disabilities

Original Article in Chabad.org:

Sometimes what happens in Vegas shouldn’t just stay in Vegas. Levi Harlig’s extraordinary bar mitzvah is one of them.

Levi gave a flawless reading of Parshat Naso, the longest Torah portion of the year, and delivered a Chassidic discourse in Yiddish and Hebrew last Shabbat morning at Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson in Las Vegas. The following evening, the 13-year-old sang and drummed for three hours with entertainer Avraham Fried at a community-wide celebration at the Four Seasons Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

That would be an exciting experience for any bar mitzvah boy. But for members of the community who have known Levi since birth, the accomplishment was nearly miraculous.

When Levi was 15 months old, his mother, Chaya Harlig, co-director with her husband, Rabbi Mendy Harlig, of Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson, realized that something was not quite right about their son. “He wasn’t making eye contact or following directions. We got him into all kinds of therapies right away—occupational therapy, speech therapy and more.” Three months later, the Harligs learned that Levi had autism. He has difficulties with personal space and reading social cues, and he often focuses on topics of interest to him but not necessarily to other people.

“My husband took it a lot harder than I did,” said Chaya. “I think women have more bitachon [faith]. We set out to make Levi the best Levi he can be!”

In response to her husband’s concerns about where Levi would go to school, whether he would have a bar mitzvah and other issues related to Levi’s future, Chaya reassured him. “He will have a bar mitzvah, he will get married, and he will use his talents. He is really special!”

Harlig quickly realized that his wife was right. Levi has extraordinary talents, including perfect pitch and what his parents refer to as “audiographic memory.” Levi is able to remember essentially anything he hears, including songs, speeches, conversations he has heard in synagogue or around the Shabbat table.

The bar mitzvah boy shares Torah learning at the celebration. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

The bar mitzvah boy shares Torah learning at the celebration. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

Rabbi Harlig began including Levi in the life of the synagogue from an early age. “Each Yom Kippur, I would give my talk and then find a song in English connected to the sermon for Levi to sing. There was not a dry eye in the shul!” Levi regularly leads the congregation in prayer, and he greets congregants by name, upon arrival—often in a loud voice from up on the bimah!

Levi’s important role in the synagogue has allowed members of the community to become comfortable with a person with disabilities. “Levi is bringing people into the Henderson Chabad. He has a warm smile and welcomes everyone!” reports his father.

Wayne Krygier, a member of the Las Vegas Chabad community since relocating from Canada in 1989, concurs. “Levi is the heart and soul of the synagogue. The shul is his life—he feels so at home here!” Krygier jokes that Levi’s greeting everyone in a loud voice as they enter serves as an incentive to arrive on time.

Dr. George Harouni, a local dentist and regular Chabad of Henderson attendee, observes, “People are now accustomed to seeing someone like Levi. He has been part of the community since birth; no one thinks of him as being different.”

When Levi’s bar mitzvah approached, his grandfather, Rabbi Kalman Shor, who also serves as a rabbi for the Chabad of Henderson community, taught him Torah cantillation and sat with him for regular practice sessions. He notes that Levi’s musical talents made his job “much, much easier—once he learns it, he remembers it.” The congregation was clearly moved at the bar mitzvah. “They thought it was beautiful and emotional. And they were impressed that he made no mistakes.”

Jeff Berkow, a retired South African-born businessman and longtime active volunteer in Chabad of Henderson reports: “Levi was flawless! He sang the trope [cantillation] like a chazzan with 30 years of experience. People were amazed!”

Singing with Avraham Fried. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

Singing with Avraham Fried. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

High Praise From a Noted Singer

Levi’s bar mitzvah celebration continued with an Avraham Fried concert, attended by 300 people, a natural choice given Fried’s musical talents and personal qualities. Harlig explains, “He is a beautiful singer, a caring person, and he always showed love for Levi. I figured people would see them sing together, love it and get inspired. They were on a high.”

