Jamie Lassner

“I have done hurricanes, 9/11, Sully in the river — [the Kentucky trip] is the first time I have ever seen people who had nothing. The concept of people having absolutely nothing is mind-blowing,” says Jamie Lassner, director of student programming at North Shore Hebrew Academy.

Original Article Published in the JNS

Winning the lottery usually conjures images of elated people feeling set for life after receiving a check for hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet for five North Shore Hebrew Academy (NHSA) students in the Long Island region of New York, winning the lottery meant being selected to represent their day school on an eye-opening, life-changing relief mission to tornado-devastated Kentucky.

On Dec. 10, a tornado with winds of over 166 miles per hour decimated the Kentucky of towns Cayce, Mayfield, Benton, Princeton, Dawson Springs and Bremen, killing 77, injuring hundreds and leaving thousands homeless.

Faculty and students at NHSA, located 1,000 miles northeast of the devastation, knew they had to do something. The school learned of an urgent need for assistance with food and clothing distribution as well as emotional support.

Seventh-grade students who were vaccinated against COVID-19 and interested in being considered for the trip entered the lottery. Five students, Aaron, Chloe, Jeremy, Orly and Shirel, were selected to join Jamie Lassner, director of student programming, and math teacher Yael Eleyahouzadeh (Ms. E).

Ms. E, Shirel, Chloe and Orly separating shoes at the Project Friendship Warehouse. Credit: Courtesy.

The group set out early Sunday morning, Dec. 19 from the school parking lot — a 16-hour drive away — and returned Dec. 22. During their three intensive days in Kentucky, the group witnessed scenes that even Lassner, a EMT with 36 years of experience, including 32 with Upper East Side Hatzolah in Manhattan, had never seen.

“I have done hurricanes, 9/11, Sully in the river (pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s emergency landing in New York’s Hudson River) — [the Kentucky trip] is the first time I have ever seen people who had nothing. The concept of people having absolutely nothing is mind-blowing. We talk about it a lot with the students,” Lassner says.

Upon arrival Sunday night, the group had dinner and got a good night’s sleep for the anticipated physically and emotionally exhausting day ahead.

On Monday morning, the delegation set out for the Project Friendship Warehouse, a division of Chabad of Kentucky, to help Rabbi Avrohom Litvin (co-director with his wife, Goldie) as well as sons Rabbi Chaim and Rabbi Mendel separate various items for distribution.

But they were confused. When they first entered, they saw an empty room with decorations, a curtain and some boxes. They expected it to be filled with hundreds of boxes. After completing the separation of items from the few boxes in the room, they learned that the curtain was simply a mechitza (room divider) erected for a recent bat mitzvah. As they stepped behind the curtain, they encountered a warehouse they described as “as large as a football stadium,” filled with hundreds of pallets of donated items. The 12 shrink-wrapped boxes on each pallet were each filled with an assortment of items including toothbrushes, toys, clothing, food, shoes, socks, picture frames and jewelry.

The team mobilized. In assembly-line fashion, they opened and sorted boxes of clothing ranging from infant size to 4XL. As the group organized the gowns, suits, pants, coats, socks, shoes and more, Ms. E was struck by the magnitude of the loss the local residents had experienced just 10 days earlier.

“The concept of having everything you own destroyed in seconds and remaining with nothing was a difficult idea to understand and one that we continually discussed throughout the day,” she says. “We felt very accomplished after our six-plus hours of teamwork that proved to be very meaningful and hopeful.”

Lassner was moved by the hard work, dedication and modesty of the Chabad team. “Working with Project Friendship and Rabbis Litvin was moving,” she says. “They were the epitome of say little and do much.  I was so thrilled that we had them as mentors and examples.”

On Tuesday morning, the group had their first experience with the local Amish community. They set out for Oak Grove with five dozen black boots from Project Friendship. The 70 men in this community had come to rebuild the local lumber store and warehouse which had been destroyed.

As the group moved through the region, they were struck by what they witnessed.

The students next met Dave, who they describe as the chief tornado expert in Kentucky and a tornado spotter. They viewed his 10 weather and tornado-spotting monitors as well as other special equipment, and learned how Dave and the other volunteers actually spot tornados.

The group’s sorting work continued — this time at the Kentucky Weather Operations Center and the adjacent warehouse. They were asked by the Kentucky Office of Emergency Management Coordinator to separate various clothing and food items and distribute to people in need.

“The word ‘nothing’ took on new meaning when a local sheriff came in to pick up clothing and food for a family that was in a neighbor’s house as they had lost everything in their home,” notes Mrs. E. “The officer came in to get as much as he could to give these people that had nothing.  It was very moving to see that some of the food that we had helped separate just minutes before was taken for their immediate use. You never understand the meaning of nothing until you see it.”

