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New Jersey NCSY teens encounter Israel

From yeshivas and public schools, they meet Israelis — and each other

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Noam Shalit (with bare head) stops his convoy to greet NCSY Kollel campers. Over Shalit’s right shoulder in a blue-striped shirt is Doron Levine of Teaneck. Behind Doron, in a white shirt, is counselor Corey Fuchs of Teaneck. Yosef Brander of Teaneck can be seen to the left of the boy in the red-and-white-striped shirt in the foreground.

BEIT MEIR, ISRAEL – For four years now, Tzvika Poleyeff of Englewood has been praying for IDF Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit, an Armored Corps soldier captured by Hamas terrorists from the Gaza Strip on June 25, 2006, and held hostage ever since.

But the plight of Shalit and his family took on a new dimension for Tzvika — a Torah Academy of Bergen County junior — when he and fellow campers in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (Orthodox Union) Kollel program met Noam Shalit, the captive’s father. Shalit was at the head of a mass 12-day march at the beginning of July in support of efforts to release the soldier.

According to Teaneck native Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, the kollel director, the 150 high school boys and their counselors were emotionally overwhelmed by the experience.

“We were aware of the march and we checked the itinerary and saw the Shalits would be passing through Beit Meir,” said Benovitz. This village 20 minutes outside of Jerusalem accommodates the kollel program during the summer on the campus of Yeshivat Ohr Yerushalayim. It was along the route taken by the hundreds of marchers making their way from the Shalits’ hometown of Mitzpe Hila in the north to Jerusalem.

“We realized that even though this was not a formal stop, it would be an opportunity for our NCSYers that we could not pass up, just to lend support by showing him we were with him.”

Organizers told Benovitz not to expect any personal interaction as Noam and Aviva Shalit’s motorcade came by, but “Noam had the driver stop the car when he saw our boys standing there,” Benovitz said. He got out of the car and greeted the campers, explaining that the purpose of the march was to raise awareness for his son and to make sure he is not forgotten. On Aug. 28, Gilad Shalit will turn 24.

“Since his capture, I have been praying for Gilad. Watching his family drive by and listening to his father speak, the entire situation suddenly became very real to me,” said Tzvika.

Akiva Blumenthal of Teaneck said he was struck by the difference between the campers’ situation and that of the captive’s family. “We waited on the road for 15 minutes or so, and it was an uncomfortably hot day,” said the Yeshiva University High School for Boys junior. “When the Shalits pulled up, it occurred to me that those 15 minutes are a tiny fraction of the awful years of waiting the Shalits have endured.”

Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky, a Bergenfield resident and camp rabbi, taught part of his morning class while the boys stood outside. The kollel program combines seven hours of Torah study with three and a half of sports five days a week and also encompasses touring. After the encounter with Noam Shalit, many of the teachers encouraged the boys to continue focusing on Gilad Shalit in their learning and prayers, and “to bring back home the message that we should not forget about him,” said Benovitz.

The campers were painfully aware of the dilemma facing Israel’s government, which is under pressure to release thousands of imprisoned terrorists in exchange for Shalit — a situation that many Israelis fear would result in further kidnappings and terrorist attacks. “If getting him out will cost a lot, it might not be worth it, but we all want him to get freed somehow,” said Tzvika.

“We must do everything we can to ease the pain and suffering of the Shalits, and to reduce the dangers of any family having to go through this again,” added Shaul Morrison of Bergenfield. Shaul, an incoming Torah Academy senior, said meeting Noam Shalit made the boys rethink their positions on the prisoner exchange plan. “A lot of people here started to change their minds,” he said. “It comes a little closer to home when you see his parents.”

Ambassadors

Benovitz was instrumental in arranging a different sort of encounter for the kollel campers earlier that week. In his overall capacity as a coordinator for several NCSY summer programs in Israel, he scheduled three days of interaction between the kollel boys and participants in a new NCSY camp, Jerusalem Journeys Ambassadors.

The program aims to provide 47 North American public high school students with tools to advocate for Israel on college campuses. From June 30 to Aug. 3, the students — including two from Bergen County — are meeting with Israeli officials and visiting key locations to gain an understanding of current and ongoing struggles in the Jewish homeland.

“We wanted them to see the land in a real and intense way,” said Benovitz. “We decided there was one more thing they needed: competency and literacy in basic Jewish texts and ideas. The place to do that was at kollel and Michlelet,” the parallel NCSY summer camp for girls.

Benovitz said the integration of public school students and yeshiva students was mutually beneficial. “Both sides have prejudices and assumptions,” he said. “Learning and playing ball together was an extraordinary experience.”

Program Director Rabbi Ben Zion Goldfischer, formerly of West Orange, said the Ambassadors track is a new offering in NCSY’s Jerusalem Journeys programs for public high school students.

“The kids are growing tremendously,” said Goldfischer. “I’ve been doing Jerusalem Journeys for 13 years but I’ve never been as inspired as this year.”

Aaron Karp, an incoming senior at Teaneck High School, said the NCSY program “is the opportunity of a lifetime, and it’s been amazing. I’m so tired because we’re doing so much every day.” The camp’s final week was to be devoted to running a day camp for children from Sderot.

International Director of NCSY Rabbi Steven Burg said the Jerusalem Ambassadors had audiences with the former chief of staff for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; members of the Israeli Knesset; chief rabbis; generals of the Israeli Defense Forces; members of an Israeli emergency response team; and the parents of a navy commando involved in the recent controversial flotilla from Turkey. They also had training with Dale Carnegie professionals.

“Not a day goes by that our teens are not questioned about why Israel is so unfair to the Palestinians,” said Burg. “We need to arm them with the historical facts of Israel and the spiritual resolve to be committed to the land of Israel.”

Aaron said one highlight was an Israel advocacy seminar with Neil Lazarus, who trains Israeli diplomats and army spokesmen. “When I get to college, unfortunately I’m going to be facing people who are not so pro-Israel and this gives me a basis to start from,” said Aaron, whose family belongs to the Jewish Center of Teaneck. “I don’t know all the facts, but I know that I need to do the research to explain to people that the things they hear are not true.”

