Howard Blas

I will be speaking and participating in the following events.

Feb 8-9:  Binghamton University:  several presentations at Hillel, Chabad and JLIC 

Feb 10:  Webinar for Amitei Ramah fellows to learn about disabilities inclusion at Ramah

Feb 17:  Limmud New York:  presenting at 2 sessions (titles are at this link–perhaps include the names, etc): 

Feb 25:  Participating in USCJ/Ruderman Meeting in Washington, DC

Feb 26:  Participating in Jewish Disability Advocacy Day in Washington, DC

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Original Article in The New York Jewish Week:

Highlights of Canada’s first-ever Jewish disability conference.

The “Pushing the Boundaries: Disabilities, Inclusion and Jewish Community” conference, April 15-17th in Toronto, truly pushed the boundaries. A severe ice storm and brief power outage may have been minor inconveniences, but they were not going to stop a diverse group of 175 people from such places as Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal, Minneapolis, New York and various cities and towns in Israel, from attending the first conference of its kind in Canada. The conference has been in the planning stages for three years!

The extraordinary people attending and presenting, the wide range of relevant and timely content, the excitement and enthusiasm in the main conference room, and the always supportive and nurturing feel helped make this conference very special. Attendees included people with disabilities, family members, advocates, community members, foundation representatives, professionals from schools, camps, agencies and a wide range of Jewish organizations–even a Canadian member of Parliament.

The conference, scheduled to begin on Sunday evening April 15th was delayed in starting due to extremely icy and snowy road conditions. Starting the conference Monday morning allowed for more attendees and presenters to arrive—and for the all-star tech staff to make provisions for presenters stuck in Washington, New York and beyond to join and present by video conferencing. All sessions were consolidated in to two action packed days—everyone left exhausted and happy, armed with notes, handouts and inspiring quotes to guide them in their ongoing work.

Connie Putterman, a parent, advocate and chairperson of Itanu, UJA Federation’s Inclusion Committee, introduced Monday morning’s keynote speaker, renowned disability rights activist Diane Richler, and participated on Tuesday’s advocacy panel. Attendees will always remember Putterman’s brilliant insight: “Advocacy is telling your story in a way that other people can hear you!”

Diane Richler, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr Foundation International Fellow, past chair of International Disability Alliance, a leader in the negotiation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and a member of the the Ruderman Family Foundation advisory board, delivered a talk, “Inclusion Without Limits: What Has to Change.” Richler was impressed with the Canadian Jewish community which she observed, “has made much progress in the last few years in promoting inclusion…With creative energy, we can leapfrog over the traditional ways of supporting people with disabilities and make the Canadian Jewish community a model for others.”

All conference attendees learned from panels on such topics as housing, employment, innovations from Israel (including Alut, Krembo Wings, and Israel Unlimited/JDC) and from case to cause—the power of advocacy. They also attended specialized breakout sessions, taking place throughout the very impressive campus of the Lipa Green Centre for Jewish Community Services at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Topics included recreation, aging education, person-centered models, education case studies, dating and relationships, camping and creating inclusive shul communities.

Keynote speaker, Ari Ne’eman spoke on “Disability Inclusion: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going,” comedian and inclusion and inclusion advocate, Pamela Schuller entertained Monday evening with her routine, “What Makes Me Tic,” and Tuesday speaker, Maayan Ziv, wowed the audience in a session on innovation and inclusion. Maayan Ziv, a photographer & entrepreneur who also has muscular dystrophy, shared how she has continued to turn obstacles into opportunities. “I have accomplished what I have WITH my disability, not DESPITE it.” She has developed her Access Now app; she and her team are working to document what is accessible in the world. Two of Ziv’s insightful, inspiring quotes will surely travel home with the conference participants. “Accessibility is a mindset that can lead to inclusion;” “People are not disabled- environments are disabling.”

Attendees enjoyed the opportunity to meet colleagues and to share resources. Many extended their already long Monday day session in to night by visiting a program entitled DANI (Developing and Nurturing Independence) for a tour and dinner.

As the conference drew to a close Tuesday after lunch, and participants continued to comment on the unusual weather (it was snowing again!), many exchanged business cards, hugged new friends, and affirmed commitments to ongoing collaboration as we all continue to push boundaries even further!

Howard Blas was the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England and is now director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network. Howard also serves as a teacher of Jewish studies and bar/bat mitzvah preparation to students with a range of disabilities and “special circumstances.” He holds masters’ degrees in both social work (Columbia University) and special education (Bank Street College of Education). Howard received the S’fatai Tiftakh Award from Boston Hebrew College’s Center for Jewish Special Education in 2012 and the 2013 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. He writes regularly for many Jewish publications.

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Original Article at Ramah In The Rockies

For chalutzim (campers) at Ramah in the Rockies, the masa (outing) is an integral part of camp. This summer, our Tikvah campers spent three days and two nights at Chatfield State Park, a very well-organized site with all of the necessary facilities for our campers, including showers, toilets, lake, playground, etc.

