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OU PowerPoint includes the whole Megillah

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As Megillat Esther is read this Purim, Jews around the world will stamp their feet, hiss, and wave their groggers when they hear the name of Haman.

Many Jews who suffer from hearing loss, however, will never hear that wicked name — or the noise around them when it’s uttered. For these members of the community, Our Way, part of the Orthodox Union’s Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities, has created a PowerPoint presentation of the Purim shpiel, complete with animations of you-know-who being stamped out.

“When you have a community that has trouble hearing, it’s very difficult for them to follow most of the programs that go on in synagogues and temples on a regular basis,” said Batya Jacob, director of Our Way. “We look for ways to include our membership and people in the Jewish community.”

Yachad declared February as North American Inclusion Month and more than 200 synagogues and schools in North America signed up to host Shabbatons and other activities. Our Way’s PowerPoint is one of several outreach projects the OU is promoting throughout the month and into March.

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Our Way, a program of the Orthodox Union’s Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities, has created a presentation of Megillat Esther for the hearing-impaired.

The presentation is projected on a screen and includes Hebrew and English translations of the Megillah. Haman’s name appears in red, prompting the user to click. One of 15 graphics then pops up, showing Haman in a pool of sharks, a boiling vat of water, and swallowed up by mosquitos, among other animated fates.

“Every time you get to Haman you can click on Haman on the English or Hebrew side and there’s a visual stamping out,” Jacob said.

This will be the sixth year the presentation has been distributed. It began as a pilot in five communities and last year it went out to 150 synagogues around the world. At least that many are expected this year, Jacob said.

“We keep growing, thank God, every year,” she said.

In addition to aiding the hearing-impaired, the presentation is also beneficial for the elderly, children with learning disabilities, or the visually handicapped who cannot see the small text of prayerbooks. Children, particularly, like the presentation because of the graphics, Jacob said.

“It’s a really useful tool,” she said.

The presentation is available through e-mail to any synagogue that requests it. It has been used in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist synagogues, as well as yeshivas in Israel. Synagogues that don’t have hearing-impaired congregants should still be interested, Jacob said, to draw more people in from the community for the holiday.

Some synagogues request a copy of the presentation that they can edit, Jacob said. They then insert pictures of members into the graphics.

“So it’s their own people popping up, stamping out Haman,” Jacob said.

Cong. Ahavas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange, which held an inclusion Shabbat two weeks ago, has been using the PowerPoint for years. The congregation holds its traditional Megillah reading in one room and the PowerPoint presentation in another.

“People look at it with a sense of pride that we have such a thing,” said Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler. “We certainly have [hearing-impaired] people coming from the outside. Just having such a program gives them the sense that they’re welcome in our shul and that’s something we take great pride in.”

The Pinebrook Jewish Center in Montville, which also screens the PowerPoint, doesn’t have any hearing-impaired congregants, according to Rabbi Mark Finkel. The presentation just “makes the text more accessible to everybody in the room,” he said.

“It’s added a whole dimension to the reading of the Megillah,” Finkel said.

For more information or to request a copy of the presentation, e-mail Jacob at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call (212) 613-8127. For more information on NAIM events, call (212) 612-8172 or e-mail Michelle Orgel at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

OU national conference, set for Bergen, to consider costs of observance, other issues

Is it too expensive to be an Orthodox Jew today? What are the keys to a happy marriage? And what about the day-school tuition crisis?

The Orthodox Union will address these and other issues when it convenes its biannual convention next weekend in Bergen County to discuss the future role of Orthodoxy, and the Orthodox Union, in the Jewish community.

“The goal of the convention is to deal with some of the major issues facing our community,” said convention chair Emanuel Adler, a Teaneck resident, “while at the same time utilizing the resources of the Orthodox Union and demonstrating to our constituency that the union deals with various issues and has the resources to do so.”

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David Olivestone Photos Courtesy OU

Following a Shabbat at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton for synagogue presidents and delegates, the biannual convention will begin the evening of Saturday, Jan. 15, at Cong. Keter Torah in Teaneck, with a discussion on the cost of Jewish living moderated by “JM in the AM” radio host Nachum Segal. That Shabbat marks the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Steven Dworken, former vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and his family has dedicated the Saturday evening program in his memory.

“The cost of Jewish living doesn’t just involve the tuition bill,” said David Olivestone, a Teaneck resident who is the OU’s senior communications officer. “It’s the cost of a house [near a synagogue], cost of summer camp, food because of yom tov and Shabbat…. You have to be wealthy to be observant. It’s the most talked about topic on everybody’s mind.”

