Original Article in Washington Jewish Week 

by Suzanne Pollak

“Having kids with disabilities is just as normal as having sports at Camp Ramah. It’s what we do,” said Howard Blas, director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah.

That is great news for 18-year old Uriel Levitt of Silver Spring, who has Down syndrome, a genetic condition in which a person has 47 chromosomes instead of the usual 46. This summer will be his fourth one at the camp. “He’s got this amazing opportunity for growth and independence. He’s away from home for two months,” said his mother, Dina Levitt.

She also is thrilled with her son’s summer filled with all-things Jewish. He attends a public school where there are not a lot of Jewish students. But, she said, at Camp Ramah, “he’s got the 24-7 opportunity to hang out with Jewish kids, to learn Jewish stuff.”

“All year long he talk about Camp Ramah. Often, we can’t find his underwear. He’s packed it. Every now and then we have to go and unpack his duffle back,” Dina Levitt said.

When at camp, her son lives in a bunk with other teens to 21-year-olds who are in the Tikvah Program and spends his day engaged in regular camp activities, often with his bunkmates but also with the rest of the campers as well. The Hebrew word tikvah means hope.

The entire camp eats together and celebrates Shabbat as a group. Uriel Levitt also enjoys singing and dancing rehearsals with everyone involved in the camp play, his mother said.

Being included in camp life is so important, because her son learns to model his behavior, she said. “That’s the whole point of inclusion.”

Uriel Levitt also learns responsibility and vocational skills. Two summers ago, he worked at the lake helping the youngest campers learn to swim. “They apparently loved him,” his mother said. Last summer, he helped out in the art room two or three days a week.

Josh Sachs, 21, of Rockville, also attends the Tikvah Program. He has been enjoying his summers at the camp for more than five years. Sachs also has Down syndrome.

As part of his camp life, Sachs has helped make the pizzas the counselors eat after hours. “Basically I chop up stuff. I sauté them and then we put them in the oven,” he explained. “Then we serve them.”

By enabling Sachs to be involved in Ramah’s daily life and work in the kitchen performing repetitive skills, the camp is providing the training to help the young man get a job, Blas explained.

Camp as a whole, but his kitchen work in particular, has “been a great experience” for Sachs, said his father, Steven Sachs. “His maturity and his ability to stay on task” has greatly improved.

The young man also has grown through his positive experiences in Temple Beth Ami’s special needs program and his current work at MOST, the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes’ Meaningful Opportunities for Successful Transitions program. There he is learning employment and social skills, his father said.

Camp Ramah, which is part of the Conservative movement, runs eight overnight camps and each has a program for children with special needs. The programs vary from being totally inclusive in camp life to some combination of inclusiveness and special programming, Blas said. All the programs feature Jewish life, he said, adding, “Everybody benefits form Jewish overnight camping.”

Not only do children with special needs have a true camping experience, but they also help other campers they interact with gain a sensitivity toward anyone who is different than them, Blas said.

Many campers continue on for years, eventually becoming counselors. Older children in the Tikvah Program stay on to learn vocation skills, Blas said, pointing out Josh Sachs. “He can sit for two hours and sauté vegetables that go on the pizza. There are a lot of jobs out there in the world – they might not be too exciting for you and me,” like bagging groceries and making pizzas, but these campers “can do it for hours and hours with a smile on their face.”


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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

The first annual Jerusalem Marathon later this month will provide spectacular views of 5,000+ years of history for spectators and competitors alike.

All competitors, that is, except for Richard Bernstein, a blind attorney from Detroit, Michigan.

Bernstein, 37, does not allow his lifelong lack of sight to limit his athletic endeavors.

The 42-kilometer race on March 25 will be his 14th marathon – not to mention an Iron Man in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 2008 and the Eilat Israman half-Iron in January.

The civil rights attorney only first got involved with sports after completing law school at Northwestern University.

“When I was growing up, expectations were much lower for people with disabilities,” he said. “The general consensus was that disabled people have no reason to compete or do physical fitness.”

Not being able to compete took a toll on Bernstein’s self-esteem.

“When you are younger, the leaders of the school – the cool kids – were the athletes,” he said.

Bernstein’s athletic pursuits are more than personal; he’s on a mission to change the public understanding of what disabled people can do.

“Playing sports gives legitimacy to blind people,” he said.

Running in Israel has added significance.

Over the course of the many trips Bernstein has taken to Israel, Israelis have always been accommodating and have gone to great lengths to help the blind athlete. Bernstein recounts buses which have strayed from their typical routes to bring him where he needs to go. People have gotten out of cars at red lights to help him cross an intersection.

He attributes the extreme kindness to the fact that “no one is afraid of being touchy-feely [in Israel]. They’d rather tackle me than tell me a car is coming,” he said.

Currently, people with disabilities are not required to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, where mandatory service for most citizens is, of course, the norm. Competing in the marathon is one way to advocate for the integration of the military, a significant part of Israeli culture.

In turn, Bernstein hopes to change societal perceptions and promote full integration of people with disabilities into Israeli society.

Aiding him in his mission is Shaked, a pilot in the Israel Air Force whose last name can not be printed for security reasons.

Shaked acts as Bernstein’s set of eyes – “the best guide I’ve ever had” – by giving him directional cues such as “hard right” and “soft left” when running.

“My skills come from seeing things from different perspectives,” Shaked said. “I close my eyes and see what might scare him.”

During the Eilat Israman triathlon, they rode a tandem bike and swam with a rope connecting them at the waist.

Shaked was the perfect partner.

Not only did he plan five steps ahead, accurately grade inclines and declines, and articulate every potential footfall, but he also shared the same ideals of raising disabilities awareness in Israel.

