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I have tennis on my mind 24/7 these days!   Yesterday, I was delighted to have two tennis articles published in the Jerusalem Post—one featuring Israeli tennis legend, Andy Ram, and the other featuring American Jewish tennis player, Noah Rubin, who is making a name for himself on the court and off, with his Behind the Racquet series, where he has helped more than 50 professional tennis players share their stories of challenges, mental health issues, etc. (I couldn't resist sharing my photo with Andy Ram from the Davis Cup in Florida a few years back–and the photo from a US Open media tournament!)

I have been thinking about tennis since the very exciting, albeit with no fans or media US Open, which just came to a close. I was lucky enough to have a good number of articles published in the Jerusalem Post; while Noah Rubin made it “in,” my final US Open wrap up piece didn’t make it—this happens sometimes given the time frame between writing and publishing—especially with Israel 7 hours ahead of the US!  The never published piece—which references the extremely exciting Zverev/Thiem match, Osaka/Azarekna, Wheelchair Tennis, and the upcoming French Open—scheduled to take place with fans—is in italics below.

Tennis is also on my mind since I have been lucky enough to play 3 or 4 times a week these past few weeks.  It seems that tennis’ popularity really IS on the rise.  In a pre-US Open blog, I noted that racket and balls sales are up in recent months—tennis IS the social socially distant sport—unlike basketball or football or so many other sports, it is possible to socialize while maintaining a safe distance while playing tennis.  

It has been especially fun to play on public courts with so many different partners, from so many different backgrounds.  It is fun going to the local pubic courts and watching parents introducing children to the game on one court, while pros give lessons on other courts, and old friends play on yet other courts.  Let’s hope the weather holds out for outdoor tennis—just a few more weeks!  Perhaps by then, indoor courts will open somewhere, and the grass growing through the public park cracks will die—just in time for next season!

 

US OPEN WRAP UP—by Howard Blas

Another US Open, albeit an unusual one, is in the books.  No. 5 Alexander Zverev and No. 2 Dominic Thiem walked out on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium at 4:17 pm New York time to battle it for the winner’s trophy and top prize of $3 million ($1,500,000 for the runner up).   Zverev raced off to a two set lead and appeared to be on track to quickly defeat Thiem, despite Thiem leading the head-to-heads, 7-2, including a 3-0 edge in the majors.  At the 2020 Australian Open, Thiem met Zverev in the semis and said, “I know what Sascha is capable of.  The last match we had in Australia, we were both, I mean, really, really good. It was such a close match.”

Three hours later, Thiem learned what Thiem is capable of!  Thiem battled back to win the greatest comeback in US finals history, winning 26, 46, 64, 63, 76 (8-6) in four hours, two minutes and becoming the first US Open finalists to come back to win from two sets down.  Thiem experienced right leg cramps in the tie breaker, but managed his fastest served of the match at 132 MPH, while encountering two Zverev double faults and a weak 68 MPH second serve.

In the post-match interview, Zverev said, “It was a tough battled.  I wished you would have missed a little more and I would be holding the trophy.”   He then began crying in describing his parents’ absence from the tournament due to a positive Covid test.

Thiem responded, “I wish we could have had two winners today.  We both deserved it.”

Prior to today’s match, the most significant feature of this year’s US Open finals was that it didn’t feature anyone named Nadal, Federer or Djokovic.  At the start of the tournament, 17-time Grand Slam champion, Novak Djokovic, appeared on track to be the easy tournament winner.  The tennis world was stunned when he was defaulted in the fourth round last Sunday after hitting a ball in frustration that struck a line judge in the throat on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium. This was truly a US Open for the record books.

On Saturday, No. 4 seed, Naomi Osaka trailing by a set and a break, battled back for an incredible 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory over former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka to win the women's singles title.  Osaka, 22, captured the 2018 US Open under very different circumstances. Serena Williams, who lost in this year’s semifinals, was penalized a game for calling the chair umpire a “thief” during a protracted argument, with play delayed and fans booing.  Osaka ultimately won, 6-2, 6-4 for her first Grand Slam title.

