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Call me an optimist if you must.  I prefer to think of myself as an optimistic realist.

I recent wrote an article for Respectability entitled “Turning Crisis Into Opportunity” which offers some glimmers of hope around employment for people with disabilities.  I begin by acknowledging the challenges:  “It has been said that ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.’ The COVID pandemic has certainly posed tremendous vocational challenges for people with disabilities, who, despite already experiencing an employment rate less than half of people without disabilities, experienced 40% greater job loss with minimal recovery. It has also provided unprecedented opportunities—to develop skills, to continue working from home and in person (for those who currently have jobs) and to think creatively about new opportunities.” 

I then note that many people with disabilities and organizations working with them have responded swiftly and creatively. Participants and families in our National Ramah Tikvah Network vocational training programs, located in our 10 Ramah camps in the US and Canada, expressed concerns about social isolation and job skills.  In response, we swiftly created TikvahNet, a vocational training and socialization program.  We have run two cycles of programming thusfar and are about to launch our 3rd cycle tomorrow evening.   In this new cycle, we will continue our vocational training and socializing while also be hearing from model employers in the area of disabilities employment.

This week (tomorrow, Jan 19th), my friend and colleague, Bill Morris of Blue Star Recyclers—with 3 computer and electronic recycling locations in Colorado and one in Chicago—will be participating in) our TikvahNet Tuesday Speaker Series.  It will be broadcast on Facebook Live from 735-8 pm ET

We will be showcasing 4 employers which are committed to employing people with disabilities. In the case of Blue Star, people with disabilities are the “secret ingredient” in the success of the business!  They have learned that some people with autism can stick with a repetitive task for incredibly long periods of time—in doing so, they are solving a society problem of what to do with old computers, as well as the problem of how to retain workers in this industry with high turnover.  

As readers and colleagues know, I am passionate about identifying businesses large and small which train and hire people with disabilities. In my RespectAbility article, I mention two businesses started by Ramah Tikvah participants—Shred Support and Truly Scrumptious by Alexa.  My website has a list in progress of all types of businesses across the US which employ people with disabilities. I am learning about new businesses by the day and can’t wait for COVID to end so I can get on the road and see more!  Please continue to send more my way!   Just yesterday, I learned two cool places in Colorado: 

Jackie’s Bar and Grill and Steamer’s Coffee House (Arvada) https://steamerscoffeeshop.com/

Joy House Project (Longmont and Estes Park) https://www.joyhouseproject.com/the-joy

 

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My friends and family know not to bother me for three weeks each year.  Every year for the past 15 or so, I have had the privilege of spending every day at the end of August and beginning of September (except for Shabbat and some years, Rosh Hashanah!) at the US Open Tennis Championships, writing about Israeli and Jewish players mainly for the Jerusalem Post.  

On a good year, I arrive for the qualifying tournament, where I am most likely to see Israelis battling for a spot in the main draw.  And I get to stay through the finals, often getting to interview Israeli and Jewish juniors, and also covering wheelchair tennis.  It is tiring but it is the best job in the world! 

Sometimes I feel like an imposter.  While I know a bit about tennis and have written dozens of articles for the Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel and other publications—and have even covered other tournaments including the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup, I am truly a part timer.  I am always in awe of the men and women who travel the globe—from the Australian to the French to Wimbledon to the US Open—to cover the events, the players, the behind the scenes and the vibe.  One of the greatest I have ever met is Tom Perrotta, who sadly died this week.  The tennis world lost a giant.  Tom died at age 44 after a 4-year battle with brain cancer.

Tom Perrotta wrote mainly for the Wall Street Journal.  His colleague, Jason Gay, wrote movingly about his friend and colleague.  He had an encyclopedic knowledge of tennis and was great covering technical aspects, but he always found interesting angles and behind the scenes, from articles on grunting, to players wearing or not wearing sunscreen, to “Why Andy Murray is a Tennis Nerd.”  And he always found time to schmooze with tennis colleagues.