The conference will continue on Sunday at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton, with more than 25 seminars in three separate tracks: Torah life, community life, and synagogue life. Seminars include topics such as making prayer more meaningful, Israel’s conversion controversy, dating, and fund-raising.

“It’s a chance to convene the greater Orthodox community to address the issues that we all wrestle with and to hear from those who’ve accomplished facts on the ground in the different areas that concern us all,” said Rabbi Steven Weil, a Teaneck resident who is the OU’s executive vice president.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb, the OU’s executive vice president emeritus, will lead a plenary session on the Mesorah, the chain of Jewish tradition and its role in the modern Jewish community. A second plenary, moderated by Weil, will discuss the Orthodox role in the wider Jewish community. The panel will include Jewish Federations of North America CEO Jerry Silverman.

“We’re trying to open up a topic for everyone,” Olivestone said.

The convention is an opportunity for OU leaders to vote on resolutions that will guide the organization through the next two years, including electing the OU’s board, he said. Saturday night’s program and Sunday’s sessions are open to the public, while voting will take place Sunday during separate closed meetings.

Many people think of the OU as only a kashrut organization, Adler said. He pointed to such programs as NCSY, Yachad, and other services that the OU constituency and the wider community may not be aware of.

Adler, who also chaired the convention in 1994, ‘96, and ‘98, does not expect solutions to all of the issues facing the Jewish community to emerge from it, but said the conference would be considered a success if it sparks discussions and raises awareness of the Jewish community’s challenges and the role the OU plays in meeting them.

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Rabbi Steven Weil

The past three conferences have been held in Israel, when the OU decided to boost an Israeli economy and tourism industry battered by the Palestinian intifada. With Israeli tourism reaching record numbers this year, the leadership decided to bring the convention back to the United States and chose Bergen County because of its centrality to the metropolitan area, where a large portion of the U.S. Orthodox Jewish population lives.

“This time we felt a lot more people are traveling to Israel on their own and we wanted to bring [the convention] within reach of everybody,” Olivestone said.

Weil also pointed to the Hilton and its ability to accommodate the hundreds of expected attendees and observe Shabbat restrictions as a drawing point for Bergen County. While none of the organizers offered exact estimates, they said they expect several hundred to attend Sunday’s sessions.

The conference is typically held in even years on Thanksgiving weekend. Organizers decided that bringing the conference back to the United States on that weekend would present too many logistical problems, however, and moved it to Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. The next conference is planned for late 2012 or early 2013, although no location has been chosen.

For more information on the OU conference, including a list of speakers and topics, visit www.ou.org/convention.

 
 

For deaf Jews, Jewish community slowly opening up

Yachad support group a ‘haven’

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Members of the Junior Yachad division are pictured snowtubing in February 2008. With them are advisers from area high schools. Courtesy Yachad

As the mother of a child with developmental disabilities, Rena (not her name) often feels overwhelmed by her marathon-like schedule of shuttling her daughter to therapists, advocating for her at school, meeting with her caseworker, and pleading with the insurance company to cover the much-needed therapies.

Between private school tuition, tutors, therapy, and medical bills, Rena laments she is facing financial burdens that would leave anyone worried about their future.

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Chani Herrmann leads a Yachad mothers’ suppport group. courtesy chani herrmann

Worst of all, said the Fair Lawn mother, is the pain she feels when well-intentioned friends in her community prattle on about the relatively minor travails of their typically well-functioning children. “They say they’re so depressed that their son is leaving for college, or they complain about the tablecloths at their daughter’s wedding, and the whole time, I’m biting my lip, thinking about how my daughter will never graduate college or get married,” she said. “They have no idea how lucky they are, and no sense of what I’m going through.”

Fortunately, Rena has found a haven where she can freely express her feelings in a local support group for mothers of disabled children. It’s one of the few places where she knows she will be understood and she doesn’t have to feel alone.

The support group was launched four years ago by Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, in an effort to help Jewish mothers of special needs children in New Jersey. The group meets weekly in homes around Bergen County.

Yachad is an agency of the Orthodox Union that serves the broad Jewish community. Yachad, Hebrew for “together,” was founded in 1983 to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities and is the only Jewish group in the country of its kind, said organizers.

The mothers’ support group’s facilitator, Chani Herrmann, who is also director of New Jersey Yachad, is a social worker and Teaneck resident who has been involved in Yachad for more than 10 years. As much as the women have gained from her knowledge and expertise, she said, she has gained inspiration from their strength and warmth. “The women learn from one another, share resources, and gain strength and knowledge from each other’s personal experiences,” she added.