When the Jerusalem Ambassadors — including Philip Katz of Upper Saddle River, a senior at Northern Highlands Regional High School — return to America, they will be expected to develop and implement Israel advocacy programs at their schools.

 
 

Area educator to be honored in Israel

Wallace Greene helped found SINAI schools

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Rabbi and educator Wallace Greene will receive a lifetime achievement award in a ceremony in Jerusalem next week for his role in founding the SINAI schools for students with special needs. Courtesy Wallace Greene

As Wallace (Wally) Greene tells it, he got the idea for an integrated Jewish day school special needs program from a Sisterhood meeting at Fair Lawn’s Cong. Shomrei Torah in 1980.

Jewish special education pioneer Dr. Aharon Fried addressed the meeting, which was called on behalf of two local children with no options for formal Jewish education. Greene, a rabbi then in the midst of a 10-year position as principal of Hebrew Youth Academy in Essex County, was the sole area principal who showed up.

On Aug. 16, Greene is to receive the 2010 Lifetime Achievement for Jewish Education in the diaspora award at a Jerusalem ceremony for his role in founding the SINAI schools for Jewish special needs students. Winners are chosen by Lifshitz Teachers College and the World Council for Torah Education.

The 65-year-old Greene was responsible for the creation of SINAI as well as of many other local Jewish educational initiatives. A Fair Lawn resident since 1971, he is executive director of the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

SINAI Dean Laurette Rothwachs was among five people who nominated Greene for the award. Rothwachs, also of Fair Lawn, has headed SINAI since Greene instituted it in September 1982 at what was then the Hebrew Youth Academy (now Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy).

Rothwachs said that Greene “took an opportunity he really believed in and worked very hard to lobby and do the necessary work to make it happen, where many others did not. SINAI has touched close to 1,000 students over nearly 30 years, and other programs that were able to model themselves after ours grew from the seed Wally planted.”

In 1980, special education was not at the top of any day school’s agenda. Greene had to persuade his board to implement a program. “It was a tough sell, because it hadn’t been done before,” he said. The board finally agreed, on condition that Greene raise the first year’s operating budget in advance. He did so, and brought in childhood acquaintance Rothwachs to head the program.

Today, SINAI serves about 100 students at independently funded and administered “schools-within-schools” at JKHA in Livingston, Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, Torah Academy of Bergen County and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, in addition to providing a supportive residence for men in Teaneck.

“There is still a need for more,” said Greene. “Every day school, everywhere, should have a SINAI. The host schools have gained a feather in their cap, and the children in regular classes get a lesson in chesed [kindness] every day, and become very protective of the special children in their midst.”

Greene looks forward to the August award ceremony at Jerusalem City Hall, where Minister of Education Gideon Saar and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat are to give presentations. He hopes to give his wife, Teaneck native Ronni Rosenberg, a guided tour on what will be only her second trip to Israel.

Three years before his 1969 ordination at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Greene began teaching at Temple Emanuel in Westwood (now in Woodcliff Lake). When the Frisch School opened in Paramus in 1972, he was among its first faculty members. “I taught Talmud and Jewish history there for four years. I had a wonderful girls class in Talmud, which was unusual in those days.”

In 1976, he took over at Hebrew Youth Academy, which had been founded in 1948 as the Yeshiva of Newark. The school was housed in a Victorian mansion in South Orange. When the school bought a former paint factory in West Caldwell, Greene designed the renovation. “I took some butcher paper and a crayon and drew my vision for the building. Federation took that drawing to their architect and said, ‘Make it happen.’ I wanted to build a high school, too, but they weren’t ready for it yet.”

In 1999, he was hired to direct the Jewish Educational Services division of the UJA Federation of Bergen County & North Hudson (now UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey).

“When I came to UJA, there was a staff of four, and by the time of the massive budget cuts [in 2009] we had a staff of 11 and provided a tremendous range of services,” said Greene. His main innovations were extending services to day schools and developing a Teachers Center under the direction of Minna Heilpern. In addition, the JES Principals’ Council and Day School Network provided ways for school leaders from different streams to get acquainted and share ideas.

A grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation funded a professional development program for congregational-school teachers, who often lack formal training and certification. “We ran three annual conferences, reaching about 700 teachers, and I brought teachers to Israel twice a year,” said Greene. The program was marketed and sold to 13 communities across the country before the local grant ran out.

Funding woes were also behind the demise of Hebrew in America, a JES initiative that ran from 2004 to 2008. It trained teachers to introduce Hebrew to pre-schoolers with the goal of fluency by first grade.

“This was a magnificent dream that could have transformed day school education. Our methodology was adopted by the Jewish Agency in one of its textbooks and we were in 15 schools including some afternoon schools,” said Greene. “It included a Hebrew language summer day camp, which I am still running at the Jewish Center.”

Though Greene left UJA-NNJ in February, he remains a strong proponent of broad-based federation involvement. “Getting money is a game, and a game has rules: you have to show up around the table,” he said. “You don’t have to give big bucks; you just have to work for the organization.”

More than anything else, he remains passionate about prioritizing Jewish education. “Without it, the next generation of leaders is not going to be there,” he said.

 
 

Teaneck transplants reflect on new lives in Israel

Archeologists recently discovered an ancient olive press down the street from Howard and Terry Mischel’s house. Not the house on Maitland Avenue in Teaneck they left last August, but the one on Esther HaMalca Street in Modi’in, an Israeli city that was once home to the Maccabees of Chanukah fame.

“Having history on your doorstep is life in eretz Yisrael,” reflects Howard Mischel. At the same time, notes this former Standard & Poor’s executive, new “sprouts” are shooting up in his neighborhood’s time-worn soil. “On our block, we’re surrounded by younger families where at least one member of the couple is a Frisch graduate,” he says.

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Terry and Howard Mischel with youngest daughter Ariel, who will do National Service in September.

