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A Modest Proposal: Jewish Organizations Supporting Disability (Owned and Friendly) Businesses

When the Covenant Foundation held their Project Directors meetings in New Jersey this past February, they wanted attendees to enjoy a sweet treat as they learned about companies across the country training and employing people with disabilities. What better way to enjoy the session than with a custom made Oreo dipped in chocolate—with the Covenant logo on top?  The cookies were prepared and served by Alexa Chalup, 14 year veteran of Camp Ramah and the current owner of Truly Scrumptious by Alexa. 

Covenant has taken the lead in supporting businesses owned and operated by people with disabilities.  Last week, they honored special members of the Covenant and Pomegranate Award families with gift boxes prepared by people with disabilities at Yachad Gifts.   

This is a model other Jewish (and non-Jewish!) organizations should embrace.

Ramah Darom just surprised members of the camp community who enrolled early with as special gift—an awesome pair of socks!  They report, “Every year, we search for a unique and fun idea for our returning priority enrollment campers. This year we found one that was so great we decided to share it with ALL campers who enroll by October 30, 2020!”  They purchased socks from John’s Crazy Socks, a company owned by a young man on Long Island (NY) with Down Syndrome his father.  I have had the privilege of meeting and interviewing them.  Ramah Darom is proud of the sock purchase:  “They are not only fun, fantastic and uniquely Camp Ramah Darom, but they also support our mission of inclusion, diversity, supporting people of all abilities and spreading smiles.”

There is so much potential for establishing meaningful shidduchs.  In the Washington, DC area, two Ramah New England vocational program participants, Uriel Levitt and Jacob Werbin started Shred Support.  What synagogue, Jewish organization or family hasn’t been waiting for the opportunity to have a member of their team drop by and pick up documents to shred?!

Extraordinary Ventures creates and operates businesses that provide meaningful employment for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. One business they operate in Westchester, NY is a gift business.  What Jewish family doesn’t need Yahrtzeit candles?  They carry two items, including a yahrtzeit candle with wildflower seed paper.  According to the description:  “Included in a silk bag with this elegant candle is a Star of David seed paper  to plant and grow wildflowers in loving memory.  A gift of natural beauty and compassion for a relative or a friend for the loss of a loved one.” 

I have been traveling the country and identifying dozens of businesses run by and/or employing people with disabilities.  Please check out the directory-in-process here.  I am happy to help you find companies and products.

Remember:  October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month—but every month is the month to address the very serious problem of unemployment and underemployment for people with disabilities! 

Howard Blas,
Director-National Ramah Tikvah Network
cell: 413-374-7210
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First the good news: There have been dozens of webinars these past few weeks addressing the topic of employment and people with disabilities.  Five which I have personally attended are listed here.  Topics have addressed everything from big companies like JP Morgan and Cintas speaking about why they hire people with disabilities, to remote work opportunities in the Covid and post-Covid area. 

Some conferences and organizations will soon post recordings and transcripts—and there is still time to sign up for tomorrow’s session with Dr. Stephen Shore on “Neurodiversity and the Four A's of Autism-Employment.”  https://jewishlearningventure.org/event/neurodiversity-10-22-20/ 

-RespectAbility:  Webinar: Successful Self-Employment & Entrepreneurship for People with Disabilities  https://www.respectability.org/2020/09/webinar-successful-self-employment-entrepreneurship-for-people-with-disabilities/#more-23150

-Next for Autism:  What’s NEXT for Disability Employment? Insights from Corporate Leaders

-Stanford Neurodiversity Summit Oct 17-21 Scaling Up the Neurodiversity at Work Initiative (recording will be available in about a month:  https://med.stanford.edu/neurodiversity/ncw.html

-Access Israel: Access Israel's 5th International Webinar – Remote Employment of People with Disabilities (4 hours—posted soon at:  https://aisrael-global.org/webinars/)

-Whole Community Inclusion and Inclusion Innovations Webinar TOMORROW (Thursday 1022 a 1 pm ET) with Dr Stephen Shore on “Neurodiversity and the four A's of Autism-Employment.”  https://jewishlearningventure.org/event/neurodiversity-10-22-20/ 

The concerning news?   The unemployment and underemployment rate for people with disabilities was sky high pre-Covid (some estimate the unemployment rate has been as high as 90%), and no one knows what the post-Covid landscape will look like.

In an article entitled “A Million People with Disabilities Have Lost Jobs During the Pandemic,” Allen Smith writes in August, 2020, “Approximately 1 million U.S. workers with disabilities have lost their jobs since the World Health Organization proclaimed the outbreak a pandemic in March, according to the New Hampshire University Institute on Disability.”  In addition, National Organization on Disability (NOD) President Carol Glazer reports that people with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and its economic consequences.   

Since March, 1 in 5 workers with disabilities have been dismissed from employment, compared with 1 in 7 in the general population, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These statistics are concerning.  Let’s start planning NOW for what the post-Covid landscape will look like for people with disabilities.  And let’s help businesses find ways to train and hire more people with disabilities. And let’s take a moment to mark the 75th observance of NDEAM–National Disability Employment Awareness Month—October, 2020.   Check out the “31 Days of NDEAM Slide Show—What you can do” slide show.

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Four years ago, The New York Times ran a wonderful, inspiring article about 3 rabbis and a judge–all in their 80s–who play tennis doubles each week and have been doing so for more than 45 years.

