Original Article Published on The Jerusalem Post

Israel got Fed Cup Europe/Africa Zone Group I action in Eilat off to a losing start on Wednesday, falling 2-1 to Turkey.

Shahar Pe’er and Julia Glushko lost their singles matches to open the day before teaming up to win the doubles encounter.

Israel will be back in action on Thursday when it faces Estonia before coming up against Croatia in its final Pool C tie on Friday.

The group winner will play-off against the winner of Pool C for a place in the World Group II playoffs in Eilat on Saturday, while the bottom-placed nation will play-off to determine relegation to Europe/ Africa Zone Group II in 2017.

The stars seemed aligned and the script already written by the time Pe’er, ranked 189th in the world, took Center Court on a sunny, warm, slightly breezy Wednesday for her evening session match against Turkey’s Ipek Soylu.

Despite Soylu’s slightly better ranking of 161, Pe’er is nine years older, has Fed Cup experience, and reached a career high of 11th in the world.

Pe’er also had the crowd on her side, with school children from Eilat filling the stands and cheering, “Let’s go Shahar, let’s go.”

Soylu got off to a quick 3-0 lead until Pe’er hit her groove, regained composure and won the first set in 50 minutes, 7-5. However, Soylu went on to win the second set 6-3 and the decisive set 6-2 to claim the match.

Israel’s No. 1 Glushko (No. 126) took the court under the lights versus Caglia Buyukackcay (142). Shouts of “El, el Yisrael” and “Let’s go Julia, let’s go!” helped Glushko get off to a 3-2 lead, but she could not sustain the rhythm in falling 7-5, 6-3.

The evening ended with the Pool C doubles match between Turkey and Israel, with Pe’er and Glushko partnering to take on Buyukakcay and Basak Eraydin.

After trading back-and-forth 7-5 sets, Israel clinched the win with 6-4 in the decisive set.

The Arkia Airlines gate and flight attendants at Ben Gurion Airport hardly realized there was a major international tennis tournament taking place in Eilat this week.

Yet, professional women tennis players from 14 countries, as well as coaches, umpires, members of the media and International Tennis Federation staff members have all congregated at the Municipal Tennis Center in Eilat, home of the Fed Cup 2016 Europe/ Africa Zone Group I tournament.

Tzipi Obziler, the Israeli captain, is a former Fed Cup player, representing Israel from 1994 to 2009. Israel’s team is coached by Sandra Wasserman, a former member of the Belgium Fed Cup team who reached a high of 48 in the WTA rankings as a player.

Obziler acknowledged that “it’s been a while, but to be a part of the Fed Cup team for the 17th year and first time as a captain means a lot to me. To hear again the national anthem, to wear again the Israeli flag on the back are very emotional things for me and I can only think about doing the best we can on and off court at any time.”

The tournament features two daily sessions through Saturday.

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by Aaron Herman

How do you you create a meaningful Israel experience for young adults with special needs? Video blogger Aaron Herman spoke with Covenant Award winner Howard Blass, Director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, Tali Cohen, Director of Tikvah Vocational Services and participants about their unique Israel experience.

The Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England is an eight-week overnight camping program for 60 campers with special needs that is integrated within a summer camp for 800 typically developing children. As Director, Howard manages four separate special needs programs, including a full-time overnight camp, a Vocational Training Program, a Camp Employment Program, and an Inclusion Program.

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Original Article Published On The New York Jewish Week

On a recent visit to a Pikud HaOref, Home Front Command base in Ramle, 14 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, a soldier tells me a very animated story about his role in Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s military operation in Gaza: My job was to copy the papers for our soldiers to drop from planes over Gaza this summer! The soldier, in uniform with his bright orange beret on his shoulder, happens to have Down Syndrome.

He is very excited about his job in the base print shop. Another soldier with a visible disability proudly recounts the visit to the base the previous day by IDF Chief of Staff, Benny Ganz. We saluted him and gave him a present olive oil that we made on the base!

Twenty five other soldiers with disabilities perform similarly important jobs each day on the base. If Tiran Attia and other visionaries have their way, Tzahal, or the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), may become a “game changer” in Israel for inclusion and for shaping attitudes about people with disabilities.

Tiran Attia, who served for 30 years in the IDF and was a commander of Sar-El, the IDF National Project for Volunteers, serves as head manager of Yad Layeled HaMeuchad (Lend a Hand to a Special Child), an amuta (non-profit organization) which consists of two programs, Magshimim Chalom Fulfilling a Dream and Shaveh Madim-Equal in Uniform.

I have had the privilege of visiting two such army bases during recent trips to Israel the home front command base in Ramle, and a logistics base near Kiryat Malachi. During our tour, Attia takes me to visit soldiers from the program at various job sites including the supply room, dining room and print shop. Attia emphasizes several times during our visit, It should be noted that in Israel, army service is the gateway to successful integration into society and the work force. The nearby Chevrat Chashmal (electric company) already employs 260 workers with special needs.”

