are still marginalized. The bottom line: these are Jews who shouldn’t be left out of the conversation.

Q: What would an ideal inclusive world look like?

Inclusion is where everyone finds their place. It is a world where fewer limits are placed on people with disabilities. It is less about trying to include those with differences into our pre-existing settings (meaning, those settings that were built for people without disabilities).

In an ideal world, we would eliminate terms like “high functioning” and “low functioning” since they create divisions. It is not for any of us to say what a person is allowed to do and not allowed to do!

Q: What other programs in Israel are doing important social justice and inclusion work?

There are so many people in Israel doing great work in this arena. Here are just a few programs to check out:

  • Shai Asher (Milton’s Gift) is a non-profit career-training program for people with special needs, run by Menachem Stoplner, a social worker who lives on Kibbutz Shluchot.
  • Revital Lan Cohen is an elected government official (member of the Meretz party) and the parent of child with autism spectrum disorder. She has built a very impressive parent coalition which you can read about on her Facebook page.
  • HaBayit Shel Ronit runs a social program for adults with disabilities.
  • Bizchut is the Israel Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities.
  • Kaleidoscope promotes understanding between all populations by fostering the development of the social skills such as self-awareness and collaboration that form the foundation for respect for diversity and appreciation of multiculturalism. As a research-based educational approach, Kaleidoscope begins its process with skill-building workshops that emphasize reflection for educators, students and parents within Israel’s Jewish and Arab sectors.

Find out more about important organizations working toward inclusion, by visiting this site: http://www.friendshipcircle.org/blog/2015/12/22/12-special-needs-organizations-in-israel/

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Original Article Published at The Jerusalem Post

As the tennis world gears up for the Miami Open (March 21-April 3), often considered the “Fifth Grand Slam,” on par with such tennis events as Wimbledon and the US Open, Israel is preparing to welcome local and international talent to the similarly timed Israel Open.

The Israel Open, a $125,000 ATP men’s Challenger tennis tournament, attracts some big names to the Ra’anana Tennis Center March 27 to April 4.

Shlomo Glickstein, President of the Israel Tennis Association and former 22nd ranked player in the world, is proud and excited.

“It is very important for Israel to host such competitions and we love to host large events. It attracts sponsors, media and role models for our young players.”

Glickstein is also practical. “Tournaments like ours offer young tennis players the chance to earn ATP points.”

The Israel Open is part of the ATP Challenger Tour, a series of international professional men’s tennis tournaments.

Players who earn sufficient ranking points become eligible for qualifying or main draw entry at such ATP World Tour tournaments as the recent BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells or the Miami Open. Future events, like the three $10,000 tournaments recently held in Israel, are the third tier of international tennis competition.

The Israel Open attracts such well-known Israeli players as Dudi Sela, who climbed this week from No. 88 to 84 in the rankings, and Amir Weintraub (197). They are joined in the main singles draw of 32 by top 100 players Mikhail Youzhny (76th, Russia), Evgeny Donskoy (81st, Russia), and Ricardis Berankis (85th, Lithuania). Lukas Lacko (98th, Slovakia), who lost in a three-set final last year to Nikoloz Basilashvili, returns to Israel to play in this year’s Israel Open.

Other top players include Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia, currently ranked 401. Tipsarevic received a wild card and is making his tennis comeback following foot surgery and a 17 month absence from tennis.

Israeli Yoni Erlich will enter the Israel open doubles tournament.

Erlich had a distinguished doubles career playing with Andy Ram, and continues competing in international tournaments, many with partner Colin Fleming of Great Britain.

Sixteen teams will also compete in doubles.

Youzhny is no stranger to Israel.

“I have been to Israel several times with my family for vacations. I love Israel and look forward to coming to Israel again.”

Berankis is looking forward to making his first trip to Israel.

“I have many friends in Israel and heard so many good things about Israel. I’m really excited to come and play this big Challenger tournament.”

Israel has become an increasingly popular destination for professional tennis tournaments.

In early February, Israel hosted 14 countries in the Fed Cup Europe/Africa Zone Group I women’s tennis event. Top players, including Heather Watson (55th, Great Britain), Tsvetana Prionkova (59th, Bulgaria) and Jelena Ostapenko (84th, Latvia), competed at the Municipal Tennis Club in Eilat. The Israel team, anchored by Julia Glushko and Shahar Peer, finished in the top 4 of the event.

And Israel hosted three Futures tennis events in January and February.

Israeli Davis Cup team member, Edan Leshem and 16-year-old future star, Yshai Oliel, competed in some of the $10,000 Future events.at the Kfar Maccabiah Tennis Center.

Glickstein notes that , “We have some promising young players including Ben Patael, Tal Goldengorn, Yshai Oliel – they are eager to play and get results.”

Israel recently lost to Hungary in the Davis Cup.

The Israel Open was held in Ramat Hasharon from 2008-2010, was not held from 2011-2014, and was also played in Ra’anana last year.

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