Israel

Original Article Published on The Jerusalem Post

Over 800 people from 22 countries participated in Access Israel’s 7th International Conference.

When paralyzed former helicopter pilot Yuval Wenger wrote in 1998 to a fellow former pilot, President Ezer Weizman, to complain about lack of access in Israel for people with disabilities, he didn’t expect a prompt reply – and a demand. Wenger followed Weizman’s terse response to do something about it and start an NGO. He called it Access Israel, and six months later met Weizman at the President’s Residence. Twenty years later, Access Israel’s impact on access and inclusion of people with disabilities is now felt worldwide.

Over 800 people from 22 countries participated in Access Israel’s 7th International Conference, which was held last month in Tel Aviv and throughout the country. The fast-paced conference, entitled “The Future of Accessibility,” kept participants moving – between sessions within a given event space, and to various cities in Israel.

Meetings on the first day of the conference were held at the Export Institute in Tel Aviv, where participants were welcomed by representatives of the Foreign Affairs and Tourism ministries. They were later welcomed by Avremi Torem, Commissioner for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Israel. Some participants toured and experienced disabilities simulation activities at Wingate Institute, Israel’s National Center for Physical Education and Sport.

Friday was spent in Jerusalem, viewing the city from Mt. Scopus, and touring such sites in the now-accessible Old City as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Western Wall. The international delegation continued to bond at a traditional Shabbat dinner at Wegner’s home, and during Shabbat tours of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, including several of Tel Aviv’s accessible beaches.

A NUMBER of sessions took place at Avenue Convention and Events Center in Airport City and at Beit Hagimlai in Shoham. Many were attended by Israeli disability professionals, representatives of municipalities, ministries, banks, insurance companies, accessibility coordinators from leading companies in Israel, IT and website experts, representatives of Israeli technologies, CEOs of Israeli accessibility start-ups and companies and policy makers.

Conference attendees and presenters included many people with visible disabilities, including app and product designers from around the world, commissioners on disabilities from the mayor’s offices of New York and Chicago, and even the co-founder of Space IL, Yariv Bash, paralyzed from the waist down two years ago in a French skiing accident.

Attendees heard from access and inclusion experts on such topics as Accessible Technology; Barrier-Free Tourism; Urban Accessibility Initiatives and Challenges from Around the World; and Global Models for the Implementation of Technology. And they participated in customized sessions – and panels – on such topics as Inclusive Design, Culture for All, Justice and Democracy for All, Inclusive Education, Inclusive Technology, Accessible Websites and Applications and Workplace Accessibility.
The conference’s largest delegation came from Austria (20 people), with Google’s Accessibility Team coming in second place with seven representatives. Google Israel hosted a well-received Accessible Technologies Speed Dating event where pairs of delegates spent ten minutes at each of seven stations, learning about such technologies as StepHear (orientation and guidance systems for the blind and visually impaired), Travaxy (accessible travel), Accessible Roads (navigation on accessible streets and roadways) and SignTime (translates texts in to sign languages).

VIENNA RESIDENT Hugo Furtado displayed his Dreamwaves Navigation System at the Google-hosted event. The Portuguese-born PhD completed his electrical engineering training in Switzerland, Slovenia and Austria, and has created a navigation system to guide blind and visually impaired people in unknown environments.

“I attended the event because I had heard that the topic of accessibility has become very important in recent years,” he said.
The well-traveled Furtado was particularly excited to make his first trip to Israel. “Israel is a famous start-up nation. Within this framework, it was a great opportunity for me to learn and to further develop the business. As Dreamwaves is a start-up developing a navigation app for blind and low-vision people, the fit could hardly be better,” he said. “Both things were confirmed: One can see the big effort that is being put into making the public spaces accessible – I can imagine the challenge to make visiting Jerusalem accessible – and bringing the topic into the authorities’ agenda.

“Also, it was especially valuable for me to learn why Israel is such a strong start-up nation. In my view, the energy and will power that people put into what they do plays a huge role. This was impressive for me in the country in general. People put a lot of energy into making things happen instead of worrying about smaller detail. That’s what you need in a start-up,” Furtado said.
Others came from Sweden, Latvia, Chile, Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, Ireland and Australia. Some has been to Israel four or five times – like Martin Essl, head of the Essl Foundation, which coordinates The Zero Project, focusing on the rights of persons with disabilities globally. It also focuses on social projects in Austria, with an emphasis on the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the open labor market, and in accessibility and inclusive education.

The excitement for Israel on the part of foreign attendees was a familiar trope; they consider Israel to be the Start-Up Nation and a world-leader in accessibility and inclusion.