If he is successful in his brand-new career as a pre-aliyah counselor for Nefesh B’Nefesh, many other North Jersey Jewish families will follow the Mischels to new lives in Israel. After 30 years of thinking about the big move, the couple came last August with their youngest daughter, just graduated from Bat Torah in Teaneck. They maintain that the answer to the question “When is a good time to make aliyah?” is different for everyone.

“It’s always a good time to come to eretz Yisrael and fulfill the mitzvah of living here,” Mischel says. “But everybody has their own reality. At Nefesh B’Nefesh, we try to counsel people that no matter what their situation, they have to think through what they face there and what they are likely to face here, to make it possible for them to have a successful aliyah. It’s best to have a well-developed plan.”

A 20-minute car ride gets them to the Ramat Beit Shemesh home of their son Judah, his wife, Ora, and their four daughters. Son Elie and his wife Rebecca live in Staten Island with their two girls; daughter Sarah and her husband, Ari Goldberg, have one daughter and live in Fair Lawn; daughter Ariel, 18, spent a year at the Tiferet seminary and will start a year of National Service after working as a counselor in Camp HASC for special-needs children in New York, where Judah is the camp rabbi and Ora is a teacher.

“Our granddaughters here had been missing us,” says Terry Mischel. “Instead of seeing them for a week or 10 days every few months, now we are a real Saba and Savta [Grandpa and Grandma] to them. We can have them for sleepovers, we can go help out in the afternoons — normal family things. Of course, wherever we are, we are missing someone. Our kids [in the States] have intentions of aliyah, and this is our hope. But we’re not arrogant enough to think all will be perfect.

Keeping in mind his son Judah’s reminder that “you come to Israel to make a life, not a living,” Howard Mischel realized he was taking a gamble leaving Wall Street at the crest of a 32-year career as an analyst and banker. But at 57, he was no longer happy just earning a living. He was eager to trade the pressures and competition of Wall Street for a more meaningful existence.

“It is certainly possible to have a successful career and still feel empty,” he wrote in an op-ed column for Israel National News last month. “Work needs to lead you to a higher purpose — we need to find a way to elevate the entire work experience.”

The position at NBN, an organization that facilitates immigration to Israel, came through at the end of May. Following nine months of a sometimes frustrating search for a viable career in Israel, the job has given Mischel renewed enthusiasm.

“I’m working on a team, the front line in dealing with potential olim [immigrants] from the U.S. and Canada,” he says. “I’m working in a Jewish environment, which is very different from Wall Street, and it is very pleasant to be working with people who have a unity of purpose: to facilitate aliyah of Jews to Israel. There is a tremendous amount of motivation.”

After earning a master’s degree from Harvard in city planning in 1976, Mischel came to Israel with his wife to volunteer for a year. As an assistant planner at the Environmental Protection Service of the Interior Ministry, Mischel played a role in the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall project in Jerusalem and helped prepare environmental impact statements for road development.

Even after the couple moved to Monsey and then Newton, Mass., before coming to Teaneck in 1999, they continued visiting Israel two or three times a year. Howard Mischel volunteered during the 2006 Lebanon war — the same year they bought a house on paper in Modi’in, a central city of about 80,000 planned by Israel’s premier architect, Moshe Safdie. They live in Buchman, a neighborhood that attracts many English-speaking immigrants.

Terry Mischel taught English and history at schools including the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck. She was in charge of admissions and communications at The Moriah School of Englewood before the move. She spent the past year taking ulpan (intensive Hebrew class) with her husband, and discovering new places.

Looking back on the past year, the Mischels agree that the good outweighs any negatives. “First and foremost, we’re living an entirely Jewish life in a place that wants you to be here,” says Howard Mischel. “It’s a reorientation of the way you live day to day. We take great satisfaction in participating in all the things that happen here that are specifically Israeli and Jewish.”

 
 

Yeshiva University students spend summer unearthing biblical history

Sarit Bendavid, a Yeshiva University honors student from Teaneck, just returned from working on archeological excavations in the ancient city of Gath, home of the biblical Goliath.

Under the supervision of Bar-Ilan University’s Prof. Aren M. Maeir since 1996, the excavations made news in July when diggers found positive evidence of a 10th-century BCE Philistine temple. Known as Tel es-Safi or as Blanche Garde during the Middle Ages, this site between Ashkelon and Jerusalem was settled continuously from late prehistoric through modern times. Archeologists have discovered here the world’s earliest known siege system and deciphered Philistine inscription, as well as preserved evidence of various cultures, peoples, and historical events spanning six millennia.

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At a dig in the ancient city of Gath are, from left, Daniella Ahdout, Dena Shayne, Sarit Bendavid, and Rachel Stern, all Yeshiva University students. Their professor, Jill Katz, displays a find. courtesy sarit bendavid

Bendavid and five other Y.U. students participated as part of a three-week course in biblical archeology taught by Jill Katz, adjunct professor of anthropology and archeology at Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women. The schedule included early-morning digs — before the sun got too strong — afternoon sessions of pottery-washing and sorting, nightly lectures, and field trips.

Armed with a trowel, brush, dustpan, and dirt bucket, Bendavid did not make any of the more spectacular finds. But she did uncover such items as a piece of decorative boneware and a ceramic strainer. Sifting through broken mud-brick material and layers of ash, she discovered the base of a jug that had been shattered and burned when the ancient Philistine city of Gath was destroyed, presumably by the Aramean King Hazael in the early ninth century BCE.

“Being at a Philistine site provided us with a different view of history,” Bendavid said. “Usually we learn about the Philistines in the context of Israelite history, where they were ‘the’ enemy of Israel, so it was interesting to work on this site and consider them just like I would any other people.”

Bendavid said she felt she was “digging up the stories of the Bible,” including the well-known battle between the shepherd David and the giant Goliath, which took place in the Elah Valley right below the dig site. The area is also mentioned in the first Book of Samuel’s depiction of the Philistines bringing the captured Holy Ark to Gath and being punished with a divine plague; and the destruction of Gath detailed in the second book of Kings.

