Disabilities

Original article published in the TJP news

Team Israel manager carries torch at 21st Maccabiah Games

Ian Kinsler’s warm relationship with Israel is about to grow even stronger.

When Ian Kinsler went to Israel for the first time, he and his wife experienced the country’s beauty as well as its bureaucracy. The four-time Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star, 2017 World Baseball Classic champion, Team Israel second baseman and current Dallas resident had to persevere through the sometimes frustrating aliyah process. Kinsler became an Israeli citizen in order to play in the 2020 Olympics (held in 2021) for Israel’s National Baseball team.

Now, Kinsler, the newly appointed manager of Team Israel, has again gone to Israel, with his wife and two children. He had the honor of carrying the torch at the Maccabiah Games, and will travel around Israel leading baseball workshops, greeting fans and getting reacquainted with the Jewish homeland.

Kinsler recently spoke with the TJP while on vacation in Idaho, moments after learning Team Israel’s draw in the March 11-15, 2023, World Baseball Classic Qualifiers in Miami. Israel will participate in Pool D with Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and a team to be determined from the qualifying tournament.

Kinsler, who currently works in the front office of the San Diego Padres, has been looking forward to his first managerial experience. While the storied Team Israel battled through the 2017 World Baseball Classic and ultimately reached the 2021 Olympics, he doesn’t take their success for granted. “The draw looks fine but either way, you have to be a good team. It is going to be competitive!”

Kinsler is already familiar with the venue for the March tournament. “I played the 2017 WBC with the USA Team there. It is a fantastic stadium with great crowds. It will be super exciting and electric playing against the Latin American teams. I am looking forward,” reported Kinsler. He also acknowledged the work ahead of him. “It is going to be a tough roster to make. It will be hard to decide who is on and who is off.”

The dual U.S.-Israeli citizen was eager to again represent Israel and the Jewish people. He looks back fondly on his past experiences with Team Israel. “Representing my lineage and heritage and doing it in the Olympics in Tokyo was super exciting for me!”

Ian Kinsler played for Team Israel in the 2020 Olympics (played in 2021) and was recently named Team Israel manager. Next March, in Miami, Team Israel will participate in Pool D of the World Baseball Classic Qualifier with Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and a team to be determined from the qualifying tournament.

Kinsler noted that the number of Jews in baseball has always been “a very small group of guys.” He added, “I always knew all of them.” He has not experienced any antisemitism in his baseball career.

Kinsler grew up in a home with one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent and was not “raised religiously”; the family marked Passover, Hanukkah, Easter and Christmas. He did not celebrate a bar mitzvah. His experience with Israel baseball has helped bring him closer “to that side of my family.”

Kinsler enjoyed his first visit to Israel and was anticipating sharing it with his children. “Visiting Israel is eye-opening, regardless of faith. Going back will be pretty special. I am looking forward to it.” Kinsler enjoyed visits to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other cities in his first trip and noted, “The markets in Jerusalem were my favorite.”

On this trip, Kinsler was one of five torchbearers at the Maccabiah opening ceremonies in Jerusalem on July 14 and he threw out the opening pitch at a Maccabiah baseball game. He is conducting baseball clinics for Maccabiah baseball players this week at the Ezra Schwartz Ballpark in Ra’anana.

The local Dallas Jewish community is proud of Kinsler. “As Jewish National Fund-USA’s director in Dallas, I feel an extra sense of pride and excitement knowing Dallas will be well represented by our very own Ian Kinsler at the World Baseball Classic,” said Ellie Adelman. “Team Israel is very special to me. Through our Project Baseball initiative, Jewish National Fund-USA covered a large portion of Team Israel’s expenses for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, and as part of the expansion of baseball activities in Israel, we’re partnering with the Israel Association of Baseball to build new baseball fields in Israel, including a brand new state-of-the-art field in Bet Shemesh that will eventually be the home playing field for the national team. The new facility’s strategic location between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will bring international tournaments and attention to Bet Shemesh, along with the accompanying benefits of tourism. It will also continue to bring America’s pastime to the hundreds of thousands of American children and families who have made aliyah and gives the children an opportunity to embrace this familiar sport as a way to ease their integration into Israeli life. Project Baseball is a wonderful project to support, and we’re looking forward to seeing the team reach new heights at the WBC under Ian’s leadership.”