KJELL STJERNHOLM of Stockholm, Sweden, was invited to the conference by Access Israel after having been awarded an international best practice by Zeroproject.org. The good natured Stjernholm, who founded and directed a disabilities acting troupe in Sweden where actors were paid market wages, currently works in the field of accessible elections. In this capacity, Stjernholm is working to teach people “what we are voting about,” and to assure that “the very politics needs to be accessible.”

Stjernholm enjoyed both the conference and the country. “I’ve learned heaps of things. Among the most usable to me: interpretation techniques within easy read, accessibility to the arts and some amazing tech-projects.” He says that, “Israel is a beautiful country. I am impressed by the high aims of accessibility, and the use of the law to enforce it,” referring to a law where government-funded bodies with more than 100 employers are committed to ensuring that at least five percent of its workforce are employees with disabilities.

IRISH INCLUSIVITY activist, Caroline Casey – whose TED Talk, “Looking Past Limits,” has had more than 2.2 million viewers – described learning about her near total blindness due to ocular albinism – she had unknowingly been diagnosed with it as a child – at age 17. She left a promising career in managing consulting and has committed her career to inclusion in general, and to inclusion in the work place in particular.

Casey was curious to visit Israel for the first time, since her father had shared stories about his time here in the early 60s while he was living on a kibbutz. Prior to her visit, she noted that: “Over the years, I have witnessed the extraordinary development and impact of Access Israel. It has truly amazed me how far both the country and the organization have come in their accessibility journey.”

The inclusivity activist loved what she saw and experienced in Israel. “The food, the archaeology, the history, the heat, the sense of historic civilization – for an ex-archaeologist – unbelievable,” reported Casey. “But no doubt: The real draw was and is the people. I love their energy, their straightness, their attitude to “getting stuff done”; their warmth, humor and ambition. They seem to work with the intention of solutions, not problems.”

Casey followed Space IL co-founder Yariv Bash and Bank HaPoalim CTO, Haim Pinto, by delivering what were billed as “Inspiring Opening Lectures” on the Sunday of the conference. Casey, like most attendees, raced between sessions, met with colleagues and made many new friends.

And she never stopped appreciating the fact that she was in Israel. “It was so great to go to a global conference like that and it not be in the ‘typical’ place,” she said. “I think we can learn a huge amount by going to different places and immersing ourselves in cultures completely different from our own – and I knew so little about Israel, I wanted more time there – much more.”

Casey and hundreds of others will surely be back for next year’s 8th International Conference.

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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

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Original Article Published at The Jerusalem Post

As the tennis world gears up for the Miami Open (March 21-April 3), often considered the “Fifth Grand Slam,” on par with such tennis events as Wimbledon and the US Open, Israel is preparing to welcome local and international talent to the similarly timed Israel Open.

The Israel Open, a $125,000 ATP men’s Challenger tennis tournament, attracts some big names to the Ra’anana Tennis Center March 27 to April 4.

Shlomo Glickstein, President of the Israel Tennis Association and former 22nd ranked player in the world, is proud and excited.

“It is very important for Israel to host such competitions and we love to host large events. It attracts sponsors, media and role models for our young players.”

Glickstein is also practical. “Tournaments like ours offer young tennis players the chance to earn ATP points.”

The Israel Open is part of the ATP Challenger Tour, a series of international professional men’s tennis tournaments.

Players who earn sufficient ranking points become eligible for qualifying or main draw entry at such ATP World Tour tournaments as the recent BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells or the Miami Open. Future events, like the three $10,000 tournaments recently held in Israel, are the third tier of international tennis competition.

The Israel Open attracts such well-known Israeli players as Dudi Sela, who climbed this week from No. 88 to 84 in the rankings, and Amir Weintraub (197). They are joined in the main singles draw of 32 by top 100 players Mikhail Youzhny (76th, Russia), Evgeny Donskoy (81st, Russia), and Ricardis Berankis (85th, Lithuania). Lukas Lacko (98th, Slovakia), who lost in a three-set final last year to Nikoloz Basilashvili, returns to Israel to play in this year’s Israel Open.

Other top players include Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia, currently ranked 401. Tipsarevic received a wild card and is making his tennis comeback following foot surgery and a 17 month absence from tennis.

Israeli Yoni Erlich will enter the Israel open doubles tournament.

Erlich had a distinguished doubles career playing with Andy Ram, and continues competing in international tournaments, many with partner Colin Fleming of Great Britain.

Sixteen teams will also compete in doubles.

Youzhny is no stranger to Israel.

