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Every August, I gear up for my favorite event of the year—the US Open.  For the past 15 years, I have had the privilege of spending three weeks at the US Open—from the qualifying tournament through the finals. I have been a member of the media, covering the tournament for various Israeli publications.  This year is different.

In the era of Covid, being a credentialed US Open media member means being “in the loop” for all tournament communications—leading up to the tournament, and during the tournament.  My fellow journalists and I will be writing about tennis—from wherever we happen to be.  We will be given all the match coverage and important information we need.

This week, most communications have started “X withdraws from the US Open.  Y moves in to the main draw.”  Yesterday, for example: 

 Simona Halep (ROU) has withdrawn from the US Open.

 Irina Khromacheva (RUS) moves into the Main Draw.

 Usue Arconada (USA) is now the first player out.

And today: 

Yen Hsun Lu (TPE) has withdrawn from the US Open.

 Federico Gaio (ITA) moves into the main draw.

But these communications don’t capture the excitement and positive feel—and sense that this month of tennis planned for New York just might work!

There was a media conference call today on Health and Safety Protocols–for both the 2020 Western & Southern Open (to be held in NYC) and the US Open.  It was SO reassuring.  Three very informed, thoughtful, articulate, and caring individuals helped reassure members of the media that there is so much good news and so much to look forward to with these two tournaments about to start.  Michael Dowse, CEO and Executive Director of the USTA; Stacey Allaster, USTA Chief Executive of Professional Tennis and US Open Tournament Director; and Dr. Bernard Camins, Medical Director for Infection Prevention for the Mt. Sinai Health Systems, and Member of the USTA Medical Advisory Group were rock stars.  While none of the members of the media on the call will be physically present at this year’s tournament, we are in a great position to be ambassadors, and to be positive.

Some things which caught my attention:

– Despite some of the challenges we have faced, in the women's draws we have 10 former Grand Slam champions, seven former No. 1s, and 81 of the top 100 players competing.

-On the men's side, we have seven of the top-10 players playing, eight former Grand Slam finalists, and 90 of the top 100 players.

-As of this morning, almost 350 players have entered this centralized Western & Southern and US Open

environment. We will all remain in our environment for as long as we are competing and they are competing for that prestigious ATP Masters Series title, WTA Premier title andGrand Slam title.

-The athletes have everything they need. They have comfortable housing, medical testing, transportation, practice facilities, trainers, physios, a variety of food services, and a number

of experiences for their off-time both on-site and in the official hotels. As we've seen the players come in, the energy has been really positive. They're excited to be back. They're happy to see each other. We've been thanked quite a bit by players for putting on these events. I think I would say there's a strong sense of community that we are all in this together for our sport and for our fans.

– The fundamentals of the plan are a multi-tiered system.  Ultimately that's limiting the amount of interaction, the different roles and responsibilities.

There are three tiers:

Tier one, that includes all the players, their guests, tournament off staff, officials and the medical teams,

approximately about a thousand people in the tier one group.

The tier two group includes broadcasters, people who may interact but have very, very, very little interaction and exposure.

Lastly, the third tier, includes staff, whether it be security, parking, vendors. Again, their limited interactions are even less.

-“ Together with ESPN and our international broadcasters, millions of fans in more than 200 countries will have the opportunity to be inspired by what I believe are the most amazing athletes to compete in sport at the highest of levels.”

– MIKE DOWSE concluded by saying: “As I said in my opening statement, we have 100% confidence we're doing this properly. Again, it was not a host at all costs. We were very disciplined in our approach. Again, that was health and well-being number one. Number two, in the best interests of tennis. Three,

does it financially make sense for the players, the USTA and the broader tennis ecosystem. The thing I'm most excited about is the energy, as I shared earlier, from the players as they've come in and the

broader tennis community. People are starved to see these great athletes competing in these two big

tournaments. I'm really optimistic that we're going to look back at this in a few months and really be proud of what everyone accomplished, what this has done for our sport of tennis.”

One super fun fact which caught my attention:   Recent reports from the tennis industry are showing the sales of entry level tennis racquets and the purchase of tennis balls have nearly doubled in May, June and July.  Players from all backgrounds are discovering that tennis is the perfect post-pandemic sport. It's safe, social, great exercise, and most importantly tennis is fun.

With gyms still closed in many parts of the country, outdoor tennis (along with biking) have become great ways to get exercise and fresh air, while still socializing, safely.  Hats off to the public courts which have welcomed me and various partners 3 times a week!

Let’s keep the tennis going—safely!

