Tuesday night, I celebrated a first, just as Deni Avdija was marking two firsts.  I attended my first in person sports event in over a year.  Deni, the Washington Wizards rookies from Israel, made his Madison Square Garden debut.  He scored 14 points before fouling out in a pretty big Wizards loss.  (As I started writing this blog, the Wizards were ahead of the Knicks in their Thursday rematch at MSG—for 3 periods. Sadly, they lost 106-102).

The fact that an entire season of basketball is taking place, in arenas across the country–a year into the Covid 19 pandemic—is nothing short of incredible. Last year, the NBA pulled it off by having everyone in a bubble.  No fans and few members of the media witnessed it in person.

This season, I have been lucky enough to have Washington Wizards media credentials, have been attending Zoom media sessions, and have written many articles for JNS and the Jerusalem Post about the 20 year old Israeli taken by the Wizards #9 in the recent NBA draft   I was eager to see Deni play in person.  When I saw that the Wizards would be in New York for a Sunday game against the Nets in Brooklyn and Tuesday/Thursday games against the Knicks, I applied for media credentials.  I fished my wish! I was granted credentials for Tuesday.

Here is where I tip my hat first to the NBA and then to the Knicks and Madison Square Garden.  The NBA takes great precautions to keep players, coaches and fans safe.  Players including Deni have been on Covid protocol at various points over the summer.  Some even missed the NBA All-Star game for the same reason. Once credentials were granted, I was told I would need to arrive no later than 3:45 pm for a 7:30 game.  Each staff member at MSG and all media are required to undergo onsite health screening and Covid testing. 

The process was organized and calm, and all employees of MSG remained similarly calm and in good spirits.  Everyone logged in to the system, was swabbed and waited for (hopefully) negative test results. I was told that there is an extra NBA stringency for media and I was escorted to a special seat (seat #1) in the balcony of the Theater at MSG. I was told it would take “about 45 minutes.”  I was told not to leave my seat under any circumstances.  I spoke from afar with a fellow journalist I knew from other sports events.  I had a 45-minute tutoring lesson about Passover with a student.  Two hours later, I was told I was negative.  After 15 more minutes, I was given a wristband and escorted with two other journalists to our seats on The Bridge at MSG.

Walking along The Bridge is a walk down MSG memory lane—one passes retired Knicks and Rangers jerseys, championship banners and special tributes to long concert runs (Phish, Billy Joel, etc.).  We were shown the bathrooms, the table with hot dogs, pretzels and water, and our very socially distanced work stations.  We were not to leave our area.  In past years, media was allowed to enter the locker room at appointed times to interview players (I once brought humus to Omri Casspi!), attend the coach press conference in the hallway, watch practice from the court, and we were free to wander the stadium to interview fans.  Not this year.

The Garden is at 10% capacity, which means no more than 2,000 fans. It was a ghost town, but a happy ghost town with fans cheering, a DJ for Noche Latina de los Knicks, and Knicks City Dancers—on the screen, prerecorded. I would have ordinarily gone down to speak with the two waving the Israeli flags to see why they are Deni and Wizards super-fans.  Not tonight.

Tonight was a night to feel lucky to see Deni in person.  It was a night to watch Deni high fiving such NBA stars as Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal and to remember that this 20-year-old Israeli is in the same league as these legends.  It was a night to think about just how far this young Israeli is from home—and to see just how adaptable and resilient he has been, traversing his new country, in the middle of a pandemic.  It was a night to hope that one day soon, I will get to meet and interview Deni.

Then, by dumb luck, I DID get to see Deni!  Two minutes after Deni spoke to the media via Zoom, I was leaving the Garden and spotted 20 religious boys chanting his name.  Then…Deni appeared!  He was behind a barricade, escorted to the team bus.  He was not permitted to sign autographs (though one shouted, “sign my tissue, Deni!”), but he smiled and waved to his admiring fans.

It is clear that Deni is here to stay. He is a young up and coming mensch who will one post-Covid day sign lots of autographs and schmooze with admiring fans—young and adult, Israeli and American, Jewish and non-Jewish, for years to come. Happy Passover, Deni! 

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On the Jewish holiday of Purim, which took place 3 weeks ago, there is a custom to give mishloach manot, gifts of ready to eat food, to friends.  While most people give “eat now” food—things which can be consumed right away, some have the custom of giving Kosher for Passover foods which can be eaten exactly one month later on Passover.  I am happy that the Chessler Family is in the first category!