Fried reflects on the special Shabbat and evening noting, “I knew this bar mitzvah would be very special and memorable but, boy, this was out of the park! Levi loves music. He sings beautifully, and has a great ear and rhythm. He knows all my songs exactly as they appear on the CD. Every musical line and harmony, every place where the song modulates, and the intros and endings, not to mention every special inflection that I sing! We sang so many songs together—Hebrew and English. Levi was conducting the orchestra and was totally in charge. I am lucky to have met Levi years ago. I’m lucky he invited me to his special celebration. I’m very happy he has such good taste in music!”

The community’s embrace of Levi and inclusion of people with disabilities extends beyond one special Shabbat. The Harligs and the community dream of making Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson the “central address” in Las Vegas for including people with disabilities. “Going forward, we hope to continue showing the importance of inclusion, which Chabad has been doing for many years—unconditional love for all humans,” says Harlig.

Father and grandfather listen to the bar mitzvah boy. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

Father and grandfather listen to the bar mitzvah boy. (Photo: Norina Kaye)

Harouni is excited about Chabad’s potential to become even more welcoming to people with disabilities. “Inclusion will be a great addition to our shul. We could be a real center to offer people with disabilities a sense of belonging and an opportunity to be a part of the community.”

Berkow, who assists Harlig in running Chabad, proudly notes, “I want our Chabad to be theshul of inclusion, the place that caters to people with special needs and where inclusion is the centerpiece.” He also hopes Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson will serve as a satellite to the already successful Friendship Circle 15 miles to the north.

Chaya Harlig notes that Chabad recently purchased land, and future plans include Levi’s Place, where people can come for homework help, tutoring, programming and friendship. “We will have a community center serving many families. We will be inclusive and work together with all children on all levels.” She continues to hear of the impact that Levi has had on the Las Vegas Jewish community. “Because of him, people are becoming more religious, closer to the synagogue and Hashem.” She notes that she knows other shluchimfamilies with children with disabilities, and that Chabad offers resources and support.

(Photo: Norina Kaye)

(Photo: Norina Kaye)

Inclusion Initiative a Welcome Partner

Rabbi Harlig has found a natural partner in his mission towards greater inclusion the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII), directed by Dr. Sarah Kranz-Ciment. RCII is dedicated to building on the philosophy and mission of Chabad-Lubavitch by providing Chabad communities around the globe the education and resources they need to advance inclusion of people with disabilities. RCII engages Chabad’s network of resources to create a culture of inclusion so that all Jews feel welcomed, supported and valued throughout their entire lifecycle.

RCII is producing a song, a music video and an inclusive mural that shows that everyone belongs. It has also developed an an online bar and bat mitzvah guide, titled “Practical Ideas for Inclusive Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.”

Kranz-Ciment is proud of the work of the Harligs, their community and of Levi’s bar mitzvah, which she notes was “an opportunity to publicly show and make a statement about his many talents.” She continues, “Every Jewish soul is meaningful, and is obligated to be Jewish in the best way he or she can. The Rebbe said, ‘Your birthday is the day Hashem decided the world can’t exist without you. Inclusion is a chance to bring this to the forefront and show that what each person can do is valuable.’ All of us have a place in Judaism.”

(Photo: Norina Kaye)

(Photo: Norina Kaye)
Read more

Original Article in the Jerusalem Post

As the bus rolls up to the army base, A., one of the participants on the first ever Amazing Israel: Ramah Tikvah trip, begins to cry.

“No, there are soldiers here and they’ll have guns,” she moans. “No, no, no, no.”

Staff member Liz Offen speaks quietly and calmly.

“I know this is difficult for you,” she tells A. “We’re here for you. I know you can do this.”

A., holding hands with a friend, cautiously gets off the bus. At first she won’t even enter the large warehouse where special needs Israeli soldiers are folding army uniforms. She sits down outside, her friend with her, but she has stopped crying.

The participants on this Birthright trip, most of whom have attended the Tikvah program at different Ramah camps in the US, have a wide range of disabilities, both physical and emotional. They have come to the Bilu army base in Rehovot, outside Tel Aviv, to meet Israeli soldiers who also have disabilities and who are part of the Special in Uniform project.