Among the topics discussed at the gatherings are school placements for their children, marriage and communication, the stress of having multiple children with special needs, financial stressors, and long-term planning, said Herrmann.

Herrmann said the feedback from the women who attend is that they “need” this group. “It is a safe place to come and be honest about the things they struggle with.”

In addition, it’s a warm environment where parents can celebrate accomplishments with one another in a special way, said Herrmann.

“We have shared important milestones with one another — births, bar mitzvahs, graduations. Nothing is taken for granted — every event in their lives is an important one, and a child’s success in school or at a job is celebrated by the whole group.”

The women who attend the New Jersey Yachad support group range in age and in their level of Jewish observance, and their children suffer from a broad spectrum of disabilities — including autism, developmental and cognitive delays, and ADHD. Yet their core issues are essentially the same, according to Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, the national director of Yachad.

“If you have a child with special needs, you experience similar things, whether it’s grief over losing the dream of having a ‘perfect child’ to dealing with challenging school systems and difficult grandparents and communities that make them feel excluded,” said Lichtman.

Yachad also runs a fathers’ support group that meets monthly in Teaneck. The men’s group offers fathers of children with disabilities an opportunity to learn from one another, provide one another with support, and give them a place where they can be understood, said Lichtman.

“We at Yachad/NJCD very much relate to these families and the challenges they experience,” he said.

While the organization provides the support groups to help alleviate some of the stress for parents, Yachad/NJCD also runs an array of other programs such as North American Inclusion Month (NAIM) in February, which aims to educate Jewish communities nationwide to the challenges these families face and to the benefits of including everyone in the Jewish community, he said.

Another division of Yachad/NJCD, called Our Way, for the deaf and hard of hearing, works to promote inclusion of Jewish deaf and their families into the larger Jewish community. (See box above.) The Association of Parents of Jewish Deaf Children provides support groups for families and helps them find Jewish schools, camps, and community programs, said Batya Jacob, the national program director of Our Way.

“Each year, we have workshops for parents on various topics such as peer pressure or bullying, as well as an annual Shabbaton for families with deaf or hard of hearing members,” said Jacob. “The programs are interpreted into American Sign Language as well as oral interpretation.”

While participants of such programs say they learn a great deal from the facilitators and from one another about navigating their way through the educational and social services maze, one of the biggest benefits, they say, is that it alleviates their sense of isolation.

“No one else really understands the stress, the constant pressure, the social awkwardness, and the extraordinary effort we must make in order to get through the day,” Rena said.

Lori (not her name), a Teaneck mother of several multiply disabled children, said, “It’s good to connect with other mothers who share the same issues. There’s a lot of empathy and it provides a good social outlet.”

The world at large often seems oblivious to their needs and those of their children, said Rena. “It’s wonderful to have a group of women we can rely on to hold our hands and accept us. There’s no one who can relate to our situation except those of us who are in it.”

 
 

For deaf Jews, Jewish community slowly opening up

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Children hold their hands high, signing “hurray,” during a Shabbaton. Courtesy Our Way

Alexis Kashar was listening intently to the speaker at a recent Jewish federation event in White Plains, N.Y.

A closer look revealed that her eyes were trained not on the podium but on Naomi Brunnlehrman, who was seated in front of the speaker translating the lecture into American Sign Language.

Kashar, 43, a longtime civil rights lawyer, has been deaf since birth. Five years ago she and Brunnlehrman, co-founder of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, asked the UJA-Federation of New York to subsidize ASL interpreters, so Kashar and other deaf Jews in the New York area could take part in Jewish communal events.

In 2009, the federation began granting $5,000 a year to the center.

“I was ready to quit the Jewish community when I met Naomi,” said Kashar, who lip-reads and speaks but works with an interpreter.

Kashar is involved with the Jewish federation, she says, in an effort to increase services for the Jewish deaf and hard of hearing.

She has three hearing children and was concerned about their Jewish future.

“I realized if I don’t have access, my children won’t either,” she said. “Why would I take them to synagogue when I have to sit there and have no idea what’s going on?”

An estimated 50,000 deaf Jews live in the United States, according to advocacy groups for the Jewish deaf. Insiders say most are not involved in Jewish life, mainly because it’s just too difficult. There are a handful of synagogues for the deaf and half a dozen deaf rabbis, and several national and local social and cultural organizations serve the Jewish deaf.