At the conclusion of yesterdays’ match, Osaka recounts, “I feel like two years ago, I maybe would have folded being down a set and a break, but I think, all the matches that I played in between that time shaped me and made me or forced me to mature more. Especially all the matches that I've played here were very tough. I think definitely I'm more of a complete player now. I feel like I'm more aware of what I'm doing.”

Azarenka, the 31-year-old Belarussian, who reached her last Grand Slam final seven years ago, and spent several years in a complex custody battle over 4-year-old son, Leo, was proud of her performance while also paying proper tribute to Osaka.  “I did everything I could today. Could I have played better? I think I could. But I left everything I could on the court today. She won the match. All the credit to Naomi. She's a champion.”

Osaka is the first woman to rally from a set down to win the singles championship match since Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 1994. She is also the first Asian player to win three Grand Slam singles titles, breaking the tie she held with China’s Li Na.  Osaka’s father, Leonard Francois, is Haitian-born, and mother, Tamaki Osaka, is Japanese. 

Osaka has made headlines these past few weeks for taking a stand on social justice issues. 

Naomi Osaka wore masks featuring names of Black victims of police brutality and racial injustice throughout the entirety of her U.S. Open run. Her masks honored the memories of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice. 

In the Western & Southern Open tournament leading up to the US Open, also played on the grounds of the US Open, Osaka followed the lead of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, who walked off the court before a playoff game against the Orlando Magic, setting off a two-day sports blackout.  Osaka’s boycott and wiliness to forfeit lead to the tournament taking a brief break before resuming.

At a press conference following her US Open final victory, a reporter noted that Osaka has been receiving thank you messages from some of the families of those killed and asked if she would be willing to meet with families and talk with them once the tennis season is over.  Osaka replied, “Yeah, I mean, definitely. I feel like for me I learn more through experiences. Everyone sort of thinks they know, or I actually don't want to know how they're feeling or how they felt during the process. For me, I feel like sharing stories and hearing people's experiences is very valuable.”

With Osaka’s US Open victory, she returns to the Top 3 in the world rankings.

This year’s US Open featured men’s and women’s doubles and wheelchair tournaments, but not mixed doubles or juniors.  The USTA originally planned to not feature wheelchair tennis this year in an effort to keep the number of people onsite to a minimum; ultimately, they relented and hosted men’s and women’s wheelchair singles and doubles and quads singles and doubles.

Shingo Kunieda, the No. 1 seed form Japan, won the U.S. Open men's wheelchair singles title, defeating Alfie Hewett 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (3) in a 2 hour 54-minute marathon.

In a press conference with USTA CEO Mike Dowse and US Open tournament director Stacey Allaster, held just three hours before the historic men’s finals, the two reflected on the tournament, lessons learned and the upcoming French Open. They were proud of their decision to carefully and thoughtfully proceed with the tournament.  Dowse reports, “We really established some guiding principles at the beginning. The first one was could we do it in a healthy and safe way for everyone. That included the players, the staff, even the local community here in New York.  The second guiding principle was is this good for the sport of tennis, will it reignite our industry in the broader tennis ecosystem. The third question is frankly did it make financial sense, that included for the players and for the USTA, again the broader tennis ecosystem.”

With the tournament winding down, they addressed finer points of the tournament, including automated line calls on the outside courts.    Allaster reports, “We've had four weeks of the experiment of Hawk-Eye Live. It's been a terrific success. There's no debate.”  She shared interesting data points. “Over the four weeks, Hawk-Eye Live has made a total of 304,000 calls. Close calls, 11,901. Those are the red or green that the chair umpire is seeing. The close calls during the US Open, just over 9,000.  This was a 2020 focus. We made no decisions around 2021. But this was a great effort on behalf of all of our competition team and the Hawk-Eye team members, both tours, to support the experiment. We couldn't be more pleased with how it has been executed.”