It was not only the ancient peoples the young archeologists found fascinating, but also the variety of contemporaries working on the site, which has been active for more than a decade. On the bus ride to the dig early each morning from the kibbutz where the students stayed, Bendavid spoke with some of the 100 participants of many different backgrounds — for instance, an archeology student from Australia, an evangelical Lutheran student from Germany, and a Jewish professor at Bar-Ilan.

Another opportunity for getting to know other participants was during the tedious washing and sorting of each day’s finds, which were then left to dry for two days before evaluation by pottery specialists. Bendavid described suddenly spotting some black and red paint on a shard she was cleaning. A supervisor told her she was holding the bottom of a bowl from the Iron I period, called Philistine bichrome ware. Though any significant finds had to remain in Israel, Bendavid got to keep several ancient fragments that the experts determined unimportant to their research.

“I’ve always been interested in biblical archeology but had no way to be involved in it,” said Bendavid, 21, who is an English literature and history major at Stern College. “I never thought of archeology as a viable professional option, but being here and seeing so many people in the field, I’m considering it now.”

For Bendavid’s firsthand account of her experience, go to My encounter with Goliath

 
 

Aliyah Diary: The price of citizenship

If you can recall the opening sequence of the TV series “Get Smart,” where Agent 86 passes through a long series of security doors, you can picture my passport renewal experience at the American Consulate in East Jerusalem.

When I arrived at the consulate, on Nablus Road on the Arab side of Jerusalem’s Highway 1, I lined up outside to get my online appointment receipt verified and attached to a number ticket. Then I lined up again to start the many-doored journey into the building.

At the first guard station/metal detector, a handsome young Israeli security guard rummaged through my personal belongings and instructed me to surrender my “cell phone, headset, disk-on-key, MP3, MP4, MP5, MP-whatever.” (If I had been sporting a “Get Smart” shoe phone, he would surely have confiscated that, too.) He instructed me to take a sip from my water bottle before allowing me to keep it.

He buzzed me through another locked door into a room where my considerably emptier handbag was scrutinized by an X-ray scanner. Finally, I was buzzed into the waiting room for passports, visas, birth certificates, and other official American documents.

The staff there was unusually friendly. One clerk handed out crayons and drawing paper to the children present while another found humorous ways to announce turns: “Will the fabulous Finkel family please step over to Window 3?”

A pleasant woman went through my documents with a check list, and another swiped my American Visa card to pay the $75 fee.

But that’s not all, folks. I was then sent upstairs to yet another waiting area to buy a courier envelope (about $10) to have the new passport delivered to an office in central Jerusalem for me to pick up. Back downstairs, I handed the envelope and receipts to the clerk and retrieved my electronic devices after exiting the building.

The process cost me about an hour and $100.

I had considered letting my American passport expire and using my Israeli one exclusively. But this made no practical sense. Without an American passport, I would have to pay a fee to apply for a visa to visit the United States — meaning another trip to the consulate — and would have to get fingerprinted and photographed at U.S. Customs. With both passports in hand, I get citizenship privileges on both ends. For those of us with family in the States, such convenience counts.

The larger issue here, however, is the awkward concept of dual citizenship. I found no clear estimate of how many Israelis are American citizens, but altogether about 5.2 million Americans live abroad and most retain two citizenships.

A recent article on this topic in Israel’s popular daily Haaretz explained that renouncing American citizenship is mandatory only for those taking foreign government posts. Voluntary renunciations are rare — although some American émigrés considered this step when it looked as though “Obamacare” would include a hefty “non-user” fee.

Israeli sociologist Chaim Waxman (formerly of New Jersey) told Haaretz that Americans feel politically connected to “the old country” and don’t want to give up their right to vote.

While I believe Waxman’s observation is on target, my husband and I decided not to vote in the last American elections. We had faithfully exercised our precious right to vote since we turned 18. But once we chose to live elsewhere, it didn’t seem right to elect the leaders of the country, state, and town we no longer reside in. Israelis living abroad may not vote in Israeli elections unless they come here on Election Day (although this may change) and that seemed to us a better model.

So why retain American citizenship if not to have a say in the electoral process? Several pundits quoted in Haaretz cited the “security blanket” dynamic: Immigrant Israelis feel safer knowing they can flee if things get dicey in the Promised Land.

That particular motivation really doesn’t speak to me. However, the Haaretz article also quoted Eli Lederhendler of Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, who posited: “American Jews living in Israel just don’t see themselves as ex-Americans. Why, therefore, would [American-Israelis] pay the price of giving up a passport over a [negligible] matter, a few forms to fill out? It doesn’t make sense.”

Though I am a proud holder of an Israeli ID, it has been no small matter — emotionally speaking — to discard other U.S. documents as they have expired or become irrelevant: my New Jersey driver’s license, my Blue Cross card, my Teaneck library card, even my CVS and ShopRite key ring tags. Perhaps, subconsciously, this factored into my willingness to take a morning off from work and run a gauntlet of security doors to buy an official extension of my American identity.

 
 

Alan Brill explores ‘post-tolerance manifesto for a post-9/11 world in new book

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Alan Brill argues in his new book that Jews need to learn more about their own faith while encountering others.

Teaneck resident Alan Brill’s new book, “Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding” (Palgrave MacMillan), is a sort of post-tolerance manifesto for a post 9/11 world.

The humanistic approach to tolerance in today’s Western world treats “the other” as secular without requiring any understanding of the other’s religion, argues Brill, an Orthodox rabbi, interfaith activist, and Cooperman/Ross endowed professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall University in East Orange.

Jews involved in interfaith dialogue since the 1970s have mostly come from the 1960s “universal, we’re-all-one perspective” that emphasized openness over exclusivism, says Brill. He felt that today’s realities called for a look at how classical Jewish sources could bring an old/new dimension to the discussion.

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“As religion has reasserted itself all over the globe post-9/11, the secular approach doesn’t work,” asserts Brill, 49. “A ‘tolerant’ position doesn’t actually encourage diversity and difference but rather a hidden sense of ‘why can’t we all be the same?’ You have to come to the table with a notion of what your own faith can bring, with a commitment to your own faith, not as a general universalist but with something to say.”