I looked forward to seeing Tom each year at the US Open.  I would sometimes sit near him in the media section of Arthur Ashe Stadium and listen in awe as he and tennis journalist and historian par excellence, Steve Flink, would compare notes—about the match in progress, or about a match from 1998, where both could effortlessly from memory reconstruct the draw sheet.  I remember at the last US Open (where fans and reporters were allowed), standing around the info desk in the media center waiting for a not-so-top ranked player to come for a media session.  On a couple of occasions, it was me and Tom.  While waiting, we discussed our children and made other small talk.  I admired his knowledge and his insight and admired a guy who could do what he loved.  I didn’t realize he was also battling brain cancer.  Tom wrote a moving article in the Wall Street Journal this past November, when he was losing vision and cognitive processing speed.  While sad and angry, he was also delighted to have some much time at home with his wife and two sons.  It was entitled, “In a Stay At Home Pandemic, a Sportswriter Finds a Silver Lining.”  

In his tribute to Perrotta, Jason Gay shared a feeling that all of us lucky enough to cover the US Open can relate to.  “Here’s a little secret about what it’s like to cover one of those major tennis tournaments: It’s just as great as it sounds. It isn’t like the job doesn’t have its hassles, or bad days, but most of the time, it feels like you’re getting away with something.”  We get to be around tennis for so many hours and days in a row!

I look forward to being part of the team of 1200 credentialed media who get to share the stories of the US Open each year with the world.  The only part as great as the tennis itself is renewing acquaintances with old friends.  Let’s pray for a return to normal for the US Open 2021.  Looking forward to seeing you soon, Sandra, Cindy, Jerold, Michael, my Argentinian friends who share my love of Diego Schwartzman, all of my Japanese friends who share the last row in the media center with me and the Jerusalem Post, and so many others.  But I will miss you, Tom.  


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Admittedly, the Abraham Accords and Israel’s exciting new relationship with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco is big news.  50,000 Israelis have reportedly traveled to UAE alone in recent months.  But the biggest feel-good Israel story coming out of Israel in recent weeks is… Deni Avdija!

For those who have been living under a rock—or simply don’t follow the National Basketball Association, Deni is a 6 foot 9-inch basketball player—only 19 years old—who was drafted #9 in the NBA draft by the Washington Wizards.  Avdija is the son of a Serbian Muslim father who played professional basketball both in Serbia and Israel, and an Israeli Jewish mother.  He played with Maccabi Tel Aviv and just completed his shortened Tzahal (Israel Army) service where he had the status of a “sports standout.” 

Following a very shortened NBA pre-season, where Deni was super successful, he stands a chance of being in the starting lineup in the Wizard’s first regular season game this Wednesday against the 76ers in Philadelphia.  Head Coach Scott Brooks has started him in 2 of 3 pre-season games, and watched him successfully play off the bench in the other game. He was nearly perfect in his first game—hitting several field goals and 3 point shots, and last night, he lead both teams in rebounds with 10.  Deni played 31 minutes and 38 seconds—more than any other Wizard including NBA legend, Russell Westbrook.   At last night’s post-game media session, Westbrook had only amazing things to say about Deni.  Westbrook has been acting like a coach and mentor to Deni.

It is remarkable how far Deni has come in such a short time.  I have enjoyed watching him and asking questions at the media sessions.   Yes—he will miss family, friends and the beach.  Yes, he will be in search of good Israeli chumous, which another reporter pointed out he can get very near to the Capital One Arena in Washington, DC. And yes—he is very young!  When I asked which of his NBA idols he was most looking forward to playing with or against, he said he didn’t have any actual idols, but he was looking forward to playing in person with guys he had only played against in video games!  Wow, that is young!

I am confident that Deni will have as much class as two previous Israelis who played in the NBA—Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel. They took the job of representing Israeli very seriously—signing autographs, participating in Jewish community events and, in the case of Omri, bringing fellow NBA players to Israel. 

I hope to write a lot about Deni this season—he is the best story coming out of Israel and he is great for Israel hasbara.  There is even a Washington Wizards Twitter feed in Hebrew!

The three articles I have written so far are here!

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When Ross Kriel, President of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, invited Rabbi Yehuda Sarna to give a shiur (class) during Chanukah in 2016, Sarna immediately knew what he would teach.  Sarna would address the question of Jews are to place the Chanukah menorah.   At the time, Sarna shared that the preference is to light it outside, though we are permitted to light inside out of fear.  Now, Sarna tells several hundred on today’s UJA Federation New York-sponsored “Celebrate Hanukkah with the UJA” Zoom meeting, “Chanukah menorahs are all over town.  It is quite a dramatic transformation.”   Kriel adds, “You can also hear Hebrew spoken, see kipot and tzitzit (ritual fringes) out, and kosher restaurants.  “We have taken leaps, not steps since the signing of the Abraham Accords.  It has intensified all over the city!”