The program is already impacting the other soldiers through what Attia describes as “the ripple effect. Other soldiers on the base think less of their own problems, they think of the soldiers with disabilities as role models, and discipline problems on the base have gone down.

Arianna Goldsmith, an American olah (immigrant to Israel) works with the soldiers with disabilities as her army service: The other soldiers see these soldiers come to work and it teaches them, it changes their attitudes.

Tiran, who admits to being skeptical of the program at first, notes, One mother of a soldier in our program told me, You have made a miracle! Tiran was injured during the Second Lebanon War and was visited in the hospital by people with disabilities. I saw the love and sympathy they gave to the injured soldiers and I realized they have so much to give so I started to advocate for them to join the program.

The program was founded to enable youth with disabilities to realize their dream and serve in the IDF like most young Israelis, for whom service in the IDF is a normal part of life in the years between high school and college. At the same time, the program promotes a more inclusive society and fosters the attitude that people with disabilities can more fully participate in and contribute to society.

I share with Attia our 45 years of experience successfully including campers with disabilities in our eight Ramah overnight camps and three day camps in the United States and Canada. And I stress how both anecdotally and through research, we know that inclusion benefits everyone. For example, a 2013 study, The Impact of Ramah Programs for Children, Teens, and Young Adults with Disabilities: A Strategic Planning Survey of Special Needs Education Professionals, Ramah Special Needs Staff, Staff Alumni and Parents, conducted by Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz, shows quite clearly that “Staff and camper alumni who had contact with a Ramah special needs program report major impact on their personal and professional lives. At Ramah, this happens on a massive scale, as each summer, 7,500 campers-some in each camp with both visible and invisible disabilities–and over 2,500 university aged staff members, populate our camps.

Attia and his colleagues don’t need to be convince and they see the potential for inclusion and shaping of attitudes on a massive scale. Yossi Kahana, Director of Development for Aleh Negev-USA and co-founder of the program, believes strongly that If every soldier in the IDF has the opportunity to work side by side with people with disabilities, the potential to change attitudes in Israeli society is tremendous. Kahana now has a personal as well as a professional connection to disabilities. “I’m the father of a child with special needs. My older son is serving in the army and my younger son, Gershon, who is nine years old, is autistic. My dream is that my younger son will one day join his brother in the army.

As the IDF continues to include soldiers with disabilities on an even larger scale, they will no doubt shape the attitudes of an entire society!

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Original Article On the Jerusalem Post

Sitting at the Nalaga’at (“Please Touch”) Center in Jaffa, Howard Blas, special educator and social worker from New York, sits down to speak with The Jerusalem Post about a fascinating group of young men and women who have come to Israel for a 10-day trip. The travelers, all affiliated with the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah, are developmentally disabled and their experiences, their counselors tell the Post, have allowed them to see this country through fresh eyes.

As several deaf waiters weave among tables ” the center is a major employer of the handicapped and an inspiration to the campers whom they are serving ” Blas explains how the trip has helped bond his charges to both nation and religion.

The campers all belong to the Tikvah program, a track at the Ramah summer camps for those with special needs. All eight of the campers on this specific trip fall into the higher-functioning spectrum and some are even taking classes at community colleges back in the US.

The group that’s here on the Israel trip are some of the older members of our group, Blas tells the Post. The youngest is turning 19 today and I guess that the oldest is probably 25 or 26.

The idea of an Israel trip, Blas continues, was the brainchild of Herb and Barbara Greenberg, now residents of Israel, who believed that this population, who had been learning about Israel at camp… had the same love for Israel and the same right to travel to our homeland as any Jew.

Since the first trip in 1984, Camp Ramah has brought Tikvah participants to Israel numerous times. A number of the campers on this trip have been here before.

We stress Israel [and] Zionism at camp and this is their chance to really [experience that] Blas says.

The trip, which brings the campers, who normally prefer stability and routine, to different destinations every day, really focuses on their independence, he explains.

Some of the higher-functioning campers will have been together so many years in camp, some have been in camp for 10 years, so some know how to help each other… and compensate for each other’s shortcomings.

According to Blas, in a new country there are a lot of new systems to learn, so even something as simple as the shower, the shower works differently. We go to three different hotels. It’s a different experience in each place so we even have to go ahead and figure that out quickly and then explain it to them… It’s a very frenetic pace.

This is my fourth or fifth trip that I’ve done he says, and the founders did eight or nine trips when they were the directors and with each trip you really fine-tune what you do so you pick hotels that don’t have a lot of extra room for wandering around [for example].

By bringing the campers to Israel without their parents, he continues, they’re learning life skills. Small things like packing in a hotel, it’s all part of life skills. That’s really what the goal is: to prepare them for living as independently as they can.

We give them a lot of running commentary and try to connect what they are seeing with things that they have learned in camp, but they’ve been fantastic, the director enthuses about his campers.