In his new role, Kinsler draws on a wealth of baseball experience. Kinsler played 14 seasons in the MLB with the Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels, Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres. Kinsler was a four-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glove winner and a member of the 2018 World Series champion Boston Red Sox. Kinsler considers winning the World Series and the WBC with Team USA to be his two greatest baseball accomplishments. “Winning the World Series is the pinnacle of the sport!”

Kinsler’s career includes twice hitting 30 home runs and stealing 30 bases in both the 2009 and 2011 seasons while with the Rangers. He also hit for the cycle in a game in 2009, while getting hits in all six of his at-bats. Kinsler retired following the end of the 2019 season with 1,999 career hits.

He continues to share his love and knowledge of America’s favorite game in Israel.

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Original article published in the JNS

The coronavirus provided an opportunity for the founders of Dogiz to rethink their business.

Dog owners in need of a walk, concerned about health and wellness, or looking to support important societal causes … meet Dogiz.

Founder and COO Danny Djanogly, 32, and CEO Alon Zlatkin, 37, created the Dogiz company and dog-walking app while students in a business-school class on startups at Israel’s IDC Herzilya (now Reichman University). While their original plan was to make it easier for dog owners in Tel Aviv to find walkers while at work—and to create jobs for people with disabilities—the recent COVID-19 pandemic posed new challenges as people were staying home with their dogs more and needing less help. It also provided an opportunity for the founders to rethink the business.

As a result, Dogiz has just launched an updated app, website and business plan for these changing times.

Djanogly was pleased with how things were going with Dogiz prior to the pandemic. In 2015, the two immigrants—one from northwest London and one from Kazakhstan—were accepted into the HIVE, an accelerator for olim (new immigrants to Israel) and won a Google competition that landed them their first $100,000 investment. They received support from Samurai Incubate Inc., an early-stage Japanese venture-capital firm that has invested in more than 33 Israeli startups. They were imagining a company that offered services such as dog-walking, doggie daycare, boarding and grooming.

When Djanogly and Zlatkin met Aviad Friedman—an Israeli author, businessman, adviser to Israeli ministries, as well as former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and (at the time) chairman of the Israeli Association of Community Centers (IACC)—he suggested that they consider training and employing people with disabilities. He had some expertise in the area; he is the father of a 24-year-old son with autism.

The company offers services such as dog-walking, grooming, boarding and daycare. Credit: Courtesy.

Friedman pointed out that people with autism and other disabilities like and depend on routines and predictability, as do many dogs. He also shared data on the high rate of unemployment among people with disabilities and suggested they train and hire people with disabilities.

“We stumbled upon disabilities by accident,” says Djanogly, who notes that “we created Holchim B’Yachad [‘Walking Together’] and were growing unbelievably—we had 15 candidates with disabilities, a course and special trainer, and were working with the Shekel and Beit Ekstein [disabilities programs] in Israel.”

“We were flying until March 15, 2020,” reports Djanogly. “Then COVID hit. We were sure it would boil over soon. It didn’t—and so we had to face the harsh truth and reality. It was a curse and a blessing, and gave us some downtime to look at our business. We went to our board and told them that we could either close or change.”

The founders had an important observation. “We realized that 15% to 20% of dog owners use pet-care services like boarding, grooming and walking. But 100% buy food and use veterinarians. Dog owners are also a community where there is implicit trust,” say Djanogly and Zlatkin, who also spoke with many veterinarians.

They decided to create a platform to better manage their own dogs’ lives. The app and website, complete with a new logo, incorporate gaming techniques to educate and engage dog owners, along with a health and fitness tracker.

“Our mission is to help owners gain a deeper understanding of their dog’s health and reward them for being more active with their dogs,” notes Djanogly. “As dog owners, we know how hard it can be to manage your pup’s life, so we created Dogiz to do all the hard work for you.”