For Jews, that “something to say” is found in our traditional texts, says Brill.

Over the course of several years, he collected and examined biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and early modernist Jewish sources to extrapolate a Jewish theology of other religions.

“I am more than surprised at frequent interfaith encounters where the Catholic speaks from the official Church teachings, the Muslim speaks from traditional teachings, and the Jewish representative addresses the assembled from the general perspective of comparative religion, politics, or anthropology,” writes Brill, who was one of a few Jewish scholars invited to an interfaith conference convened by Saudi Arabian King Abdullah in Madrid two years ago. “There need to be Jewish theologies of other religions.”

This is not merely an academic exercise, Brill asserts. “What we say on interfaith topics does matter; it does lead to greater understanding, and it leads to practical change. If you can’t figure out what to say about Christians from a Jewish point of view it will affect how you relate to them. And for pulpit rabbis, how they think about or talk about other religions really affects their congregants.”

The questions he attempts to answer for readers are: If God is one, then what is the value of the other religions? Does God care only about one small people or does His plan include the wider world? How does one theologically account for the differences between religions? How do Jews think about other religions? How do we balance our multi-faith world with the Jewish texts?

“Most Jews are not remotely aware of the texts in this volume,” he writes, adding that his book “reflects an Orthodox training and erudition, but it is not limited to Orthodox thinkers.” This is not to say that his sources are obscure, but that their writings on this particular issue never got much notice. “People know these sources, but they just pass over passages like the one where [10th-century Baghdad scholar] Saadya Gaon discusses the Brahmins.”

With its hefty list price of $85, the book is currently being acquired by libraries and universities around the world —including some in China, India, and Australia. Next year, it will come out in paperback for a wider audience, defined by Brill as “anybody interested in the Jewish attitudes toward other religions, from clergy to people who want to make Jewish sense of the stories they read in the papers.” To make it accessible to gentiles involved in interfaith encounter, the book’s Jewish concepts are all explained in clear terms.

Brill is teaching in Seton Hall’s graduate department of Jewish-Christian Studies on Jewish ethics and the land of Israel in the three faiths. He is lining up a fall schedule of speaking engagements about the book, and putting the finishing touches on a second volume, to be titled “Judaism and World Religions.”

“Judaism does have something to say about other religions. That’s the big point,” he says. “It goes in many directions and has many Jewish voices.”

 
 

Bergenfield’s Rabbi Mordechai Cohen leading multi-faith research project

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From left are Choon-Leong Seow of Princeton University and Mordechai Z. Cohen of Yeshiva University at an editorial meeting of the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (published by Walter de Gruyter in Berlin), at YU earlier this year. Jane Windsor/Yeshiva University

Bergenfield resident Rabbi Mordechai Z. Cohen, professor of Bible and associate dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, is heading a 13-member international research group sponsored by the Jerusalem Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS).

The scholars will study early Jewish, Christian, and Muslim strategies of scriptural interpretation and their contemporary implications from September through February at the IAS center on the Hebrew University campus.

Though it may seem unusual or even radical for an academic from centrist Orthodoxy’s flagship institution to be involved in such an undertaking, Yeshiva University’s administration and rabbinic faculty support Cohen’s endeavors and their effect on the university’s reputation.

Cohen and his wife Suzanne, a Bible teacher at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, believe so strongly in the project that they have transplanted their family of five children — ages 4, 8, 10, 13, and 16 — to Jerusalem for the year.

Meir M. Bar-Asher, Hebrew University professor of Islamic studies and chairman of its Arabic department, is co-directing the group of scholars from the universities of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rome, Exeter, Kent, and Tel Aviv, as well as the Catholic University of America, Harvard, Yale, and Bar-Ilan.

Cohen explained that 20 years of research and teaching at YU convinced him that classical Jewish biblical commentators must be understood in the Christian or Muslim cultural contexts in which they lived. He realized that scholars from all three faiths would benefit from exploring this idea face to face.

“I’ve been at conferences over the years where I see the potential of these multicultural interactions,” he said. “I’ve studied Muslim jurisprudence and Arab poetics on my own, but when I’m in actual contact with experts in this field, and describe the Jewish perspective to them, we discover things about each other’s common strategies we could not see on our own.”

Cohen’s 2003 book “Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor” explored how Jewish interpreters drew upon Arab poetics to appreciate literary aspects of the Bible. His forthcoming “Opening the Gates of Interpretation” focuses on Maimonides’ adaptation of concepts from Muslim jurisprudence to explain legal biblical interpretations in the Talmud.

“Rather than challenging our tradition, I find that the comparative approach helps us appreciate it more,” said Cohen, who has ordination from RIETS, YU’s rabbinical seminary, a master’s degree from Columbia University in English literature, and a doctorate in Bible from Revel.

“I am delighted that Revel continues to be recognized as a driving force in academic Jewish scholarship,” said YU President Richard Joel. “Professor Cohen, in his own training and now exceptional research and teaching, exemplifies the extraordinary quality and rigor of our premier graduate school.”

The IAS, which grants highly competitive sponsorships to international research groups in the humanities and sciences, turned down Cohen’s first application in 2007.

Prof. Stephen Prickett of the University of Kent in England offered to arrange for the project to be hosted instead by the Church of England in Canterbury. But Cohen was determined that it take place in Jerusalem, and a later application was accepted.

“It was a challenge to gather these important scholars to come to Jerusalem to engage in research for a full semester, and it took a good six months to put together the group,” he said. “Some responded with regrets, saying they could not arrange a semester’s leave, but others made the commitment enthusiastically. This was especially gratifying in the case of scholars who had never been to Israel before — and some regularly visit Muslim countries.”

Cohen said that Revel’s growing reputation worldwide enhanced the credibility of his invitations to scholars unfamiliar with him or YU. Some are now eager to visit Cohen’s home institution. Prof. Robert Gleave of the University of Exeter gave a guest lecture on Muslim jurisprudence at Revel last year. Prickett, an expert on the King James Bible and its influence on English literature, will lecture next year at YU’s Stern College and at Revel.