When asked about key takeaways from the US Open, Dowse spoke of the importance of ongoing collaboration with so many people and agencies in the decision making process. Allaster adds, “I think these four weeks have been able to demonstrate to the world how our sport can return to play safely.”  Dowse notes, “We had weekly calls with our peers at the Grand Slam board, so we've shared best practices with them, specifically Roland Garros who is starting in a few weeks.” 

This has been a most unusual year for professional tennis.  Wimbledon, which usually takes place in July, was cancelled.  The rescheduled French Open, usually held in late May, will take place in two weeks, from September 20-October 4th.  Unlike the US Open, held with no spectators and few members of the press in attendance, the French Open will permit spectators.  “I trust that the French Federation, with their leadership, and the French government, that they're managing the virus with their medical facts. They've deemed in their country, in their city, that it's safe,” notes Allaster.


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Ironically, the 6-hour webinar hosted by Access Israel on Tuesday, entitled “Accessible and Inclusive Remote Education for Students with Disabilities during and post COVID-19,” was longer than the school day for many students around the world.  And, unlike students around the world who are returning to in-person learning, the more than 500 participants and 23 presenters from over 75 countries (from Rwanda to Nepal!)  didn’t even need to wear masks, wash hands frequently or maintain distance from peers and teachers!  The content of the webinar was amazing, though it is admittedly difficult to sit for so long—and to absorb so much content.

I enjoyed learning from experts at Google and Microsoft and many other countries and organizations about accessibility features I never knew about—so many text to speech options, translation, captioning options and more—useful to ALL users.  I hope to write more about these in future blogs.  A quick example:  read all about Microsoft Accessibility features here. There is useful info on Microsoft Accessibility Mobility Features, Hearing Features, Mental Health Features, Cognitive Features, Vision Features and Speech Features.

I particularly enjoyed hearing about special education in a range of countries—and how the countries supported learners with disabilities during the Covid pandemic.  This is particularly relevant as all learners in all countries are in the process of returning to some form of education (in person, virtual, blended/hybrid). And this is complex even for learners without disabilities.

Racheli Abramson of Israel shared date on her country:  there are 2,200,000 school students in Israel, and 209,000 are in special education.  She reported that 170,000 of those students are integrated in to “standard classes.”   I am fairly certain she reported that 67,500 are in special (self-contained) classes). Even as the country closed schools for most learners, Israel “kept special education institutions opened daily for face to face instruction, as possible—to maintain the familiar study routine.”    They also tried to work with parents to answer their questions, find other solutions, etc.  [I will need to confirm these numbers above as they sound very high—especially in light of confirmed numbers below for New York City].

Christina Foti, Deputy Chief Academic Officer, Division of Specialized Instruction and Student Support at NYC Department of Education, reports that there are 1.1 million students in the New York City school system and 300,00 have disabilities; 25,000 with the highest need are in what is called District 75.   I was very impressed hearing Christina speak about how they partnered with Apple, who provided over 300,000 Ipods to students with the greatest need including those with disabilities and those in temporary housing.  They also partnered with internet companies to make sure students could have internet service for their online learning. 

In Austria, only 3% of students (3000 out of 1.1 million) are in special education. Andrea Reiger reported that they did not have internet access issues in Austria, but did rely on the Ministry of Education to provide 12 million Euros for Tablets. 

Perhaps most enlightening was learning about education in Namibia, Located near Angola and Botswana in southwest Africa.  Regina Hasiku reported that there are 3000 students with disabilities out of 850,000 total students.  There are 11 special education schools in Namibia.  Students did not have access to computers.  The schools quickly realized that most had access to radio and newspapers so all lessons, including worksheets and booklets, were offered through these channels.