THE TIKVAH program itself was founded at Camp Ramah in 1970 by the Greenbergs, who now live in Raanana. In its first year, the program enrolled eight campers classified by their respective school systems as brain-injured, learning disabled and emotionally disturbed, says Blas. Over the years, it has enrolled children and adolescents with Down syndrome, autism, neurological impairments, developmental delays and rare disorders such as Smith-Magenis and Prader-Willi syndrome.

As the director of one of the first such programs in the Jewish world, Blas is noticeably pleased with his work, telling the Post that Tikvah is a trailblazer.

Are very proud of the fact that we are probably the first program [of its type], he says. One of the few places where there is real collaboration in Judaism is around special needs.

Howard Blas’s son, Daniel, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the counselors on this year’s trip, his second time coming to Israel with Tikvah.

Daniel believes that by being forced to explain things to his campers in a simplified manner, he has to reevaluate everything he knows, thus gaining a deeper understanding of Israel and [his] beliefs in general.

Asked to give a specific example, Daniel says that when explaining to his campers why there are soldiers everywhere, he must confront head-on the fact that Israel is a “country in conflict.” This helps him recognize why the soldiers are there in the first place [and] the fact that at this point, after many Israel trips, I’ve just taken [many things] for granted in general.

Avriel Feiner, known as Avi, also serves on the staff of the Tikvah program. A 22-year-old senior at the University of Maryland, Feiner is studying special education, in large part because of her involvement with the special campers of Camp Ramah.

This is my first time ever going [to Israel] with this population it’s really interesting and inspiring to see Israel through their eyes, she says, concurring with Daniel.

I was complaining today No, not the Palmah Museum again, she says. We walked out and they were like ‘my gosh, this was so cool, we love this. History is so awesome, that was so intense.

Many experiences, such as visiting the Western Wall, Feiner says, have lost their excitement to someone who has been there numerous times. However, going with the Tikvah participants this time, she says that “the guys were dancing like crazy [on the men’s side] for an hour and a half. That’s amazing. Where else are they going to have that?

Moreover, Daniel interjects, the campers have had an influence on everyone who we’ve seen, not just on me and Avi as the leaders.

Daniel recounts that on one occasion, one of the campers entered the dining room of their hotel to say goodbye to the participants of an unrelated Birthright trip, many of whom called out goodbye to him by name, despite the two groups not having had any official contact.

He’s just been so friendly to everyone and everyone’s been amazed, Daniel says, smiling.

THE CAMPERS who spoke with the Post seem to back up their counselors assertions, smiling and regaling this reporter with stories of their experiences. Many, Howard Blas asserts, have minimal contact with Jewish life outside of camp, making this experience even more important to them on a personal and spiritual level.

Sarah, a sweet girl the same age as Feiner, attends a boarding school in Connecticut where she is studying the life skills necessary so that she can be mainstreamed into as normal a life as possible. These skills will be especially important as she plans to move into her own apartment for the first time next year.

The trip, she says, is very nice and not “boring like Birthright. Now I learn more, she says.

Her favorite part of the trip, she says, is “making candles. This is a typical type of project for the campers, providing a physical stimulus and engaging them in a hands-on activity. The campers have also picked vegetables for charity and engaged in an archeological dig at the Beit Guvrin national park.

Such outings have even more meaning for Sarah than for most of the campers, as her time at camp accounts for all her Jewish experiences for the entire year, which makes this trip something of a bittersweet experience.

The skills she had learned in the Tikvah program, Blas says, will serve her well in life. Ramah special-needs campers perform jobs at camp, enabling them to learn skills that many people take for granted.

With guidance here and there, some of the campers on this trip, Feiner believes, could function independently soon.

Chiming in, Daniel Blas adds that “In general, we try to focus on abilities rather than disabilities.

Jason, a 27-year-old participant who is studying journalism, among other subjects, at a community college, is a good example of this mind-set.

Coming to Israel, Jason says, means connecting with “different areas of Israeli history and culture [and] to better understand what’s going on inside the country. This, he explains, makes it more easier to understand what may happen later and possibly in the future.

The experience for the special campers of the Tikvah Program is best summed up by their visit to Mount Herzl, the burial place of Theodor Herzl.

We also went to Har [Mount] Herzl, someone who believed in a State of Israel because he saw that the Jews couldn’t live in Germany because the French accused them of treason, says Avi, another Tikvah participant.

[The French] tried to execute them so Herzl brought many Jews to Israel.

The visit, explains Daniel, allowed trip participants to discuss their dreams and aspirations in a comfortable way while connecting to their heritage as Jews and Zionists.

Sitting in the military cemetery, we were trying to find a way to have them connect to all these graves, Daniel says, and we decided to speak about dreams and setting goals for ourselves because a lot of what we do [in camp] is about setting goals.

Sarah and Avi said that one of their goals is to become more independent but really to live in an apartment, so their goal for the future is to move out of a group home and out of the boarding school [and to gain independence] and that’s a way we helped them to connect [to Herzl and Zionism].

Sitting and speaking with the Post on their final evening in Israel, the campers and their caretakers seem happy yet exhausted. After returning home from Israel, Howard Blas says, he will need a vacation from this vacation.

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