The Original Article published On The New York Jewish Week

Howard Blas was live at an amazing showcase of young musical talent–all to benefit AKIM, Israel’s organization for people with intellectual disabilities.

The Musical Showcase to Celebrate Diversity, Ability and Inclusion Featuring the Awesome Talent of NYC Teens and Young Adults was set to start at 12:30 pm at Manhattan’s Cutting Room.  Yet, by noon, the funky musical venue was already buzzing with excitement. A large group of students from such New York schools as Blessed Sacrament, Horace Mann and Avenues were practicing on stage for their opening number, “Tequila.” Emily Negron, 15, of the Bronx, was getting in some last minute practicing of “All You Need is Love” at the rear of the venue with fellow Ideal School students, Vita Krasny and Laura Lyle. “Turn that way when you feel me put my hand on your shoulder,” Negron instructed her fellow performers.

When the concert began, a performer with a visible disability informed the crowd that she may be singing off pitch. The crowd clapped and went wild.  A brother and sister team, with the brother performing two songs from his walker, brought the house down.

Logan Riman of Edward R Murrow School sat at a piano and flawlessly played Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” as a photo of Riman with The Piano Man appeared on the screen.

Other acts in the eclectic afternoon were electric, including Daniel Becker of the Rebecca School playing the Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun” and the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR,” accompanied by drums and guitar.

Angelica Mroczek, Miss Staten Island Outstanding Teen 2020, a student at Curtis High School and Myles Roven, of the Packer Collegiate Institute, welcomed the crowd to the second annual AKIM event and thanked its sponsor, the Building Bridges Conference.  AKIM is the National Organization for People with Intellectual Disabilities in Israel—founded in 1951. Mroczek’s twin sister Tatiana also performed in the concert.

The pair introduced Ami Ayalon, Chair of AKIM Israel and former Chief of the Israeli Navy and Former Head of Israel’s Secret Service. Ayalon, who came from Israel to address the crowd, was emotional and passionate as he told the story of his niece, Zahara, who, with disabilities and great charm, taught his own children “how to respect the other” and in the process, they “became better people.” Ayalon offered his remarks after the first two songs and playfully said, “I am glad my wife is not here. It is the first time in 50 years she did not come with me.  She would be crying in the last five minutes.” Ayalon explained that AKIM is responsible for 35,000 people with disabilities in Israel, and their 150,000 family members and has thousands of volunteers.

AKIM’s 65 national centers are in 85 towns throughout Israel in both Jewish and Arab sectors. “We advocate for all people with special needs in Israel—Jew and Arab, Christian, Muslim and Hindu, religious and not religious.  AKIM is an island of sanity in a society of tribes.  Our vision is our mission statement—to create a better Israeli society.”  Ayalon was particularly excited about a concert featuring such a diverse group of performers. “We are humans—and music connects us!”

Robert Ukrainsky, a student at Avenues School and a saxophone player who performed with numerous groups throughout the concert, has been involved with AKIM for many years. “I learned about AKIM when I was looking for a Bar Mitzvah project. When I heard about a new program being set between AKIM and Tel Aviv University Dental Center that will allow your adults with intellectual disabilities be trained and get jobs, I got fascinated. The idea of giving someone an opportunity to live independently and instilling social equality resonated with me,” he said.  Ukrainsky’s mother, Rada Sumareva, is a periodontist implant surgeon, AKIM board member and one of the organizers of the concert.  Ukrainsky visited the program in Israel last summer and met with the four students in the first cohort of the program. 

Ukrainsky was delighted to have the opportunity to participate in the concert. “I feel fortunate to be a part of the inclusion concert as we all can learn about each other’s differences and bring the best of our abilities to make music together. We are all part of the same team, share our interest in music, and truly enjoy new friendships and stage collaborations. I made new friends through this concert and also was able to reconnect with my old friends who joined the team this year.”