Dave (black shirt) the Tornado expert for the region, with the NSHA Team at the Tornado and Weather Operations Center.. Credit: Courtesy.

As the students were about to depart, they had an unexpected lesson about the Jewish concept of teshuva (repentance). They were about to present Amazon gift cards to thank their fellow volunteers.  Dave then informed them that these “volunteers” were not eligible to receive these gifts — they were inmates from the local correctional facility. Jeremy reports, “Several of us were surprised in a wonderful way. We learned that people can make mistakes, regret what they did and do something to change their lives to better themselves and the world.”

The students closed out their stay by praying Mincha and Maariv, eating dinner and experiencing a farbrengen (joyous Hasidic gathering) with Rabbi Avraham Litvin.

The parents were impressed by what their children had accomplished. Rachel Spinner says proudly, “At first, I thought my daughter was too young to make this kind of trip. What kind of 12-year-old would be up for a 15-plus hour van ride? I was unsure if she’d be able to handle the long drive and the potential emotional hurdles she’d have to face. But I trusted Mr. Lassner and Ms. E so if they were in, I was in. Although our daughter came home exhausted, she was invigorated at the same time. I am so grateful to NSHA for providing her with this experience that will stay with her always.”

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Original Article Published On The JNS

The Israeli Paralympics team is headed to Tokyo to compete in nine sports in the delayed 2020 Summer Paralympics from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.

Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and the sports world, meet Pascale Bercovitch, Shraga Weinberg, Moran Samuel and Doron Shaziri. Olympians Biles and Osaka have helped raise awareness about mental health in sports. And the four elite Israel athletes, along with 27 other Israeli Paralympians, are doing their part to show the world the extraordinary capabilities of people with physical disabilities.

The Israeli Paralympics team is headed to Tokyo to compete in nine sports in the delayed 2020 Summer Paralympics from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.

Bercovitch will compete in paracanoeing, Weinberg in wheelchair tennis (quad singles and doubles), Samuel in rowing (women’s single sculls) and Shaziri in 50-meter men’s rifle (shooting). The Israeli delegation is scheduled to compete in athletics, bocce, goalball, kayaking, powerlifting, rowing, shooting, swimming, table tennis and wheelchair tennis. They will join 4,400 athletes from around the world set to compete in 539 events in 22 sports.

Paralympic athletes are assessed and then placed into competition categories, called sport classes, according to what extent their impairment affects their performance. According to the Olympics official website, “The Paralympic Movement offers sport opportunities for athletes with physical, vision and/or intellectual impairments that have at least one of the following 10 eligible impairments: impaired muscle power, impaired passive range of movement, limb deficiency, leg length difference, short stature, muscle tension, uncoordinated movement, involuntary movements, vision impairment or intellectual impairment.”

Yehoshua Dekel, president of Israel Paralympic Committee, is excited about the Israel team, which will set off for Tokyo in shifts, with each group arriving close to their days of competition. While he hopes the athletes will “bring home many medals,” he’s pleased that each athlete serves as a dugma—a role model—for Israeli children with and without disabilities.

“Our athletes are heroes,” reports Dekel, noting that they regularly make appearances at Israeli schools to share stories of their disabilities and their journeys to their sports accomplishments. “They are an example of what is possible.”

Dekel is also pleased that the Israeli government has become increasingly supportive of Israeli Paralympic athletes in the past five years. He notes that additional support also comes from the private sector.

The Israeli Olympics and Paralympics delegation competing at the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo attends a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on June 23, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

She had me at ‘bonjour’ …

Yuval Wagner, the founder and chairperson of Access Israel, who is also a person with a disability, will be cheering the Israeli athletes from his home in Israel. “Access Israel is excited about the Israeli Paralympic delegation for being role models for all of us aiming for excellence and on the journey for the medal, promoting awareness for inclusion and accessibility.”

Jamie Lassner, executive director of Friends of Access Israel (FAISR), is particularly excited to watch two Israeli rowers compete. Pascale Bercovitch, who leaves for Tokyo on Aug. 25, reports, “I am so happy the Paralympics are happening. I am genuinely so happy to be part of it!”

She notes the difficult years of training, waiting, anticipating and hardships. “Preparation was really complicated because of the coronavirus pandemic,” says Bercovitch, who at times trained on a kayak machine in the garden behind her apartment, and at times was able to train in the Yarkon River once athletes were given special permission despite multiple lockdowns.