Noah Chessler celebrated his bar mitzvah February 25th on Purim evening.  It was not the Purim bar mitzvah Noah or his family had envisioned.  For years, the Chesslers were anticipating a Purim bar mitzvah and party with an in person megillah reading and costumes, accompanied by hot dogs, cotton candy, games, booths and other festivities for all guests to enjoy. Instead, the bar mitzvah took place in their apartment, on Zoom.  In the age of Covid, Zoom bar mitzvahs have become the norm.  And it is up to families to make these events meaningful and fun.

I recently wrote an article about the Moving Traditions organization, and their guide booklet for Zoom bar and mitzvahs.  One key takeaway from Moving Traditions, rabbis and families interviewed is that these do-it-yourself b’mitzvahs have offered an unprecedented opportunity for a return to meaning and basics—with less emphasis on dress, invitations and the party.  And they are empowering to families. 

The Chesslers hired a skeleton crew to make sure the Zoom and the videos ran smoothly, they borrowed a megillah (Scroll of Esther) from Noah’s grandfather, and purchased cute and simple costumes (Ramen Noodle, potato chips and Heinz Ketchup t-shirts) for the family.  Noah read several megillah chapters “live,” from his home, while family and friends read megillah chapters from locations from New York to Massachusetts, California and even Israel!  The Chesslers made a truly inclusive and festive celebration out of a pretty straightforward 10-chapter story.  They essentially embellished the 10-chapter story by telling it in 20 acts with friends and sharing pre-recorded videos, tributes to Noah and more.

I was one of Noah’s teachers and was lucky enough to be on-site to help Noah lead maariv, the evening prayer, “spot him” as he read from the scroll, address him and present him with a bar mitzvah gift. I was also able to quickly change out of my dress clothes to sport an Israeli basketball uniform for most of the megillah reading.  It was a really fun evening! 

Noah's mom liked being able to personalize the experience and bring in and engage guests and participants.  “It really made the event feel lively and warm!”  In addition, she notes a silver lining of Zoom–“active” participation from Israel, Canada, the UK, Belize, and across the US including Oregon and New Hampshire!

I was impressed by nearly every decision the Chessler Family made in order to make the bar mitzvah fun and meaningful. One decision which was particularly close to my heart was Noah and the family’s support of three disability owned businesses as they planned their mishloach manot/guest bags. They provided gift bags and t-shirts printed by Spectrum Designs (, flavored popcorn by Popcorn for the People (, and chocolate covered treats by Truly Scrumptious by Alexa  (  Please read about Jewish organizations and individuals who have found ways to support disability owned businesses—and please consider ways to do the same!

Noah’s very special bar mitzvah is a recent memory, and Pesach is almost here.  We are all feeling hopeful that we will soon be able to return to in person prayer services and bar and bat mitzvahs.  May we continue to offer Zoom options as needed and appropriate, and may we continue to search for meaning—supporting disability owned businesses in the process is one great way!

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It is always a treat to hear my friends and colleagues, Fred Maahs and Yuval Wagner, teach about anything!  They have so much experience in life itself and in the world of disabilities inclusion specifically.  Yuval is Founder and President of Access Israel, and Fred is an accessible travel expert and consult and editor of Melange Accessibility for All Travel magazine.  Yuval and Fred both navigate the world from their wheelchairs.   I was drawn to their webinar topic this past Thursday—“Accessible Travel.” 

Both had their share of horror stories—getting to a hotel and not being able to get in to the bathroom, for one; the humiliation of trying to get on to a plane and to your seat (never mind to the “accessible bathroom” for two)…

Both Fred and Yuval have great attitudes and perspective and continue to be part of the solution.   Fred reminded the audience just how much money is NOT being spent by people with disabilities on travel—though they would LIKE to be spending that money! (somewhere around a billion dollars!).

Maahs and Wagner offered many simple and practical solutions to improving the travel experience for people with disabilities.  Maahs suggests including people with disabilities in the planning and design of airports, hotels, conference centers, pointing out that “following the book” is never enough.  He playfully notes that planning a conference center with shag carpeting is a nightmare for a person navigating the space with a wheelchair.  Similarly, putting an iron on the top shelf of a closet in a hotel room is of no use to Little Person or a person who uses a wheelchair.  Maahs stressed the need for helping people in the hospitality industry experience the world with various disabilities.  