His mother, Rada, added, “The concert was especially meaningful for Robert as it not only enabled him to collaborate with all these incredible musicians different in various ways and help AKIM, but also it was a stage debut of his own student who is now 8 and who started saxophone lessons with Robert when he was 6. It warmed my heart that his first question after the show yesterday was not about his performance, it was about his student’s performance!”

Robert Ukrainsky and his musical protege in the Musical Showcase benefitting AKIM. Courtesy of Howard Blas

At this year’s event, performers, family members and guests didn’t want to leave—even when they concert officially ended. They stayed for an informal jam session and drum circle.  Ideal student Emily Negron enjoyed performing with her two friends from the Ideal School and summed it up best and will hopefully be back for next year’s 3rd annual event. “It is an amazing opportunity. I sing daily. I love to participate with others. I love it all!”

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Original Article Published On The PJ Library

Kids today have more exposure and familiarity with all sorts of differences than their parents did. Not too long ago, it was the norm for children with any kind of special needs to be educated in separate programs and schools. Today children with disabilities — both visible and invisible — are integrated in schools, Hebrew school classes, afterschool programs, camps, and sports teams.

When children are taught to regularly include their peers from a young age, inclusion becomes part of their social routine. Play experiences that start at an early age can lead to relationships that may thrive into the teen years and beyond. Playdates are tons of fun, but at times can be intimidating to plan. Here are five tips that work across various playstyles, personalities, and abilities.


Openly share with your children the play styles and potential behaviors of their guests. This pep talk will heighten their awareness of their playmates’ needs. Say, for example, “Maria is the girl who loves to play games, but it is sometimes hard for her to stop if she is having fun. She might cry or get upset when the activity ends.” Being open will help your children better empathize with and accommodate their friends.

Adults should also be prepared to supervise and help with transitions in activities. Kids look to grownups to model accommodating the needs of others and being flexible. While some children are comfortable playing independently, other children may need some help transitioning to new activities. Adults can offer simple coaching, redirection, and also give kids a head’s up before transitions to new activities.

Plan and Organize

Have a plan for the day. Everyone loves structure and predictability, particularly younger children. Make sure the play date or party has a clearly articulated beginning, middle, and end.

In the programs run at Camp Ramah, for example, an inclusion specialist will offer a visual schedule of the flow of the day with pictures, words, or both. These are especially helpful on special days where the schedule is different than normal. 

Offer Variety

Present a range of activities. Not everyone loves baseball, dancing, or drawing.  Try to provide options as well as breaks and safe spaces to help when kids need a positive time-out to recharge. Organizations can help by offering a designated quiet room for children of all ages who may need a place to reset during long services or loud activities. 

Make sure there are food alternatives for children with allergies or arts options for children with sensory issues that make certain textures and smells unpalatable. Consider using non-food items, like stickers, as an alternative to baked goods or candy.

Ask Questions

Ask the parents of the child or children with disabilities what you can do to help maximize success. They may suggest tweaks and accommodations, perhaps something as simple as arriving five minutes early before the rest of the guests to enter a room and get used to the physical space. The parents may appreciate knowing the plan so they can prepare their children and may suggest that their child only stay for part of the activity. 

In the same fashion, encourage children to ask questions too. As parents, the instinct is often to redirect a child if they ask a question that seems too direct or rude in the moment. The parents we spoke with encouraged their peers to let children talk to each other and to ask questions directly, in the moment. This builds communication but also helps build a relaxed environment and set the ground for future playdates.


Diversity Children Friendship Happiness Playful Concept

We will all spend big parts of our lives working and interacting with all types of people. By learning to listen to and accommodate the needs of others from an early age, acceptance and understanding becomes a natural part of a child’s social interactions. By using the tips outlined above, we also incorporate and reinforce important Jewish ideas and values: that we are all created in God’s image, that we are all deserving of respect, kavod, and that we are welcoming and empathetic to others.

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