For years, the IAF pilot has been advocating for the inclusion of people with special needs into the army.

Shaked had one young man working for him as a graphic designer of pilots’ checklists; another worked in a unit sweeping the floor and performing odd jobs around the base.

Regardless of the job his recruits with disabilities do, Shaked hopes that his work will affect the mentality of the typical soldiers and eventually promote complete acceptance and integration of people with disabilities into Israeli culture.

Richard Bernstein has lived his own life fully integrated. He is a civil rights attorney, primarily handling cases in support of rights for the disabled, and he also is a professor at the University of Michigan, where he teaches social justice.

Practicing law is yet another opportunity to affect change.

“I believe in what I’m doing so strongly. I know that through the law, I can make a difference,” he said.

He didn’t complete law school without significant hardship, though.

Bernstein convinced Northwestern – which eventually changed its policy – that the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) was discriminatory against the visually impaired.

Without being able to see, Bernstein spent hours memorizing and internalizing material during his years in law school. He prepares similarly for trial by learning case law and all of the arguments by heart.

One of the biggest challenges Bernstein had to overcome was lowered expectations.

“There were so many people who said ‘college isn’t for you; law school isn’t for you.’ But I knew this was the kind of work I desperately wanted to do,” he said.

It took him four to five times longer to learn the material than it took his classmates.

All of the effort was for a greater purpose.

“I promised God that if He gave me the chance to graduate and pass the bar exam, I’d dedicate my life to representing people with special needs and make justice.”

That is exactly what he did. Today, he works exclusively pro bono in the public services division of his father’s law firm, choosing the cases that will have the greatest impact on people who otherwise would have no legal representation.

Participation in over 14 major races is a monumental accomplishment, but for Richard, running also provides for a spiritual relationship with God.

Training for a 42-kilometer race without the ability to see takes a tremendous amount of mental discipline and involves working through pain, hardship and difficulty.

“For me to work through that struggle, I was able to have a genuine connection with a higher being,” he said.

Shaked also feels that his work is a reflection of his Judaism.

“We are making a Kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name] by changing lives,” he said.

Bernstein has spent his entire life trying to open eyes and pave new trails, and he sees this latest endeavor as another landmark event on his bigpicture journey.

“God will give you what you need when you need it most,” he said.

“The Jerusalem marathon is going to be just another struggle I will overcome.”

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Aaron Rudolph’s drive to work from his home in West Hartford to the Walgreen’s Distribution Center in Windsor is usually uneventful. Having special needs and landing a meaningful job often poses more of a challenge.

Rudolph is one of the lucky ones. A story in the Hartford Courant five years ago about a yet-to-be-built Walgreens facility, a meeting with a job counselor at the Bureau of Rehab Services in Hartford, and a drop of good fortune were all part of the young man’s journey toward meaningful employment.

After graduating from high school, Rudolph began a one-year food service training program at Manchester Community College. He was then connected to a job counselor, which led to some work in food services. A job counselor was impressed with his work and suggested that Rudolph might be a good candidate for the Walgreen’s program. Following an interview to assess his job and social skills, and a nine-week, eight-hour a day unpaid training program in different areas of potential employment, followed by nine-week training stints, Rudolph was ultimately hired by Walgreens.

The 24-year old West Hartford resident, who loves the Beatles, Beach Boys and You Tube, has been to Israel four times, and regularly attends The Emanuel Synagogue, recently celebrated his nine-month anniversary as a Walgreens’ employee. While initially hired to work in the AKL division (where he essentially moved quickly up and down the aisles filling orders), he was soon switched to “detrash,” where he rapidly opens boxes and transfers items to plastic bins and places them on a conveyer belt.

Rudolph works 40 hours per week, and has full benefits – like sick time, medical, dental, a 401K and stock options, and soon he will be eligible for two weeks paid vacation.

“When you think of people with cognitive disabilities, they are usually involved in menial jobs or they work in workshops-they often bag groceries or work a few hours a week. And you always worry about how secure the job is-especially during an economic downturn. At Walgreen’s, Aaron has the potential to be there a long time,” reports the young man’s mother, Alison Rudolph, who explains that her son has mild to high functioning autism.

Her son, she says, couldn’t be more proud of his work noting that he “always speaks up and enunciates” when asked about his work” and “never complains when he is asked to do mandatory overtime.”

Rudoph is, perhaps, a bit more candid in describing his work. “It is nice, but it has its tough moments!” he says. “Sometimes the boxes I open are pretty hard. When I open the plastic wrapping, sometimes it goes all over the floor-especially with the huge fan going!”

But he does enjoy the camaraderie of his fellow workers. “I get along with them, I have lunch with them, and we sometimes talk about our weekends,” he says. “I feel great working full time and I feel good about the job!”

“Aaron is a great employee,” Joe Wendover, Walgreens’ outreach manager at the Windsor Distribution Center, told the Ledger. “Hiring Aaron helps to show other employers that it is a good thing and the right thing to do.”

Walgreens invites other companies to tour their distribution center to see that it is truly possible to train and hire people with disabilities. “It is unfortunate that some employers can’t see past a disability,” says Wendover, who will participate in a panel on vocational training and employment at Advance: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funders Conference to be held in New York City on Oct. 20 to discuss funding for special needs programs in the Jewish community (see story).

Alison Rudoph and her husband, Jeff, are impressed with Walgreens’ commitment to hiring people with disabilities.

“In the warehouse, there are people with many kinds of disabilities. I have seen people in wheelchairs, people who are hearing impaired, and many others. As long as you can do the job, you will be employed there. They feel very fortunate that Aaron is part of the Walgreens family. “

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