After setting camp up, our group headed over to the lake and took a stroll along the beach. When we returned to our campsite, we cooked a delicious meal of veggie burgers accompanied with roasted sweet potatoes and onions. We played some games by the campfire and headed to bed early. The following morning, we hiked along the dam overlooking the lake and then went swimming. After lunch, we met up with Amber, one of the park’s rangers, and she taught us about the wildlife in the park. She showed us skulls, skins, and furs of the different animals. Then Amber took us to clean the beach of the lake as part of our service project. We concluded with a scavenger hunt along one of the park trails. That night, we had a Mexican fiesta, complete with salsa, chips, guacamole, rice, and beans. Each of our campers enjoyed a different part of their masa experience. The facts that we had such an organized site and that our vans had all of the food and games needed to keep our campers occupied and entertained made it very easy!

Other than some rainy moments, our campers had a great time. All agreed it was a positive experience and that they would happily do it again! 

Howard Blas, director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network, was very impressed when he learned details of our masa during a recent visit to Ramah in the Rockies. “I have been taking Tikvah campers on masa (we call it “Etgar”) for the past fifteen years at Ramah New England. Many Tikvah programs don’t have such camping trips. I thought our one-night, two-day hiking, canoeing, and rafting trip was impressive. But, wow! The Rockies’  three-day masa is amazing!” 

This blog is being reposted in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.

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A few weeks back, an article by Dan Blas, entitled, “A Jew in China” appeared in this column (Dec. 14, 2013). Dan learned his article had been published via the Google alert he received on his iPhone as we settled into our hotel room in Shanghai.

I am one lucky dad. When your son asks you to meet him in Hong Kong, where he had been spending a semester studying at the Chinese University (of Hong Kong) and travel with him through China for 10 days, you get on a plane and go!

Dan showed me the usual tourist spots — from Central to the Midlevels to Victoria’s Peak; we experienced Kowloon at night, and we hiked on Lantau Island.  And I witnessed firsthand how the little boy had grown up (he turned 21 just before I arrived), internalized the Jewish teachings and values we strived to impart, and was a really fun traveling companion.

Each Shabbat and holiday, Dan traveled nearly 90 minutes to be with a lovely, hospitable ‘ex-pat’ family who have been opening their home to observant students for many years. Not surprisingly, the family insisted I stay there with Dan during my Shabbat in Hong Kong. I was eager to meet them and say thanks; they wanted to meet me, as they had similarly met the families of previous “boarders.”  I learned how Dan sat patiently each Shabbat to help their 10-year-old daughter with her Talmud studies, and how he helped take down their sukkah mid-holiday as the typhoon approached.  On Shabbat morning at the Ohel Leah Synagogue, Rabbi Osher noted how nice it is when observant students “far from home, make the commitment to come every week to observe Shabbat and holidays.”

On Sunday, after stopping by the kosher makolet (market) to stock up on food, we were off to Shanghai – to explore a city with extraordinarily modern skyscrapers and upscale stores around the corner from ancient open air markets. While tourist attractions are interesting, nothing compares to the pleasure of discovering a tasty kosher meat restaurant -— and a women’s Chanukah learning group — at a beautiful villa known as the Shanghai Jewish Center Kosher in the Hongqiao area; or discovering the old Ohel Rachel Synagogue (now a government office, which we were permitted to photograph from outside, but not enter); and the feeling of walking through the streets of the Shanghai Ghetto, where 23,000 Jews from Vienna — including the entire Mir Yeshiva and the parents of our friends from New Haven — survived Hitler and the war years.

Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong

We left Shanghai for Beijing — the final stop in our China adventure. Beijing is ancient and modern, massive in size, and home to 20 million people. It is hard to know where to begin exploring — and where in the city to stay. Friends had strongly advised us to stay near the Bet Yakov Chabad of Beijing (at the South Gate of Si De Park). We were glad we listened!  We hit all of the major tourist sites — the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, Tiananmen Square —and the pandas of the Beijing Zoo.  After all that exploring by cab, subway, scooter and on foot, we were ready for a restful Shabbat.

Imagine our delight when 80 people came to the Chabad House for Shabbat davening and dinner. We met English teachers from London, a law professor from Michigan, an Israeli father and son on a bar mitzvah trip, diamond dealers, and a (non-Chabad) Chasidic mashgiach on his way to provide kosher supervision for fish — and canned Mandarin oranges. And these were just the people at our table! We were impressed at Rabbi  Shimon Freundlich’s welcoming style, his one-hour and 10-minute Shabbat morning “speed” davening, and the fact that there was both a dairy and meat restaurant!

As we made havdalah and returned to our hotel to pack up for our early Sunday departures — mine for New York and Dan’s for Vietnam — for the next leg of his Far East travels (and for Chabad Houses in Vietnam, Cambodia and  Thailand), I realized how lucky I was. My son and I traveled together successfully — as observant Jews and as friends.


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