Bercovitch, 54, is one of the oldest Paralympians in this year’s competition. She has competed in previous Paralympics, including in 2012, where she placed sixth in a handcycling. In 2016, she competed in paracanoe.

She is also a writer, filmmaker and motivational speaker, speaking candidly about her experience losing two legs in a train accident as a teenager, making aliyah alone from France and serving in the IDF, and training and competing as an elite athlete.

FAISR’s Lassner adds fondly, “Pascale had me at the first bonjour when we met on the Tel Aviv promenade in the summer of 2019. She is a mentor, a motivator and my only friend headed to a fifth Olympics in a row. Her warmth, smile and joie de vivre are infectious.”

Lassner is similarly impressed with Paralympian Moran Samuel, who has also competed in more than one sport. “What amazes me is that she went from being a leader on an Israeli basketball squad—a team sport—to the solitude of rowing. She is a true athlete with an incredibly focused heart.”

The Paralympics traditionally take place two weeks after the Olympics end and are held in the same city and venues. Many around the world have become familiar with the competition through the 2020 Netflix film, “Rising Phoenix,” which tells the story of the Paralympics. In the show’s words: “Elite athletes and insiders reflect on the Paralympic Games and examine how they impact a global understanding of disability, diversity and excellence.”

Following on the anticipated success of the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics, Israel hopes to also send a delegation of participants to the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.

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Original Article Published On the Jerusalem Post

The two organizations are in the midst of 12 days of hiking in New York with teams consisting of people with and without disabilities.

NEW YORK – Not every hiking trail in the world is accessible for people with disabilities, but don’t tell that to Friends of Access Israel (FAISR) and Paratrek. They simply don’t agree. 

The two organizations, which have already accompanied four people with paraplegia to reach the not-so-accessible top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, are in the midst of 12 days of hiking in New York with teams consisting of people with and without disabilities. 

The USA treks (August 1 to 3 and 8 to 11) are taking place in Rockefeller State Park in Pleasantville, New York (USA). Teams from Israel and Delaware, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida and New York in the United States are participating in hikes that vary in level of difficulty. Each day’s hiking adventure is led by a person with a disability.

 August 1 is Team Colton, August 2 is Team Alan, August 3 is Team Fred and August 4, the only day taking place in New York City’s Central Park, is Team Paratrek, named after the trekker vehicle that assists people with physical disabilities to access rugged terrains. August 9 to 11 is Team Chapel Haven, in honor of hike participants from Chapel Haven in New Haven, Connecticut (USA), a nationally accredited transitional living program founded in 1972 and devoted to teaching adults with cognitive disabilities and social disabilities to live independent and productive lives.

James A. Lassner, Executive Director of FAISR, refers to the hike as the “FAISR Universal Expedition – USA Trek #1,” with the hashtag, #AccessibleTogether. Lassner notes, “The hike/trek capitalizes on team members’ respective physical strengths, mental toughness and diverse abilities.” 

The word “Universal” is meaningful and intentional. “Universal’ is the concept of planning in advance to build events, schools, workplaces and technology so they are usable by a wide range of people, regardless of age or disability status. While universal design promotes access for individuals with disabilities, it also benefits everyone. Universal has added meaning because the word “universal” contains the letters ‘USA’ and the word ‘Israel.’” 

Colton Robinson, an 11-year-old model who was born with spina bifida, is the namesake for Team Colton. When Colton was five years old he was a finalist for a “Cutest Kid” contest for Parents Magazine and was signed by a modeling agency in NYC. He was the first model signed to this agency’s diversity division. Colton has modeled for Tommy Hilfiger, Runway of Dreams, Toys R Us, Target, Lands End and many other companies. He was also the first child that uses a wheelchair to model in New York Fashion Week. 

“Colton is currently a model for Target stores both online and at their various USA locations. More importantly he is a fine model of being a perfect gentleman. We have a lot to learn from him!” says Lassner.

The hike’s first day marked the US debut of the Paratrek Trekker, the brainchild of Israeli inventor Omer Zur. On his post-army trip many years ago, Zur wanted to hike in Turkey with his father, a person with quadriplegia as a result of fighting in the Sinai during the Six Day War. Zur soon realized that he had to come up with a suitable device that can handle off-road hiking without taking away his father’s independence. The simple-looking yet highly sophisticated Paratrek trekker can successfully traverse through rough and rocky terrain, steep inclines, narrow paths, over sand, boulders, rock and gravel. 

The Trekker successfully navigated Kilimanjaro with people with paraplegia less than two years ago.