In weekly seminars, the IAS group will investigate the inter-relation between scriptural interpretation, literature, and other disciplines in Hebrew, Latin and Arabic learning; the cross-cultural influences on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim readings of Scripture; and developments within the three faiths prompted by tensions between ancient authoritative traditions and newer approaches.

The highlight of the project is to be an international conference in January.

Every member of the group is expected to produce substantial writings afterward, said Cohen. “Most importantly, we are confident that the seeds sown in this research group will inspire further new studies by the participants and their students after they have returned to their home institutions.”

Cohen’s longer-term goal is enriching how scriptural interpretation is perceived and studied in the academic world at large. “Collectively, these contributions will represent a new wave of scholarship that opens innovative perspectives on scriptural interpretation,” he said.

 
 

Kaplun Foundation honors Yavneh graduates for essays

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Yavneh graduates Sarah Linder, second from left, and Shoshana Edelman, far right, were honored earlier this summer as finalists in the 2010 Level 1 Kaplun Foundation Essay Contest. Courtesy Nancy Edelman

As Teaneck residents Shoshana Edelman and Sara Linder start high school this month, they already have a significant academic accomplishment under their belts. The 2010 graduates of Yavneh Academy in Paramus were feted at a summer luncheon at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan as finalists in the 2010 Level 1 Kaplun Foundation Essay Contest. The other four finalists hailed from South Carolina, Illinois, Massachusetts, and East Brunswick.

Each of the girls won $750 for her essay on the topic “My favorite hero or heroine, biblical, historical, or contemporary, and his or her influence on Jewish history and/or Jewish values.” Shoshana chose American poet Emma Lazarus, while Sara chose Jewish women’s education pioneer Sarah Schenirer of Poland.

Established in 1955, the Morris J. and Betty Kaplun Foundation is a non-profit philanthropy named for World War II refugees. Its annual essay contest for junior high and high school students encourages young people “to treasure our Jewish heritage, reflect on our Jewish values, and better understand our contribution to civilization and culture,” according to the foundation’s website.

Every student in Yavneh’s seventh- and eighth-grade classes was assigned to enter the contest.

“It was a requirement, but I thought, ‘I am actually going to put some effort into this and if I make it, that’s great,’” said Shoshana. “I have always loved to write.”

As an aspiring lawyer, she first thought about writing about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Instead, she settled on the poet whose words are immortalized on the Statue of Liberty.

“I realized I could relate to Emma Lazarus more, especially how she coexisted with her Jewish and Zionist identity,” said Shoshana, the daughter of Nancy and Daniel Edelman. “That was something I could get more substance out of.”

Shoshana, who enjoys drama and dance, was the captain of the Yavneh debate team and hopes to continue debating at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan this fall. She used her prize money to purchase a laptop. “It was an honor to place,” she said.

Her classmate Sara had never heard of her subject, Sarah Schenirer, who revolutionized education for Jewish girls in Poland between the two world wars. It was her aunt who had suggested the topic.

“I like that she pushed herself and started from pretty much nothing,” said Sara, the daughter of Helene and Andrew Linder. “She made a school and taught so many people. Because of her, I can learn what I want to learn — even gemara [Talmud].”

Like Shoshana, she had approached the assignment with the aim of trying to win the grand prize. Still, she said, she was very surprised to be named among the six finalists, whom she enjoyed meeting at the kosher award luncheon.

Sara, who is starting Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, likes drama and taekwondo. She deposited her prize money in her savings account while she contemplates how to spend it.

To read the girls’ essays, go to Kaplun Foundation honors Yavneh graduates for essays.

 
 

Flight school

Ridgewood resident’s program helps troubled teens learn to pilot their lives

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Wings volunteers work with participants — teens in troubled lives — to give them the joy of flight and confidence in themselves. PHOTOS Courtesy Michael Edrei

Aviva, a former drug abuser and felon from northern Israel, was attending a rehab educational center — an institution of last resort — when she was brought to an airfield on her 17th birthday. Along with 11 other students at her school, she was presented with a chance to soar, literally and figuratively.

Wings (Knafaim in Hebrew) is a unique program founded in 2007 by Ridgewood resident Michael Edrei along with his Israeli childhood friends Yafa Arbel and Zvi’ka Hess. The three Israel Air Force veterans thought that flying could help kids from desperate situations develop confidence and self-esteem, and perhaps even a sense of control over their destiny.

Aviva (not her real name) was skeptical and cynical at first. But her instructor, counselor, and teachers began noticing behavioral changes after she was persuaded to take a few spins in the glider. By her next birthday, she had dissociated from her crowd. And with the help of the Wings liaison in the Israel Defense Forces, Aviva was accepted into military service despite her previous rejection due to her criminal record. This achievement is among the program’s greatest goals, because military service in Israel is key to future social and professional success.

“Anybody who flies knows its effect is profound,” said Edrei. “That’s something every pilot remembers from his or her first time in the air. I’ve been flying 45 years now and I wanted to contribute that feeling of self-confidence to really unlucky kids from miserable backgrounds. The problems of kids at these ages cannot be solved with just money. A human touch is important.”

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Michael Edrei

Candidates for the program must be at least 16. Edrei said his partners work solely with rehabilitation schools and prefer selecting students with particularly difficult circumstances. “These are hard-core rejects of the community, their own homes, and families.” Unfortunately, he added, Arbel and Hess have no way to find those kids who have already dropped out of such institutions.

Edrei, who immigrated in the 1970s, made his mark in international publishing ventures including 24 popular teen magazines and Yellow Pages directories. He financed the first three years of Wings out of his own pocket. Recently, Edrei set up New Course Foundation, a U.S. 501(c)(3), not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization, at his offices in Fort Lee’s Meecorp Capital Markets to raise funds and awareness to keep the program aloft.

“I have the easiest job: writing checks,” said Edrei, who still flies his own plane. “We need volunteers in the U.S. to do fund-raising because we want to triple or quadruple the number of kids we serve. But it’s the people on the ground who are extraordinary, spending all their time and money on the project.”