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What in the world are Jewish people to do this Rosh Hashanah? Non-Orthodox synagogues in the United States have mostly decided to remain closed and to run traditional holiday services over Zoom. This is a relief to many people who still do not feel comfortable praying or even being in a building with many people who still do not feel comfortable being indoors for extended periods of time with large groups of people—even if social distancing is enforced.  Orthodox synagogues, which do not use technology on the Sabbath and holidays, are in a different situation.

I was pleased to read a recent JTA article which took a look at what Orthodox synagogue’s around the country are planning to do. Synagogues are working on “pacing and spacing,” (photo above is from JTA article–features an Atlanta shul), with services starting at Shaharit, and rabbis not to deliver sermons.   Some synagogues are even running services in different shifts. Some are exploring the use of outdoor spaces, though this is not so easy to find—and the weather in many parts of the country is not so cooperative in late September.

In these shuls, some cantor’s will be wearing masks or praying behind Plexiglas. And there is speculation about how the shofar will be blown.  Many synagogues are facing situations where older members will not attend due to health concerns and many younger members have left their home cities during the pandemic. 

I received an email survey today from a New York City Orthodox synagogue which I belong to.  Before launching in to a detailed questionnaire, the very kind letter begins by reminding members that the shul has always had an “open door” policy during the High Holidays, “offering all members of our community the opportunity to pray at our synagogue without reserving or paying for seats.”  It goes on: “Unfortunately, during these unprecedented times, we are forced to implement different procedures and will require that all attendees register for seats in advance of the holidays.” 

In a “typical” year, services begin 745 or 8 am and run until 1 or 1:30 pm.  This year, the synagogue is planning to offer two services during the day on Rosh Hashanah (subject to demand by worshippers). 

  1.  Full Service:  This slightly abridged service will last approximately 2 ½ hours and include Shacharit, Torah Reading, Rabbi’s Remarks, Shofar Blowing and Mussaf. Expected start time is 7:45AM.

  2.  Limited Service:  This shortened service will include Rabbi’s Remarks, Shofar Blowing and Mussaf. Expected start time is 11:15AM. 

Additional features of the Rosh Hashanah plan:    

* Total available seating will be limited to ensure social distancing.

* All seats will be assigned by the High Holiday Seating Committee.

* You may only enter the synagogue building if you received confirmation of a seating assignment and are on the security list.  As of now, NO WALK-INS will be permitted.

It is wonderful to see that synagogues are taking the pandemic very seriously—and are carefully and sensitively making some very tough decisions. The plan above will be useful for those willing to enter a synagogue this year. With exactly a month and two days to go before Rosh Hashanah (Rosh Chodesh Elul is this Thursday and Friday!), it would be nice to see other creative options creative and meaningful options in place for those who do not feel comfortable or safe entering the synagogue.  Hopefully, Orthodox synagogues will soon validate the concerns of those not attending and share info on “DIY Rosh Hashanah.”  What rituals can be done at home as a family?  Perhaps praying together as a family, blowing the shofar together, reading the Torah and Haftarah aloud in English, walking to tashlich, etc.   Please share other suggestions for making the holiday meaningful in the age of Covid!

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Every summer when overnight camps are in session (please, let’s be in session next summer!), I look forward to teaching Tikvah (disabilities inclusion) staff about the differences between equality and equity.  There is a classic image that explains it quite simply—in order to see a baseball game from the outfield fence, three people of different heights don’t have equal access to the game.   One can see the game over the fence, one’s view is partially blocked and the 3rd person can’t see at all as the fence is in the way!  They need different “things” in order to see the game—a tall person can see without any accommodation, while a shorter person needs a box or two to stand on.  Pretty straight forward.  Who could possibly argue that it is necessary to offer an accommodation?

Ellen Gutoskey in an article in mentalfloss.com offers an example by George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.  They point out that recognizing the difference between equality and equity is important in just about every sphere of life: public health, politics, education, racial justice, and more. If each public school in a certain county receives 150 new laptops, that’s technically equal. But it doesn’t factor in that some of those schools might be located in high-income districts where most of the students already have their own laptops. Instead, officials should allocate the devices according to which schools have the greatest need for them—that way, they can minimize the chance that dozens of laptops will end up gathering dust at one school, while another doesn't have enough to go around.  This is a very relevant example as the majority of students in the country—regardless of means—are learning virtually.

A recent USA Today article and a recent This American Life podcast made me think more of the issue of offering accommodations to ensure equity.  In the USA Today article, students in Virginia who are immunosuppressed were advocating that all—not some—college courses be offered virtually this semester.   If only some courses are offered in person, those who are immunosuppressed and not able to attend classes in person due to medical reasons, would be left out of certain courses.  If all courses are offered online, everybody will have access to all courses.