The project takes more than 300 young Israelis with significant disabilities and trains them to do simple jobs in the army. It starts when the participants are still in school, which they attend until age 21. They can then volunteer for the army, and, if found suitable, can be inducted. 

The Bilu army base is a logistical base for the Paratroopers Brigade. Today, the students are folding army uniforms and tying them together in stacks of five. They come one day a week as part of their school program.

“The goal is to integrate them into Israeli society,” said Tiran Attia, a retired lieutenant-colonel, who runs the program. “It is good for them, but it is also good for the regular soldiers. It teaches them to become more compassionate.

The army runs a separate program called Ro’im Rahok (Seeing Far), which integrates young high-functioning adults with autism in Israeli intelligence units.

The young uniform folders carry tables outside so that the Birthright participants can help with the folding. A few participate, but most just watch.

The Birthright participants enjoy putting on Israeli army uniform shirts and hats. One young man proudly says that his father served in the army and he is happy to be visiting an army base.

This is the first time that Birthright Israel has partnered with Tikvah of Camp Ramah. Tikvah is a program for campers with special needs at each of the Ramah camps. The Camp Ramah spirit infuses this trip, which includes daily tefillot, or morning prayers, as well as a spirited version of “Rise and Shine” complete with hand gestures.

Howard Blas, the director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network, and one of the organizers of the special needs trip, says they made some changes to the traditional Birthright itinerary, while still hitting up the major sites in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, Masada and the Dead Sea.

For example, the group did visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, but kept to a few of the smaller exhibits, rather than the main museum, which can take several hours to go through and is difficult to exit once you begin.

“We did a lot of things that are very multi-sensory like chocolate making, a jeep ride in the Golan and tree planting,” he said. “We also tried to do as many things as possible with animals because they love animals.”

Birthright has so far brought 600,000 Jews on free 10-day trips to Israel, including 2,000 adults with special needs.

Birthright CEO Gidi Marks says it is committed to bringing every young Jew who wants to visit Israel on a trip.

“OFFERING SPECIAL needs trips fits in with our broad mission of enabling each and every young Jew around the world, regardless of their circumstances, to take part in a once in a lifetime trip to Israel and connect with their Jewish heritage and identity,” he said. “These trips include all the hallmarks of the usual Birthright Israel experience: heritage sites, Israeli peers and countless special moments allowing them to connect with Israel and the Jewish heritage. Additional staffing and educational content customizations are made when and where necessary.”

For the parents of these young adults, it was a chance for their kids to be just like their neuro-typical siblings.

“I don’t think he would get an opportunity like this any other way,” Aron Wolf, whose son Danny has cerebral palsy and limited verbal ability, said. “I was skeptical that it would come through but it did. As far as I know, this is the first time that somebody with Danny’s disabilities has been included in any Birthright trip.”

Birthright Israel funded a caretaker for Danny, as well. His parents, like the parents of all the young adults on the trip, were thrilled to see the photos posted on Facebook each day. They also checked in with the caretaker frequently by phone.

“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, said.

This is the first time that Danny has been so far from home. While he attends Camp Ramah in California, Michelle says that she is just a short flight away. She says she was concerned about sending Danny so far away alone.

“The idea of him being so far away from me was difficult,” she said. “I would have never even considered it if he hadn’t spent all of those summers at Camp Ramah.”

Tour guide Doron Kornbluth specially requested to guide this Birthright group. While most Israeli tour guides compete to stuff in as many sites and as much content as possible, Kornbluth said he had to take the participants’ disabilities into account.

“YOUR EXPECTATIONS have to be completely different,” he said. “A tour guide who is really invested wants to start early, end late, pack in a lot of information, teach a lot of history and that’s just not doable for this group. You cannot do as much at all.”

Another challenge is the range of disabilities of the participants. While all of them, except Danny, are able to walk, and most are able to speak clearly, a few are higher functioning.

Rachel Tracosas, 22, from Madison, Wisconsin, has high-functioning autism.