Wings volunteers provide instruction in controlling a glider, and along the way model interaction with peers and strangers, cooperation, teamwork, and trust. According to its website, Newcoursefoundation.org, “Wings’ goal is not to train for new pilots; its ambition is to create productive and self-motivated human beings.”

The organization pays for space and equipment at two private gliding centers under the supervision of the Israel Civil Aviation Authority, one in the north and the other in the south. It issues guidelines to participating schools and conducts weekly and monthly progress meetings with the educators and counselors.

Edrei felt that if Wings could turn around the fortunes of just one teen every school year, he would be satisfied. In fact, the program has shown about an 80 percent success rate among the 48 teenagers it works with annually, based on evaluations by school counselors and feedback from the kids themselves.

He is particularly gratified that the IAF collaborates fully with Wings. “The sky in Israel is exclusively the Air Force’s sky, so you cannot go up without cooperation with them,” he explained. “They have even changed their program for us. One place we fly is near an Air Force base, so on Thursdays they change their landing pattern to accommodate us. At the start of each school year they give tours of the base to our students, which is very exciting for them.”

To donate or for further information visit www.newcoursefoundation.org.

 
 

Autism: the pain and the progress

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On Yom Kippur of 1996, Albert Enayati saw fellow congregant Sara Lee Kessler walking to Cong. Ahavath Torah with her husband, Robert Miller. He had never met her — he belonged to the Englewood synagogue’s Sephardic minyan — but he recognized her face. Kessler, an award-winning broadcast journalist, was then the new health and medical correspondent for New Jersey Network.

Mustering his courage, Enayati approached Kessler and asked her to consider doing a segment on his autistic 7-year-old son, Payam. “Maybe because of the Jewish holiday she couldn’t say no to me,” he recalls thinking.

Enayati was then president of the state chapter of an autism advocacy organization seeking government funds to establish a gene bank for autism research. “I was hoping she could help us get publicity. I explained that autism is pretty devastating and consumes your life. It affects everyone in the family.”

Payam, on the severe end of the autism spectrum, was difficult to control. He would dart out of the house, into traffic, start fires, and have great difficulty sitting still in school.

“I promised Albert that I would do a ‘Healthwatch’ story about Payam and I became so interested in autism that I’ve been reporting on it ever since,” says Kessler.

Her work over the past 14 years has culminated in an hour-long documentary, “Decoding Autism,” to air on NJN1 Sept. 27 at 9 p.m., Oct. 3 at 4 p.m., and online at http://www.njn.net. Kessler reported, wrote, and produced the piece.

“Autism spectrum disorder” describes a range of neurodevelopmental conditions that affect a child’s language development, social skills, and often IQ. Children with autism commonly have heightened sensitivity to touch and noise and display a range of behavioral abnormalities. (See sidebar.)

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Jake Weinstein, SINAI’s associate director, stands with a student, on the autistic spectrum, being called up to the Torah at school upon the occasion of his bar mitzvah. Courtesy Sinai

With one out of 110 American children now being diagnosed with some form of autism, and one out of 94 in New Jersey, it is widely considered “the No. 1 childhood health issue in America today,” in the words of Mark Roithmayr, president of Autism Speaks. Kessler set out to find what is driving this alarming trend.

She visited the labs of top autism researchers, interviewed families, and talked with educators using early intervention techniques such as applied behavior analysis (ABA). Progress is being made as various theories are tested, but for now there is no clear cause or cure.

What is clear is that autism — or “the autisms,” as one of the experts puts it — knows no racial, cultural, or economic bounds. It is not a Jewish disease. Yet Jewish families affected by the disorder face unique challenges. How can they integrate a child into the Jewish community who cannot be educated in a Jewish setting and cannot attend synagogue services? How can they make a bar or bat mitzvah?

“Part of what gets people involved in the practice of Judaism is the rituals, and that’s a huge problem for an autistic child,” says Lisa Fedder, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, which runs a weekly program for young working adults with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder affecting social skills but rarely intelligence.

“Someone on the high end of the spectrum can learn to read Torah and may even be skilled at it, but part of how we celebrate [b’nei mitzvah] is being part of a community: Hebrew school, prayer service, and celebration. Without those markers, the community has no way to engage you.”

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Bassie Taubes says that “kids at TABC are great” to her son, Yosef Dov, who attends the SINAI branch there.

Bassie and Rabbi Michael Taubes of Teaneck prepared carefully for the bar mitzvah of their autistic son, Yosef Dov, two years ago. “We worked with a behaviorist and wrote a social story with a brief narrative to describe what the day would be about,” says Bassie Taubes.

(A social story is a tool for teaching social skills to children with autism and related disabilities. It provides detailed information about situations that a child may find difficult or confusing.) The story explained to him, his mother said, “that there would be a lot of people and noise, and people may want to touch him, and how he could stay calm.”

In Cong. Tzemach Dovid, his father’s synagogue, Yosef Dov was called to the Torah and was honored after services at a kiddush. That Saturday night, his family threw a party whose guests included client families and volunteers from the Paramus Friendship Circle — a Lubavitch program that recruits teens to interact with special-needs children in their homes.

“That day was a highlight of his existence,” says his mother. “It’s rare for kids with autism to be celebrated. He talks about his bar mitzvah all the time.”

Yosef Dov’s aunt, Esther East, is executive director of Jewish Family Service of Greater Clifton-Passaic. “I know many Jewish families with autistic children, who can be anywhere on the spectrum from pervasive developmental disorder to Asperger’s syndrome,” she says. “Like any child with special needs, [a child with autism] has an enormous impact on the family — stress on the parents, confusion until a diagnosis is established, uncertainty about prognosis, lack of adequate educational resources within the Jewish community, extraordinary financial demands for education and treatment, long-term care issues.”

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Reporter Sara Lee Kessler with teens at The Children’s Institute, a school in Verona, for children on the autism spectrum. From left are James S., Natalie C., Emily V., and Philip C.