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Avi Jacob of West Orange reads from the Torah. Courtesy Our Way

In the past decade, however, mainstream Jewish institutions and synagogues have begun providing ASL interpreters and/or assistive listening devices, allowing deaf and hard-of-hearing Jews to take part in mainstream Jewish life instead of being segregated. The numbers of such pioneering institutions, however, remain quite small, experts say.

“You can count them on one hand,” said Jeffrey Lichtman, director of Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, which operates under the auspices of the Orthodox Union.

Traditionally, the Jewish deaf were not treated as full members of the community. Their testimony was not accepted in religious courts, and they were exempt from commandments that involve listening, which means they were not called to the Torah or even taught Hebrew.

That is changing, experts say, but very slowly.

“We don’t expect all synagogues to have all their services interpreted, but maybe once a month or for the holidays,” Lichtman told JTA. “It’s no different from making accommodations for the physically challenged or the blind. If you don’t, you are effectively saying these people are not welcome.”

Funding for inclusion is increasing mainly because the Jewish deaf community, like the American deaf community in general, is in transition. There is a growing divide between those who are more comfortable in deaf-only settings — usually older people who grew up signing and comprise the bulk of membership in deaf congregations — and younger deaf Jews who are more at ease in hearing society.

The change is largely due to technology, especially the prevalence of cochlear implants that permit limited hearing, according to Lichtman.

“Ten years ago the deaf community had a strong component that did not want inclusion. They wanted their own separate community,” he said. “Today, people who were not interested in inclusion in the past are now much more interested, especially for their children.”

Avi Jacob, 21, wears hearing aids and does not sign.

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Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, national director of Our Way, addresses Shabbaton participants using American Sign Language (ASL). Courtesy Our Way

“We wanted to get him to speak, so he could be included in the typical Jewish world,” said his mother, Batya Jacob, program director at Our Way, Yachad’s department for the Jewish deaf.

Avi Jacob attended Jewish day school and is now a senior at Yeshiva University, where a note-taker takes notes for him in secular classes. In his Jewish courses, his mother says, public funding is not available, so he borrows friends’ notes.

“He does not consider himself disabled,” she said.

Cong. Bene Shalom in Skokie, Ill., is among a handful of synagogues founded to serve deaf Jews and their families. Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer says that services, meetings, and his counseling sessions are voiced and signed.

When the cantor sings in Hebrew, a choir “translates” the prayers into ASL. Clergy don’t face the ark during prayers when it is customary to do so because deaf congregants would be unable to see what they are saying. Some liberal synagogues flash lights on and off to signal certain parts of the service, but Bene Shalom does not use electricity on Shabbat.

Goldhamer says that more young deaf Jews attend hearing synagogues than their parents did. If there is no interpreter, they may go with hearing friends; young deaf people today tend to have more hearing friends. Or they might get together with a few other deaf Jews and hire their own interpreter.

“They’re asserting their rights more,” Goldhamer said.

In Columbus, Ohio, the local Jewish federation gives $3,000 a year for deaf services, with interpreted High Holidays services rotating to different synagogues each year. The federations in New York, Boston, and Washington also give money for interpreters.

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ASL interpreter Naomi Brunnlehrman, left, and Alexis Kashar are co-founders of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center. Ava Kashar

At Temple Israel in Columbus, which has eight or nine deaf regulars, a deaf member in his 80s celebrated his bar mitzvah seven years ago. The ceremony was interpreted in ASL.

“He told me that when he was growing up, there wasn’t a place for him in the Jewish world,” said the synagogue’s executive director, Elaine Tenenbuam. “There are deaf people in every Jewish community, but they don’t participate. They’ve stepped away from the community because it doesn’t provide for them.”

It’s not always a young vs. old scenario. In many cases, older deaf Jews had parents who insisted on mainstreaming them.

Sharon Ann Dror, the founder and president of the Jewish Deaf Community Center in Los Angeles, “grew up oral” with hearing parents who didn’t want her or her hard-of-hearing sister segregated.

But when she went to college and learned ASL, Dror suddenly realized how much she’d been missing, she told JTA via online chat.

“Instead of getting a few sentences in the hearing world from my friends, I can have a real meaningful dialogue with my deaf community,” she wrote.

Dror reads lips and speaks well, but her three deaf children don’t speak at all, relying instead on signing. Her oldest, 19-year-old Joshua Soudakoff, is a Lubavitcher who teaches Torah to other deaf Jews using ASL. Videos of his weekly Torah lessons, conducted in sign, are at Jewishdeafmm.org.

Soudakoff writes that he feels more comfortable within the deaf community, and that hearing people often don’t understand what he’s trying to say and just nod along.