“It’s been an amazing experience to connect with my roots here in Israel,” she said. “I loved going donkey riding and going to the Kotel, which is what my brother did when he did Birthright last summer.”

The participants seemed to connect deeply with each other. Tracosas fed Danny at a lunch stop when the participants were given a budget and could choose what they wanted from a kosher food court in a local mall. Even that small independent step was exciting for them. They looked at all possible choices and discussed them before making their final decision.

Michelle Wolf said Danny’s caretaker told her that he is popular and that the participants all wanted to push his stroller. During lunch, several of the girls gathered around him, feeding him and smoothing his hair.

And every morning, when Danny managed to pull himself onto the bus by himself, his new friends gave him a spontaneous round of applause

Read more

Original Article in The New York Jewish Week

t the farewell dinner in Tel Aviv on the last night of our ten day Birthright Israel Amazing Israel Ramah Tikvah trip, we went around the table sharing memories and trip highlights. The 21 participants with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the six staff members, representing five Ramah Tikvah Programs and twelve states—from Wisconsin to Alabama—spoke enthusiastically about the jeep ride on the Golan Heights, the de Karina chocolate making workshop at Kibbutz EIn Zivan, the Night Spectacular Sound and Light show at the Tower of David in Jerusalem, the Biblical Zoo, the view of Syria from Golan, Masada, the Dead Sea, the Kotel, and shwarma! The participants then asked for my highlight. It didn’t take long for me to share my answer, though my highlight was so much more than a place. “Tefillot and your knowledge of Israel and Judaism,” I replied, as the group asked for clarification.

Tefillah is Israel. Courtesy of Howard Blas

Each day, our group met for morning prayers, in such places as hotel bomb shelters, banquet rooms, outdoor tents, and the bus. We used a special Tikvah siddur from Ramah camps, we faced east, and south—depending on our location. Some participants wore kippot, tallis and tefillin. And we sang such “classics” as Modeh Ani, Mah Tovu, Halleluya and Shema, and such Tikvah Ramah favorites as the Baruch SheaMARCH, Thank You, God, and The Rise and Shine Amidah Song. (The group had no problem MARCHING to the Baruch SheaMARCH prayer when we were praying in the hotel; they weren’t sure how we could safely march on the bus ride to Masada. We decided it was safer to sit!)

The participants got up early to sing and dance and share this meaningful experience with camp friends—all before eating a sumptuous hotel or kibbutz guest house breakfast. Alexa sat in the back of the room, or at the front of the group, using Hebrew sign language to sign each acrostic prayer—Ashrei, El Baruch and El Adon. She was happy to teach her friends Hebrew the sign language she learned at Camp Ramah in New England.

The California Ramah group recruited their friends to come up and lead the Shema and VeAhavta—making sure all eight members of the camp in Ojai, California were there.

Sam wanted to make sure we left time each morning for Adon Olam–and wondered, “Who will say the Shema with us each night before bed?”

Maddy, a female participant from Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, wanted to make sure she would have an opportunity to put on family heirloom tefillin—at the Kotel. We excused ourselves from the group’s tour of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park-Davidson Center, found a special spot, and had a few moments of special prayer, wrapped in tefillin.

The participants from the various Ramah Tikvah Programs felt a sense of connection to their fellow campers.  They enjoyed the predictability of the daily prayer ritual. And they looked forward to thanking God each day for the many gifts they have received. Isn’t that what prayer is all about?

Maddy asked me before the trip if she could lead birkat hamazone on Shabbat and we had a few takers for kiddush and hamotzi as well.

Ramah Tikvah participants in Israel. Courtesy of Howard Blas

Our tour educator, Doron, an observant Jew himself, was blown away, observing that this knowledge of and enthusiasm for prayer was not typical of most Birthright trips, or any Israel trip for that matter. He was also impressed with their level of knowledge about Israel and Judaism in general.