Last year, her JFS hosted a day of presentations for parents and professionals by Dr. Ami Klin of the Yale Child Study Center, an international expert on autism who appears in Kessler’s documentary. “Everything he said was memorable,” recalls East, “but I think the most poignant and significant message he had for parents was the necessity of creating opportunities in life within the reality of their children’s capacity — opportunities to live life to the fullest and most independent quality.”

One of the parents who came to hear Klin was “Vivian,” a Passaic County mother of a 9-year-old severely autistic boy. When “Baruch” was officially diagnosed as autistic at 2 1/2 at the Institute for Child Development at Hackensack University Medical Center, his parents assumed he would eventually be able to go from public school to a yeshiva, “even if not the same yeshiva our other kids attend. But he’s still not in a yeshiva and I don’t know that he ever will be.”

Vivian has not found a Jewish school that could offer Baruch the one-on-one intensive services he receives at a private school in Maplewood whose director, Dr. David Sidener, was interviewed for “Decoding Autism.” Another Orthodox family has two sons in the school.

Baruch cannot go to shul with his siblings and peers. “I can’t see taking him into services because there’s no guarantee he’ll be quiet, and if he went to the children’ groups he would need one-on-one attention,” his mother said. His only formal Jewish setting is a Sunday morning program, Jewish Education for Special Children, housed at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge.

Rabbi Yisroel Schwab, director of JESC, said a fair percentage of the program’s 50 participants from ages 3 to 22 are on the autism spectrum. Some do not speak. All of them receive some form of prayer education, Hebrew reading, holiday projects, Bible stories, and music, as well as Jewish dance for the older kids. This skill helps them feel more comfortable at bar mitzvahs and weddings.

“We use a multi-sensory approach,” says Schwab, who has ABA training. “For instance, for a non-verbal child we teach ‘Torah’ as a sight word and later you might see him hugging a play Torah in music class. We do see results, but in small steps.”

Vivian recites the Sh’ma to her son every night with the hope that perhaps he’ll be able to say it himself by the time he’s a bar mitzvah. She believes Baruch strongly perceives the special atmosphere of the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

“His favorite foods are cholent and kugel, though he’s not a great eater. I make them every week for him. He’s always drawn to watch the Shabbos candles and his favorite songs are Jewish songs. You just get the feeling he relates to things Jewish.”

Yosef Dov Taubes was the sole Orthodox child in his special-needs public school class when he was younger. His mother recalls the October day he came home from school with a pumpkin and begged his older sister to carve a face into it for him. “We were the only rabbinic family with a jack-o-lantern on Halloween,” she says with a wry laugh.

Since the age of 9, he has been one of the autistic children who make up about a quarter of the students at the SINAI Schools, a network of Jewish programs for special-needs children housed within day schools. He attends the branch at the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck.

“Kids at TABC are just great to him,” says Bassie Taubes. “They take him out to lunch and come over on Shabbos,” along with volunteers from the Friendship Circle. “He’s our youngest child — our other kids out of the house — and he doesn’t have the social network that other teenagers have.”

Dean Laurette Rothwachs says some of SINAI’s autistic students are mainstreamed for half the day. “But they need a lot of support because even if they are fine academically they can’t get through the rigors of communication and socialization. We have behaviorists on staff and where appropriate we use ABA methods.”

Several years ago, SINAI tried offering a self-contained program specifically for children with autism. But it could not meet New Jersey’s enrollment requirements for state funding qualification. “The costs were exorbitant and we couldn’t sustain it over time,” says Rothwachs.

Because SINAI works within mainstream schools, it is not appropriate for all autistic children, she adds. “If a student would be overwhelmed by that setting we cannot take them. They must be ready for that situation. We did take one child who needed a one-on-one behavioral therapist and is now completely integrated into our classes. We have started offering that to many more kids who we feel could benefit.”

There was no such alternative when Payam Enayati was young. “He is severely disabled, so there was no way to have him get a Jewish education,” says his father, “but he knows about going to shul.”

Enayati credits Ahavath Torah’s Rabbi Shmuel Goldin and former Sephardic minyan president Albert Allen for welcoming Payam, who now lives in a group home. “It was difficult to control him, but nobody got angry if he disturbed the services. He’d play with the curtain in front of the Torah ark and Mr. Allen was very understanding. Everyone made us feel welcome.”

After that Yom Kippur meeting in 1996, Kessler interviewed the Enayati family and other parents at Payam’s school. She also attended a hearing in the New Jersey legislature about funding for the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange at Rutgers, the nation’s first collaborative gene bank for the study of autism spectrum disorders.

“I imagine that was the first time a reporter talked about autism in the state of New Jersey, and we were so grateful because the legislation passed,” said Enayati. “And she didn’t stop there. When Gov. [Christie] Whitman was to sign the law, Sara Lee did another NJN piece that day, and she interviewed me.”

He believes Kessler’s reporting helped secure a later piece of legislation that established Rutgers as a “center of excellence” for autism research. In 2006, the New Jersey General Assembly passed a resolution lauding Kessler for her humanitarian efforts.

“The more I reported on autism and saw what a devastating disorder it was, and the struggle of people like Albert Enayati to create a gene bank, I could not turn my back on the issue,” she says. “He knew it was important to get past the emotions and look at the science. I wanted to do a documentary on it for years, but it took a long while to get the funding together.”

Kessler says she hopes “Decoding Autism” will raise awareness about autism spectrum disorders “and give real hope to families impacted by the disorder.”

The main advance she discovered is that scientists are now convinced autism is a brain connectivity disorder. “Everywhere I went, the brain was front and center. And gene research seems to support that theory.”

Autism experts now know that people who are autistic have larger brains, but they do not know how this contributes to the disorder. Others have found that brain signaling delays may be the cause of autism’s signature communication difficulties. Researchers are studying younger siblings of autistic children, believed to be at greater risk, to see whether the development of the disorder can be halted with proper intervention.

All of this may be academic for the families of older autistic kids like Payam and Yosef Dov. Autism generally does not disappear in adulthood. “We don’t know what the future will hold,” says Bassie Taubes. “That is the big question.”

 
 
 
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