“I have been to Israel several times with my family for vacations. I love Israel and look forward to coming to Israel again.”

Berankis is looking forward to making his first trip to Israel.

“I have many friends in Israel and heard so many good things about Israel. I’m really excited to come and play this big Challenger tournament.”

Israel has become an increasingly popular destination for professional tennis tournaments.

In early February, Israel hosted 14 countries in the Fed Cup Europe/Africa Zone Group I women’s tennis event. Top players, including Heather Watson (55th, Great Britain), Tsvetana Prionkova (59th, Bulgaria) and Jelena Ostapenko (84th, Latvia), competed at the Municipal Tennis Club in Eilat. The Israel team, anchored by Julia Glushko and Shahar Peer, finished in the top 4 of the event.

And Israel hosted three Futures tennis events in January and February.

Israeli Davis Cup team member, Edan Leshem and 16-year-old future star, Yshai Oliel, competed in some of the $10,000 Future events.at the Kfar Maccabiah Tennis Center.

Glickstein notes that , “We have some promising young players including Ben Patael, Tal Goldengorn, Yshai Oliel – they are eager to play and get results.”

Israel recently lost to Hungary in the Davis Cup.

The Israel Open was held in Ramat Hasharon from 2008-2010, was not held from 2011-2014, and was also played in Ra’anana last year.

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In a special guest post for Covenant Classroom, Covenant Award recipient and Director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network Howard Blas shares some of the latest and greatest creative and original educational programming from Israel and reminds us yet again how the land of our ancestors is truly the original Covenant classroom.

Making the Most of Any Ability and Increasing Self-Confidence, too

At Kibbutz Tzuba in the Judean Hills, 15 minutes from the center of Jerusalem, teens who are struggling academically can now participate in a farming program where they learn skills and enjoy the feeling of success beyond the classroom walls. The founder of the program, Alon Greenboim (everyone calls him “Jumba,”) knows first-hand how traditional classrooms may not the learning environment of choice for everyone–but that everyone can learn by doing.

When he was a young boy, Jumba was assigned to work in the kibbutz apple orchard. There, he needed a ladder to reach the apples. He told himself then that if he were ever in charge, he would figure out a way to get the trees to grow horizontally so that shorter people would not need to climb a ladder to pick apples off the trees. Sure enough, today the entire apple orchard at Kibbutz Tzuba is made up of trees that grow out, not up.

It is this type of ingenuity that has allowed Jumba to grow a multi-million dollar agricultural business and also help young people who haven’t found their footing in traditional school, to accomplish and achieve in ways they never thought possible.

Thanks to a new program, Gdolim Bemadim, Special in Uniform, people with a wide range of disabilities can now serve in the IDF. In areas such as logistics, printing, supply rooms, food service, computers and more, this program allows soldiers with disabilities to build self-esteem, and the typical soldiers benefit as well. Yossi Kahana, Director of JNF (Jewish National Fund) Task Force on Disabilities and co-founder of the program, believes strongly that “if every soldier in the IDF had the opportunity to work side by side with people with disabilities, the potential to change attitudes in Israeli society [would be] tremendous.”

Learning Sensitivity and Compassion in the Dark

It is hard to give people a sense of what it might be like to experience life with a disability. But now, thanks to the Dialogue in the Dark program at the Israel Children’s Museum in Holon, visitors can experience a taste of what it’s like to be blind. Guides who are either visually impaired or blind lead visitors through the exhibit (which includes a port, market, pub and noisy pedestrian crossing)–and engage them in conversation about disability, coping and life in general. To cap off the experience, Nalagaat Blackout Restaurant (at The Na Laga’at Center, Ratzif HaAliya Hashnia, Jaffa Port), a short 3.5 miles (6 km) away, offers an opportunity to experience and enjoy a delicious kosher dinner in total darkness, served and guided by blind wait staff.

Teaching Peace… One Serve at a Time

Can coexistence be taught on the tennis court? Since the 1970’s, the Israel Tennis Center has been doing just that, through its Israel Tennis Centers (ITC) Coexistence Tennis Programs. The ITC aims to alter negative perceptions while instilling positive ones, through joint sporting activities held for Jewish, Arab, Druze and Bedouin children. Twinned kindergarten classes organized through the ITC bring together 60 children from an Arab kindergarten and a Jewish kindergarten weekly on one court, where they learn motor skills development and participate in sports activities at the ITC centers in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Akko.

Another ITC program, called “Doubles Coexistence,” pairs Arab and Jewish children as partners on the tennis court and encourages them to interact on and off the court, thereby building a bridge between the different cultures.

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