When Henry offered a scholarly explanation at Tel Dan in the north to a question about Israel’s water issues, Doron calmly removed his tour guide license from around his neck and placed it on Henry. “You are our tour guide now!” Henry was so excited, sharing his YouTube video acquired knowledge about drip irrigation and desalinization. Doron used this “trick” on several occasions, rewarding participants particularly knowledgeable about the Old City of Jerusalem, Masada and more with the tour guide’s license.

In the Israel Museum, participants found many objects and exhibits to be familiar—including tefillin, chuppah, matzah baking, Chanukah menorahs and the three fully reconstructed synagogues.

In the north, at the Mishnaic village of Kfar Kedem, the lovely guide thought he would be introducing the group to pita making on a taboon (outdoor oven)—like he has done for years with so many tour groups. For this group, pita making was nothing new. Our Ramah camps each bring 40 or 50 shlichim (Israeli emissaries) to camp each summer. Our campers have been making pitot and eating fresh chumous for years!

Touring in Israel. Courtesy of Howard Blas

Our ten day Israel trip was fun and educational for the participants. I too, learned a valuable lesson which we in the Jewish community should take to heart—and fund accordingly: people with disabilities are very capable of connecting in a meaningful way with Jewish ritual, practice, and knowledge, and with Israel. When our summer camps, synagogues, youth groups, schools, communities and Israel trips open their doors to include everyone, the payoff is as clear as the beautiful sky we saw from Jaffa on the last night of our trip of a lifetime.

Read more

Original Article in The New York Jewish Week

At Camp Ramah, Israel is central. Dozens of Israeli shlichim (emissaries) “bring” Israel to our nine overnight camps and four day camps in North America each summer. And, for decades, campers have been participating in a variety of programs through Ramah Israel including Ramah Israel Seminar, Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY), Ramah Israel Institute, and Ramah Jerusalem Day Camp.

Campers with disabilities in our inclusive camping programs have many opportunities to form meaningful relationships each summer with the shlichim, who serve as bunk counselors and teach swimming, sports, arts and crafts, dance, and more.

Through the generosity of the UJA-Federation of New York and an incubator project of The Jewish Education Project, and with the expertise of an inclusion specialist and specially trained counselors, Ramah Seminar, a six-week Israel travel and study program, has successfully included and accommodated several participants in recent years with physical and developmental disabilities. (Read “LOTEM – Making Nature Accessible.”)

Every two years during December break, Ramah Israel Institute runs the Tikvah Ramah Israel Trip, a ten-day multi-sensory Israel experience, for participants in our various Tikvah programs across North America. Participants with developmental and intellectual disabilities travel to Israel with specially trained staff and visit sites such as Masada, the Dead Sea, and the Kotel, while also planting trees, participating in an archaeological dig, and picking fruits and vegetables for Israel’s needy. Participants also visit the homes of their Israeli mishlachat friends. (Read more: “North Americans with Disabilities Meet Israelis ‘Just Like Them,’ and It’s Profound” and “The Typical Israel Experience And A Whole Lot More.”)

This year, Ramah is offering its first-ever Tikvah Family Israel Trip.From December 20-29, 2016, parents and children will enjoy hands-on activities as we explore Israel. The trip will provide families with a child with a disability to explore Israel as a family unit. A carefully prepared itinerary and expert guide will assure that all family members experience Israel in a unique way. Highlights include playing with guide dogs for the blind, touring the Kotel Tunnels and visiting animals at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, floating in the Dead Sea, experiencing Tel Aviv’s vibrant day and night life, and taking in breathtaking views of the Ramon Crater in the Negev desert. If the experiences of families participating in Ramah’s family camps and retreats for families with children with disabilities are a predictor, the Israel trip will afford families the opportunity to form deep and lasting friendships.

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director, writes, “Ramah Israel has been running family trips for many years and the participants are overwhelmingly appreciative. Running similar trips for families with children with disabilities is exactly what Ramah stands for—excellence in Jewish education and inspiration, and totally inclusive.”

Families interested learning more about the Tikvah Family Israel Trip may contact Howard Blas, Director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network, at howard@campramah.org.

Read more