Dog owners are encouraged and incentivized to increase the fitness levels of their pets by keeping them more active. In the process, they earn Dogiz coins that can be used for discounts on products and services in the Dogiz shop.

For every action owners do on the app—completing a quiz, tracking walks, and providing weight, memory or mood updates associated with their pets—they get coins. They can also see on the leaderboard how fitness levels compare with other dogs in the neighborhood.

Danny Djanogly (left) and Alon Zlatkin. Photo by Sam Jakobson.

‘We are no longer geo-restricted’

As Djanogly and Zlatkin continued consulting with veterinarians, they also learned of an interesting trend that the doctors were seeing. The veterinarians reported that they were regularly receiving photos of dog poop from concerned dog owners who wanted to check if something was wrong with their pet’s digestive systems. And so, the Dogiz team created Dr. Poop, where a team of veterinarians reviewed images and created a program to quickly analyze the byproducts and let owners know how concerned they need to be about their dog.

“Dog poop is a clear window into a dog’s gastrointestinal health,” reports Djanogly. Owners can also earn coins by using Dr. Poop.

The two founders also take the opportunity to help less fortunate dogs. In the United Kingdom, for example, owners can participate in the “PAWpurse Miles for Meals” program. For each mile walked with their dog, a meal is donated to a dog in a shelter. In Israel, people can donate coins earned to a local dog shelter, which receives funding to support their important work.

Djanogly further notes that with the relaunch of Dogiz, “we are no longer geo-restricted.”

The company will continue to provide dog-walking services in Tel Aviv and London, and train and hire people with disabilities. But they have now expanded—creating an inclusive community of dog lovers and arranging partnerships with service providers and pet-food companies.

The duo says that they are pleased with their new direction: “It gives dog owners rewards and motivation to be active with their pet via products they need and use. Why not do it by keeping their dogs healthy?”

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Original article published in the JNS

Ronen Bar-Abraham, director of Adraba-The Shirley Lowy Center for Children with Disabilities, says it was founded “to fulfill an unmet need in Israel.”

Two 13-year-olds with autism—surrounded by family, teachers, guests and Rabbi Mikie Goldstein—celebrated their b’nai mitzvah during a special Thursday-morning musical Shacharit service at the Adat Shalom–Emanuel in Rehovot, Israel. Aviv and Yair put on tefillin, carried the Torah scroll, and recited the Torah blessings and prayers with the help of an augmented communication device. The bar mitzvah took place on May 26 as part of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement’s Adraba center, which has been developing and conducting bar and bat mitzvah programs for children with disabilities for more than 25 years now. To date, more than 5,000 children have taken part in the program.

It continues to be a busy season for participants in the program. From Akko to Haifa, Karmiel, Kfar Vradim and the egalitarian area of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, 100-plus teens with disabilities from families of all backgrounds and levels of observance will celebrate b’nai mitzvah at 20 venues between March 24 and the end of June.

According to Ronen Bar-Abraham, director of Adraba-The Shirley Lowy Center for Children With Disabilities, the bar and bat mitzvah program was founded “to fulfill an unmet need in Israel.” Bar-Abraham is proud of the program and its commitment to serve the needs of all Israelis. “The Masorti movement believes that every Jew with disabilities or challenges is a full and equal member of Klal Yisrael and should be included in a minyan as is every Jew.”

Aviv carries the Torah at his bar mitzvah in Rehovot, Israel, on May 26, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.

Goldstein, the English-born rabbi who moved to Israel in 1989 and has been leading Adat Shalom-Emanuel since 2014, appreciates the unique nature of the program. “It is a rare chance for these children and families to celebrate a Jewish life-cycle event they might not otherwise have thought possible,” he said.

He appreciates that the students come from “all sorts of religious and non-religious backgrounds—from Orthodox to completely secular to celebrate together” and believes “the program shows that pluralism can exist.”