Wagner proudly noted that in Israel, it is REQUIRED that workers in this industry must be trained in “how it feels to have a disability.”  They must also be trained in providing accurate information on how to navigate the city—by train, by bus, etc.  And “all entities in Israel must advertise accessibility details.”   Israel continues to strive toward being a world leader in accessibility.  Yuval and Access Israel and Friends of Access Israel (FAISR) like to refer to Israel as the Accessible Start Up Nation.

Saron McKee, Philadelphia International Airport’s first Manager of Access and Accessible Programs, also addressed the webinar.  She shared many things already in place at the airport to support people with, both visible and invisible disabilities, including (but not limited to) accessible adult changing tables, LCD monitors and the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard.  While I have been in this field for decades and have been leading disabilities trips to Israel for a very long time, I had never heard of this important lanyard concept. 

According to the Hidden Disabilities Store website,   “In 2016, the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower was designed and launched when London Gatwick Airport asked “How can we identify that one of our passengers may have a non-obvious disability?”. We created a simple sunflower design on a green background for a lanyard – a subtle but visible sign to enable airport staff to identify that the wearer (or someone with them) may require some extra help, time, or assistance when moving through the airport.”  Here is a short video:

It is exciting and refreshing hearing Yuval, Fred and Saron discuss accessible travel.  It is a reminder that we are SO CLOSE to returning to a world where travel is possible, exciting, safe and a right for all!

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In the summer of 1973, when I was a boy, we towed our 32-foot travel traveler to Stone Mountain, Georgia for a family vacation.  As part of the trip, we would take a detour to Atlanta to see Hank Aaron play.  We had the chance to see Hammerin’ Hank hit his 700th home run.  The radio was going crazy letting it be known that the person who caught the home run ball and returned it would receive 700 silver dollars!  I don’t believe we sat in the bleachers, but I do remember being excited to see my first game in a ballpark other than Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. It was my first national game and it was against the New York Mets.  It was awesome, except that the Braves chose to rest Hank Aaron that night.  He would hit his 700th homer a day or two later, on July 21, 1973, against the Phillies’ Ken Brett, becoming just the second baseball player to ever hit 700 home runs in a career.

I was disappointed, but I got over it.  I followed the rest of Aaron’s career and managed to collect a few Hank Aaron baseball cards and which may have just gone up in value following his sad passing at age 86 just a few days ago.

In 1974, Aaron hit home run 715, passing Babe Ruth for the all-time lead. He hit his 755th and final home run on July 20, 1976 against the California Angels.  He retired in October of 1976.

I have enjoyed the beautiful tributes to this great man.  Bud Selig, Commissioner Emeritus of Major League Baseball, wrote of the Hall of Famer, “My wife, Sue, and I are terribly saddened and heartbroken by the passing of the great Henry Aaron, a man we truly loved, and we offer our love and our condolences to his wonderful wife, Billye.”  Selig and so many others spoke of his many wonderful qualities, on and off the field.  “Besides being one of the greatest baseball players of all time, Hank was a wonderful and dear person and a wonderful and dear friend. Not long ago, he and I were walking the streets of Washington, D.C. together and talking about how we’ve been the best of friends for more than 60 years. Then Hank said: ‘Who would have ever thought all those years ago that a black kid from Mobile, Alabama would break Babe Ruth’s home run record and a Jewish kid from Milwaukee would become the Commissioner of Baseball?’

In 2008, Aaron, Selig and ESPN’s Michael Wilbon spoke at the Phoenix Art Museum’s Luncheon of Legends to raise money for educational programming.  At the luncheon, they discussed their 60-year friendship, baseball, heroes and their membership in the Hall of Fame.  The Arizona Jewish newspaper reported that Selig is one of four Jewish people to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, he visited Israel in 1998, and wrote a foreword to the book “American Jews and America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball.”

Aaron spoke of past players he admires, including Jewish legend, Sandy Koufax, known as a star pitcher for the Dodgers, and as a Jew who decided not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.  Despite Koufax's amazing ERA and winning three Cy Young Awards, Aaron managed to do well against Koufax.  He hit .362 with seven home runs off the lefty pitcher.

Baseball and the world need more like Hank Aaron.  He was a great ballplayer, a great man and a great fan.  Selig notes, “The thing about Henry, when you are friends with him, he never lets you down.”

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