Rabbi Elie Abadie, former rabbi of Manhattan’s Safra Synagogue, recently relocated to the region to become the Senior Rabbi in Residence of the Jewish Council of the Emirates.  “Every night, I have lit the menorah in a different place,” recounts Abadie, as he lit the menorah over Zoom for the several hundred participants who were eager to learn about the Jewish community of the UAE and what appears to be a “warm peace” ahead as the result of the recently signed Abraham Accords.  “In the UAE, you can feel the enthusiasm of the people!”  The panelists proudly reported that there is now a Chanukah menorah standing outside the Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s tallest building, which is which 2,717 feet tall and contains 209 floors  

Abadie will be a true asset to the community.  He was born in Beirut, Lebanon, grew up in Mexico City, and is fluent in seven languages including Arabic. His language skills will likely come in handy in the UAE. 

Jeff Schoenfeld, immediate past president of the UJA-Federation and a frequent business traveler to the Middle East shared in his opening remarks that the UAE consists of “one million locals and is dominated by 9 million expats who live and contribute to the vitality of the UAE.   Abadie is also a physician and a scholar of Sephardic Jewry.  Several years ago, Abadie was invited to see what he describes as the “nascent community.”  He was pleased to be the sofer who completed a sefer torah in UAE which was presented as a gift to the leaders of the UAE.  “I believe that, given the Abraham Accords, we are at a historic moment, we are at the crossroad of history.”  He appreciates the tremendous responsibility he will have and adds, “I felt religiously compelled to take the opportunity, to step up to the plate and build up the beautiful community.”

They are off to a good start.  When Kriel, a lawyer, arrived from South Africa 10 years ago with his wife (who at the time was the only kosher caterer in the UAE) and family, the Jewish community was small, with members of all backgrounds worshipping in a small villa.  “We were inclusive and created a beautiful ethos of comradery and love of Israel.”  He hopes to carry these core values forward as the community expands. “We are 300 Jews, and we expect to increase to 3000 families in ten years.”  He expects this will require a lot of “ramping up.” 

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the Chief Rabbi of the UAE, who commutes between Manhattan and the UAE, is also the Executive Director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University and the NYU university chaplain.  He first came to the UAE in 2010 as part of an NYU team sent to interview high school students from around the world who were seeking admission at NYU’s Dubai campus.  “This visit was transformative,” reports Sarna.  “I had to confront stereotypes of Arabs in the region.” 

During his once or twice a year visits, Sarna began addressing the needs of Jews in the UAE.  “There were Jewish administrators, professors, students and some Israelis.  Some were just discovering that they were Jewish.  We had an ad hoc Jewish culture club, we put up a sukkah, and had Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.”  

Sarna continues to be an even more integral part of Jewish life and an important representative of the Jewish community.  He described how visitors are “moved to tears” when they witness the Prayer for the State of Israel, followed by the Prayer for the Welfare of the UAE and its Army.  “Most Jews could have never imagined a prayer for an Arab army!”  Sarna feels the Abrahamic Accords are very different from past accords as they represent a warm peace.  “A warm peace is a peace between people.”

Hamdan al Kindi Al Mara, the founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council, is a fluent English and Hebrew speaker.  “When I started learning Hebrew for myself, I expected it would be dead for me because I couldn’t practice.”  Now, he describes the level of excitement in both Israel and the UAE and notes that trade has already started.”  He adds, “Bloomberg predicts there will be $6 billion in trade between the two counties.”  He has already observed Jews coming to the UAE from Israel and such countries as France.  People are purchasing real estate, there are kosher restaurants and Jewish ceremonies at hotels and he notes, “I saw 50 people with kipot in a mall just today!” 

Hamdad envisions the UAE importing technology including cybersecurity, high tech and agritech from Israel.  He notes that “the first ships from Dubai have already arrived in Haifa!”  He predicts, “We will see billions in trade in both directions.   This is just the beginning.  Let’ all hope for the best and an expanded people with the people of the world.” 





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