‘It is inspiring every time’

The special day started with Bar-Abraham welcoming the 40 family members, teachers and guests and putting them at ease. “Shalom and mazal tov to all who enter! You can sit where you want—men and women together.” He also reminded excited guests to hold off on showering the b’nai mitzvah with candy until they finish leading the service and reading from the Torah.

Adraba staff shared a PowerPoint and video of the program, which described the curriculum and preparation process for the more than 200 students enrolled in 30 Israeli schools.

Ruth Rubin Lavie, who came on aliyah in 1978, began playing “Hinei Mah Tov” on her guitar. She is a congregant, b’nai mitzvah teacher and singer who regularly volunteers her musical talents by accompanying on guitar at the services. “It is inspiring every time to see the happiness of kids coming to the Torah and of parents’ kvelling,” she said.

Guests used the red, hardcover B’chol D’rachecha accessible siddur, for which the Adraba Center and the Masorti Movement have received awards from the Shalem Foundation (2010) and JDC-Ashalim. The siddur utilizes simple explanations, various colors and fonts, and picture icons that assist those unable to read standard Hebrew.

Ruth Rubin Lavie played “Hinei Mah Tov” at the ceremony on May 26, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.

Throughout the entire service, Aviv and Yair’s teachers patiently stood next to them with smiles on their faces. The teachers helped their students remain on task and facilitated student reading and singing with their augmented communication devices.

The service kicked off with the young men offering personal blessings. “Thank you, God, for giving me the ability to smile and be with my family.”

Goldstein and the teachers consistently modeled sensitivity, respect and inclusivity for all participants and guests. Prior to the central Amidah prayer, Goldstein asked: “Those who are able, please stand.” When the b’nai mitzvah boys had difficulties remaining at the bimah, a staff member seamlessly walked with them around the room until they were ready to return to the service.

Each boy was called to the Torah by name to recite the Torah blessings. Goldstein served as the Torah reader. Yair’s mother, Iris Elkobi, addressed her son, saying “despite the challenges, you are a leader in all areas. … Your dream is to be a millionaire—always listen to your dreams!”

Iris added, “This program is so special. It is a big mitzvah. The bar mitzvah is important for him and for the family, too.”

His father, Chaim, is proud of all five of his sons, but noted that this bar mitzvah was particularly miragesh, “emotional” in Hebrew. He elaborated, “It was so special seeing Yair in his tefillin. Today is a d’var kadosh—‘a holy event.’ ”

Yair reads Hebrew at his bar mitzvah in Rehovot, Israel, on May 26, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.

Yair’s school bus driver, Aron, grew emotional when he described the significance of the bar mitzvah. “This program is more important than tanks and missiles,” he said, acknowledging the amount of money Israel spends on defense while also emphasizing the need for ongoing funding to support the b’nai mitzvah program.

At the end of the service, Yair and Aviv received their own personalized copy of the siddur, as well as personalized blessings from parents and teachers. The ceremony took place under a large tallit. The young men were then showered with candy, lovingly tossed by kvelling guests.

The celebration continued with a festive breakfast of bread, salads, cakes and pastries outside in the synagogue’s specially decorated garden.

As the guests said their final “Mazal Tovs,” Adir and Yair left to return to school. The Adraba staff now turned their attention to the 20 students looking forward to celebrating their same milestone before the school year ends. In a few months, it will be time to begin preparing even more Israelis with disabilities for their special days.

The red, hardcover accessible siddur, used by the boys at the ceremony in Rehovot, Israel. Photo by Howard Blas.
The bar mitzvah venue, Adat Shalom–Emanuel in Rehovot, Israel, on May 26, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.
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Originally published in Jewish Insider

In Short

Birthright Israel’s “Big Tent” approach allows participants from a range of Jewish backgrounds, including families with only one Jewish parent – and, though less-widely known, to people with disabilities and medical issues. 

Isaac Orhring of Danbury, Conn., still can’t stop talking about his unique Taglit-Birthright Israel trip three years ago. “Every Jew should have the right to go on Birthright Israel as a rite of passage, just like a bar mitzvah! Unfortunately, not everyone’s aware of every kind of disability. While some disabilities are obvious, others, including autism, are not. This should not stop young Jewish adults from visiting Israel for free on Birthright Israel.” he said.