“We are thrilled to debut our trekker at the FAISR Universal Expedition in New York. Our trekker has made it to 19,341 feet of Mount Kilimanjaro with FAISR, the Dead Sea in Israel which is the lowest place on earth and many other sites and trails around the world,” said Zur. “Our vision is to make it possible for individuals, families and groups to choose for themselves if, when, and where they wish to enjoy the great outdoors. As we introduce our trekker, we are confident that National and State parks will be interested in them as they will enhance accessibility at each of their venues.”

Fred Maahs Jr, a wheelchair user who is also chief operations officer for Travel for All and editor of Melange, Accessibility for All magazine, is heading up Team Fred on Day 3. 

“Travel for All is proud to be a partner of Friends of Access Israel and to assist with the travel arrangements for the Faisr Universal Expedition. Our missions align – we both believe that the world should be accessible and inclusive so that all people can explore and experience its beauty and wonders.”

Future hikes and treks will take place mostly in Israel with some events taking place in the United States. The ultimate goal is to make specific trails in both countries accessible for everyone.

Friends of Access Israel, together with its collaborative partner, Access Israel, strive to improve accessibility and inclusion globally for people with disabilities and the elderly via advocacy, education and inclusion. 

“With each improvement we empower them to live self-determined lives enabling them to work, travel, study and consume with dignity, equality and maximum independence,” reports FAISR’s Lassner. 

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Original Article published in the Jerusalem Post

“For Friends of Access Israel and our collaborative partners Access Israel, disability awareness and inclusion is our daily calling,” said executive director Jaime Lassner.

An online series featuring an array of impressive individuals who are involved in the field of disability access is taking place this month to mark Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM).The series is the brainchild of Jamie Lassner, executive director of Friends of Access Israel (FAISR) who, when he first learned about JDAIM, began thinking of creative ways to share stories with the wider world of the strengths and accomplishments of people with disabilities. Lassner created and is hosting a month-long interactive Zoom series every Monday through Thursday in February (8 p.m. Israel time) featuring an all-star cast of speakers with disabilities and people connected to the disabilities’ community.

The series, titled, Access Is-Real features Richard Bernstein, a blind judge; Stephen Shore, an autistic professor; SpaceIL founder Yariv Bash; business owners Mark and John Cronin (John’s Crazy Socks) and Bill Morris (Blue Star Recyclers), who are noted for impressive practices of training and hiring people with disabilities; Omer and Shmulik Zur, creators of Paratrek; and other similarly impressive personalities. Lassner has reached out to schools around the world to participate and learn from the speakers and enjoy a break from the traditional day of in-person or virtual learning. FAISR will offer prizes to three winners who write poems or essays reflecting on what they have learned from the speaker series and on actions they will take to be more inclusive in their own lives.“For Friends of Access Israel and our collaborative partners Access Israel, disability awareness and inclusion is our daily calling. We hope that Access Is-Real is a catalyst for all to become more aware, involved and inclusive of all,” said Lassner.In the first session, Lassner interviewed Pascale Bercovitch, a paralympian who has participated in three Olympics in three different sports. She shared the story of losing both legs at age 17, making aliyah from France, and competing in swimming, hand-biking and currently in kayaking. She is proud of how far Israel has come in the area of accessibility.“Thirty-six years ago, I didn’t even know how to say ‘accessible’ in Hebrew! Nothing was accessible.” Thanks to the efforts of Access Israel, she reports that she is  now able to go to the beach, take buses and move around fairly freely. “Israel is now one of the more advanced countries when it comes to accessibility.”

The series is co-sponsored by the Consulate of Israel in New York, which has shared the event widely on social media.Access Israel regularly hosts an international conference in Israel each year, and recently hosted its seventh international online webinar, titled “Accessible Future: Innovation in Web and App Accessibility.” The webinar was attended by 800 people from 80 countries. Access Israel founder Yuval Wagner and CEO Michal Rimon were Access Is-Real guests on February 2nd.According to Shelly Christensen, CEO of Inclusion Innovations and co-founder of JDAIM in 2009, February has long been known in the Jewish world as Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month and is “a unified effort among Jewish organizations worldwide to raise awareness and foster acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities and mental health conditions and those who love them. JDAIM is a call to action for all of us to act in accordance with our Jewish values, honoring the gifts and strengths that we each possess.”During the month of February, the Jewish Federations of North America sponsors the similarly named Jewish Disability Advocacy Month, which they describe as “a month of education, solidarity-building, and empowerment in support of people with disabilities.” The theme for their month-long series of programs is “From Empowerment to Advocacy.”JDAIM events around the world, mostly virtual this year, are an important initiative to raise awareness about disabilities, inclusion and belonging in the Jewish world and in the larger society.

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