This American Life very skillfully and sensitively addressed the issue of timed presentations.   Most people would not object if told their presentation cannot exceed five minutes.  However, a very articulate person who stutters demonstrated that he has absolutely no control over how long it takes to deliver a speech.  He timed his speech while practicing, and it took 2-1/2 minutes, yet when performing on stage, it was five minutes long—way over the time limit.  Listeners began to understand that offering an untimed option would be a reasonable accommodation for those who stutter.

There are many wonderful images of equity vs. equality online—simply google it.  Some images go even further—they point out that the ideal third option is justice—removing systemic barriers so that the cause of the inequity is addressed.   May we strive to offer access for everyone—it is only fair! 



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When our Ramah camps decided not to open this summer, we worked hard to find ways to meet the needs of our community members—both within each camp, and on the national level, through National Ramah programming.  On the camp level, there were Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah services, challah baking, Israeli dancing, yoga classes and more.  On the national level, there were Rich Recht and Josh Washawsky concerts, learning sessions, Musical and Mindful Mincha, etc.

How would we provide virtual programming for campers with disabilities?  As we polled our families through our Tikvah directors, we learned—to our delight—that community members with disabilities enjoyed participating in camp wide activities with their friends with and without disabilities.  In fact, they were great consumers—arriving on time, participating regularly and enthusiastically.   Campers with disabilities also enjoyed programs with fellow Tikvah Program members—like regular prayer and song sessions, and weekly video calls, known as Shabbos is Calling and Shavua Tov.

We learned that parents of participants in our vocational training programs worried their 18-26 (ish) year olds would feel isolated and lose hard and soft skills of employment if they were not engaged this summer.   How could the National Ramah Tikvah Network help?  Welcome to the 12-session Tikvah Virtual Vocational Training and Socializing Program! I wrote about this on July 2, at the start of the program.  Here is a progress report!

Under the leadership of Maya Albin, and with the ongoing assistance of Rebecca Finkelstein, Rachel Arditi, Sarah Parkes—all experienced Tikvah staff members from various Ramah camps–and with the help of volunteers and Tikvah directors, we organized a twelve session program which met Tuesdays and Thursdays.  We attracted 45 participants each session, from across four time zones.

When we designed the program, we planned sessions to address such topics as job skills and soft skills of a job; Thursdays sessions would involve a hands-on project, and we would hear from alum of our programs who would describe their current jobs, living situations, Jewish involvement and social lives. We also planned to have some time for socializing.

What we hadn’t anticipated is just HOW important this program would become in the lives of the participants and their families. The program offered reliability and predictability during uncertain times, it offered friendship and conversation during a summer when in-person socializing wasn’t possible.  The program expanded the world of our participants.  For example, worlds expanded when participants realized it was dark in Boston but still late afternoon in Sacramento!  During socializing times, they shared news of birthdays, vacations, and pets.  They talked about their own camp experiences and listened to the slightly different but very similar experiences in other Ramah camps. They sang Rad Hayom at the end of each session—a song we sing in all of our camps, with ever so slightly different edah (division) names! 

In our final session three days ago, Talia said, “I can’t believe how fast it has gone by.  It is crazy!  Austin said, “I hope we can continue in the fall!”  Participants had razor sharp memories for what we did in the previous 11 sessions.  Zach liked learning about budgeting and self-advocacy.  Maya liked folding clothes and learning about resumes.  Carly liked the interviews with alum.  For our last session, 50-year-old Matthew, an alum of Tikvah New England who was our guest in session 11, returned as a participant.  Sydney enjoyed learning about money and Tiffany remembered learning about personal space. 

 

While some group members have worked continuously through the pandemic (ie. Austin in a hospital, Tiffany and Matthew in grocery stores—and take great pride in being called “essential workers!”), others are still awaiting a return to in-person work.  They have all kept both their soft and hard skills—and their social skills–sharp through participation in our virtual voc ed program. 

As we were winding down our final session, Zach said, “It has been ha lot of fun. I hope you guys have an awesome rest of the summer and I hope to see you guys in the Fall!”  Maya offered, “Thank you for the great program!”  And Austin added, “It was very excellent, very fun and I am definitely giving you guys a great survey!”

We are reviewing the surveys and seeing just how much participants want to continue.  Stay tuned as we consider ongoing programing for the fall.  For now, we are planning a special evening this Thursday when we will be joining friends and colleagues from Flying Foxes, a program in Australia which provides socialization programs for people with disabilities.  Check out our International Dance Party!   



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