Birthright – for all Jews

Taglit-Birthright Israel is well-known around the world for its free trips to Israel for Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 32. Since 1999, they have given over 750,000 people from 68 countries, every U.S. state and nearly 1,000 universities the opportunity to experience Israel and Judaism first hand.

Birthright Israel’s “Big-Tent” approach welcomes participants from a range of Jewish backgrounds, including families with only one Jewish parent – and, though less-widely known, to people with disabilities and medical issues. 

The program included people with disabilities and other support needs almost from its inception, with its first accessible trip in 2001. To date, over 2,000 participants have participated in more than 75 trips through various trip provider organizations.

A “Pinch Me” Moment

In 2019, Birthright Israel reviewed its policies on disabilities, developing a mission statement that clarifies its stance that all are welcome on the trips, regardless of disability. “Guided by our Jewish values, we aim to be inclusive of all individuals with disabilities, special requirements, limitations or challenges.”

Potential participants may be considered for participation on a typical Birthright Israel trip, or they may elect to participate in a specially designed trip with support for their needs. The itinerary often includes the usual “highlights” including the Dead Sea, Masada, the Kotel and camel riding. 

Trips support participants with various intellectual, developmental physical and sensory disabilities, medical issues and addictions. Recent trips include a range of themes: American Sign Language, Asperger’s syndrome, inflammatory bowel disorders, physical medical disabilities, twelve-step recovery and others.

Feedback to date has been positive.

Pamela Saeks, mother of an Aspergers trip participant said, “For years we searched for an organized trip to Israel that had the additional support necessary to enable Karly to participate.” Birthright’s willingness to include Karly was a “‘Pinch me, I must be dreaming’ moment,” she said.

Danny Wolf of Los Angeles participated on the Tikvah Ramah trip. He has cerebral palsy with limited mobility and verbal abilities. An aide funded by Birthright Israel assisted with feeding, self-care and communication needs. 

“It sounds corny but he has the same birthright as any other young adult who is Jewish to experience Israel independently without his parents,” Danny’s mother, Michelle Wolf, adds.

Pete, a participant on a Birthright Israel twelve-step recovery trip, reflected on his childhood Hebrew school experience, followed by “a series of events that paved the way for trouble” and subsequent addiction issues.

“Recovery has been my path to taking responsibility and to growing up,” he said. “Coming on Birthright Israel, I knew I would have a chance to have a second bar mitzvah. I brought my tallit and tefillin, which I received for my original bar mitzvah. This trip has given me the chance to have my real bar mitzvah and today I am ready to embrace the responsibility that it entails.”

Building a Special Trip

Most Aspergers trips include a visit to the Holon Children’s Museum “Invitation to Silence” exhibit. During the hour-long tour, participants are taught by deaf guides to use non-verbal communication. Participants gain a better understanding of the Israeli deaf community, and the deaf guides learn of the many strengths of people on the autism spectrum. 

Some trips include visiting army bases to meet soldiers with disabilities as part of the “Special in Uniform” program. The soldiers with disabilities share their experience in the army and national service and of their overall experience as an Israeli with autism. The encounter usually ends with a joint pizza party and the exchanging of contact information on social media.

As Israel’s borders continue to open even more to tourism and as the number of Birthright Israel trips increase, it is a good time to continue spreading the word about Birthright Israel’s commitment to sharing the Birthright Israel experience with every Jewish — with and without disabilities and medical needs.

The authors have been associated with and committed to Taglit-Birthright and accessible trips for many years. Elizabeth Sokolsky is the executive director of Taglit-Birthright Israel. Howard Blas is a social worker, special education teacher, Jewish educator and writer. He has been associated with the Tikvah (disabilities inclusion) program at Camp Ramah for 35 years. He currently serves as the director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network. He has led one Tikvah Birthright Israel trip for participants with intellectual and developmental disabilities through Amazing Israel and four Birthright Aspergers trips through Shorashim.

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