The writer noted in the February 19, 2016 article that the judge is Alvin K. Hellerstein, 82, who still oversees federal court cases. The three rabbis are Dr. Michael Shmidman, 82, and Haskel Lookstein, 83, and Jonah Kupietzky, 81, who is an ordained rabbi but a kosher caterer by vocation.  Rabbi Shmidman is my personal rabbi and knows as much about tennis and baseball as he does about Talmud, Jewish law and the proper way to lead public prayer.

Despite their age at the time, none would have qualified for International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) 85 and Over tennis league.  Now, the three rabbis and the judge do!

I was delighted when I checked my email this morning and read about the ITF Senior Tour. The ITF Seniors Tour is a global tennis Tour that provides players aged 30 and over with a high quality and enjoyable competitive experience. For perspective, there are few athletes in other sports who compete through their late 30s and early 40s.  Two exceptions are the NFL’s Joe Flacco (35) and Tom Brady (43).  

The ITF reports that 2019 saw 27,500 registered players for their Senior Tour, with 502 tournaments taking place across 70 nations.  They further note, “The ITF Seniors World Championships are the pinnacle of the ITF Seniors Tour and include both individual and team competitions across three age categories, Young Seniors (30-45+), Seniors (50-60+) and Super-Seniors (65-90+). In 2020, it was announced that 30 and over, and 90 and over, categories will be introduced in 2021 to provide age-appropriate competitive levels to our existing and future playing communities.”

A quick Google search reveals several videos of 95 year olds playing tennis regularly.

https://www.playyourcourt.com/news/video-best-95-year-old-tennis-player-planet/

https://abc11.com/sports/age-is-nothing-but-a-number-for-fuquay-varina-senior/5335664/

https://www.journalstandard.com/sports/20190622/oldest-tennis-player-chuck-stocker-young-95.

There are plenty more! Leonid Stanislavskyi, a 95-year-old man from the Ukraine, plays tennis regularly, and takes part in World Championships.  He is reportedly the world’s oldest player to take part in ITF Super-Seniors World Championships.

Todays’ ITF newsletter indicates that the ITF Seniors Men’s and Women’s 85 and over World Team Championships to be renamed Lorne Main Cup and Angela Mortimer Cup, to recognize two legends of the sport – Lorne Main and Angela Barrett (née Mortimer).

David Haggerty, ITF President said: “Tennis is a sport for life and through Seniors tennis we are on a mission to provide opportunities to compete, socialize and enjoy all the benefits of the sport to as many people around the world as we can.”

I have always loved playing tennis.  It is particularly exciting to watch the players on the other courts.  Tennis is truly a sport to be enjoyed at all ages and at all levels.  I have watched parents teaching four years olds on one court while four 90-somethings play doubles on another court.  And these days, tennis is the sport for being sociable while also socially distancing.

I look forward to many more years of playing and watching fellow players of all ages!

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Every year, I teach my students some of the more creative laws of sukkahs, the temporary “booths” Jewish people sit in for the 8-day holiday now in progress.  The Sukkah Handbook (by Rabbi Hadar Margolin) has a great picture of an elephant being used as a sukkah wall.  Check it out!  It is right there in the Shulchan Aruch 630:11), the highly regarded Jewish Code of Law. And if you are wondering, it is also ok to build a sukkah on a wagon or boat (Shulchan Aruch 628:2, Mishna Brurah 11, 14), on a camel or on a tree! (Shulchan Aruch 628:3).

There is more room to be creative in building a sukkah than people may think.  This comes in handy during this most unusual Covid-19 year.

For those who live in the suburbs, building a sukkah in an ordinary year is no big deal.  There are snap together kits for sukkahs of all sizes, and it is easy to buy a schach mat (bamboo, etc) for the top of the sukkah. 

For those who live in a city like Manhattan, it is more complicated.  The sukkah must be outside with a clear view to the sky—with nothing hanging over it.  That means no trees, no roofs, no balconies.  For that reason, there are very few sukkahs in the city.

Manhattan residents usually go to their synagogue for communal meals.  Or they go to a restaurant with a sukkah.  One can argue that the sukkah is an early prototype of the perfect outdoor dining spot for these Covid days!  Jews have been eating outside in the somewhat hilly autumn for years!

Other Manhattan residents are lucky enough to spot a Chabad sukkah in a public park or along various walkways on the Upper East Side.   Here is a piece I wrote 3 years ago for Chabad.org about sukkahs on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.   They playfully called it “When a Private Sukkah Costs $4 Million, Where Do We Eat?”  People are free to drop by and use it anytime.

There are also Chabad bicycle sukkahs, and sukkahs on the back of pickup trucks.

But this year, there are extra challenges.  I want to thank Chabad and JLIC, the OU's Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC) at Binghamton University, for creative, safety-minded thinking.  They have come up with ways to build a sukkah which allows for maximum openness and flow of air.

See the pictures below for photos of a Chabad sukkah in Tel Aviv which is open on the sides and has “private pods” for diners to eat in family units, distanced from other sukkah guests.  The next photo is of sukkahs offered to students at Binghamton University with the “minimum” number of walls required by Jewish law.  The next photo is of a sukkah at Manhattans’ Bagels and Co—for one or two diners at a time.  The final sukkah is a common site around the country—Chabad sukkahs for one or two—on a pickup truck.

Enjoy a happy, safe Sukkot.  It is nice to know there are ways to ensure both!





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