It is always exciting to meet with colleagues from around the world.  The Access Israel Conference held in Israel each year is one amazing in person opportunity to learn from others.  This year, there was no in person conference.  Thank you, Access Israel, for so far offering 4 international webinars.  In the words of founder, Yuval Wagner, they are “for sharing best practices and knowledge, in order to improve the quality of life, accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities – leaving no one behind.”

Access Israel has done the hard part—creating a successful forum for bringing so many great people together.  One request for next time–shorter sessions and more coffee and bathroom breaks!




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There are so many creative holiday options and useful resources out there to make this most unusual Rosh Hashanah meaningful.

Last year, I wrote about Bowl Hashanah in a Jerusalem Post article.  Thanks to the generosity of Brooklyn Bowl owner and mensch extraordinaire, Peter Shapiro, a creative musical Rosh Hashanah takes place in this musical venue every year.   This year, they will expand, hosting 4 free online services from the Brooklyn Bowl.

Four events—on the first night and first day of Rosh Hashanah (Sept 18 at 7:30 pm ET and Sept 19 at 10 am ET), Kol Nidre (Sept 27 at 7 pm ET)) and Yom Kippur Day (Sept 28 at 10 am ET) will be led by Rabbi Daniel Brenner and musical director and Antibalas co-founder, Jordan McClean.  Jeremiah Lockwood, who was a member of Balkan Beat Box and Piedmont Blues musician Carolina Slim's Fraternal Order and has collaborated extensively with Antibalas, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Brian Chase and many others, will serve as musical and spiritual supervisor remotely.   Info on the free livestream on Fans.com is available here:

Synagogues are doing all kinds of creative things to bring Rosh Hashanah to the people. Most (especially Reform and Conservative) are offering Zoom only services, while some are offering shortened or blended options including morning services outdoors, or morning services on Zoom with afternoon/evening/tashlich and shofar outside.

Last week, I explored some creative options for Orthodox synagogues, which are not able to use technology on Shabbat and holidays

Earlier this week, I wrote about shuls from all denominations getting together in New York City for “Shofar in the Streets.   A wonderful model.

Just today, I came across resources which will surely be useful for families wishing to make Rosh Hashanah meaningful for their children.  One is from PJ library with their “High Holidays at Home Guide for Families”—a free download.

My Jewish Learning is offering a similar sounding resource:  “How To Celebrate the High Holidays at Home.”

They are also offering “Nine Things You Didn’t Know About Rosh Hashanah.”

Finally for today, I just discovered a very nice, recently released resource which is useful for families of children with disabilities, and for all children!  It is a social story from jkidaccess in Philadelphia! 

More to come….

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Imagine “Dancin in the Street” but with Shofars!

The catchy, upbeat song, first sung by Martha and the Vandellas in 1964, has been performed by the Grateful Dead (some versions are 16 minutes long!), the Mamas and the Papas, Van Halen—even David Bowie and Mick Jagger!   The song brings people together, and they can’t help but dance!

The Upper East Side of Manhattan will come together on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah (4 pm on Sunday Sept 20) for “Shofar in the Streets.”  As the flyer says, “Hear the shofar on the second day of Rosh HaShanah from your windows and balconies, or, meet us on the streets! WEAR YOUR MASKS AND MAINTAIN SOCIAL DISTANCE as shofars are sounded by East Side Jewish synagogues.” For safety reasons, it is probably best not to dance this year!

There are many reasons for blowing the shofar, nicely spelled out in the My Jewish Learning article, “10 Things the Shofar Symbolizes.”  Many of us are familiar with the shofar “waking us up” at this time of year, reminding us it is Judgement Day, and recalling both the Revelation at Sinai, and the Binding of Isaac.  Perhaps a lesser known reason is that the shofar foreshadows the coming of the Messiah.

When 15 shuls from all the various movements get together to enable whole Jewish world to experience and fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar—especially in a year when so many will venture in to a synagogue, then the coming of the Messiah is surely a bit closer!

Nice job, Upper East Side!  May you be an inspiration for Jewish communities around the world!

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