“They don’t understand that deafness is a physical condition, not a mental issue,” he said.

In November, the Jewish Federations of North America paid for Alexis Kashar and Naomi Brunnlehrman to address the International Lions of Judah conference in New Orleans, held immediately after the federations’ General Assembly. Kashar says that’s good, but much more needs to be done.

“It’s our mission to take this nationally,” she said. “We need to bring the deaf Jews back home.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

For Jewish adults and kids, Superbowl Sunday scores with fun and tzedakah

On Super Sunday, the alefs and bets in Green Bay and Pittsburgh will be thinking about X’s and O’s.

They’ll even be up for a little friendly wager.

On the morning of Feb. 6, many hours before the NFC champion Green Bay Packers battle the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, Rabbi Shaina Bacharach of the Conservative Congregation Cnesses Israel in Green Bay says her religious school will square off against the school at the Or L’Simcha, Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.

“The losing city will make a contribution to the tzedakah of choice of the school in the winning city,” Bacharach said. “If we win, their rabbi will also wear a Packer shirt and kippah afterward. If they win, I’ll wear a Steeler shirt and cap.”

Shelly Schapiro, the Pittsburgh school’s director of education, says the schools hope to connect through Skype and “verbalize our challenge to each other,” adding that she hopes to raise some “ruach,” or Jewish spirit, with the activity.

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For Super Bowl XLV — that’s mem, hay in Hebrew — Jewish institutions are offering a schedule of events including parties and pools, as well as opportunities to do mitzvahs. Edmon J. Rodman

Bacharach adds, “We’ll encourage the kids to wear Packer gear to Sunday school and show their Packer pride.”

After all, cnesses Israel has a Packer connection: “One of our members, Rick Chernick, is on the team’s board of directors,” she notes.

The activity between the Wisconsin and Pennsylvania schools is part of the game plan of fun and tzedakah-oriented events being executed for adults and children on Super Sunday.

Synagogues and men’s clubs of most Jewish denominations will be among those joining the religious schools in holding events for the big game in suburban Dallas featuring two of the National Football League’s storied franchises.

In Pittsburgh, a local men’s club has arranged a Super Bowl pool to raise money for an Orthodox synagogue.

“We sold out,” said Dale Moritz of Pittsburgh’s Poale Zedeck congregation, who organized the pool. “We sold 100 tickets at $10 apiece.”

Ticket-holders will have their names entered on a “you pick the score” game that is set up on a printed grid. The score at the end of each quarter determines the winner.

“You might think you’re winning,” said Moritz, who feels the pool adds some drama to the proceedings on the field, “and then you get knocked out by a field goal at the end of a quarter.”

In shul, like everywhere else in Pittsburgh, the Steelers are the topic of conversation, Moritz acknowledges.

“But only after kiddush,” he adds quickly.

At B’nai Israel, a Reform temple in Oklahoma City, Super Bowl Sunday also will carry an element of chance, albeit gastronomical.

The temple brotherhood, which organizes the Super Bowl party, prides itself on baking homemade pizzas for the crowd. Brotherhood president Lou Barlow, the veteran organizer of the event, hopes to introduce this year a dessert pizza he calls “The Elvis” made of peanut butter, bananas, and syrup — reminiscent of the King’s favorite sandwich.

Barlow describes the scene in the temple kitchen as “beer, knives, a 500-degree oven, and too many cooks.”

“What could possibly go wrong?” he asks.

“We have the best time,” says Barlow, who sees the kitchen camaraderie as both an opportunity for members to become better acquainted with each other and a way to introduce new taste sensations like “The Elvis.”

The brotherhood also uses the occasion to hold a “Souper Bowl” by collecting cans of soup for Oklahoma’s Regional Food Bank.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, in Nebraska, Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, plans on using Super Bowl Sunday to level the playing field for the developmentally disabled.

Janet McCarthy, the Omaha program coordinator for a New York-based organization affiliated with the Orthodox Union, says Yachad’s Super Bowl party will be held in a rented elder-day-care center with a large-screen TV.

“All the Yachad members are totally engaged,” McCarthy writes. “What is most enjoyable is their freedom to be a true spectator. That includes the right to stand up and yell, to jump up and down, and to dance and sing at halftime.”

“Everyone is looking forward to the Black Eyed Peas,” she adds, referring to the popular band performing at the intermission.

Heading south to Mobile, Ala., a day that highlights intense competition may introduce an atmosphere of cooperation for two synagogues.

Jonathan Siegel, the Super Bowl party organizer at Cong. Ahavas Chesed, says he’s inviting members of the neighboring historic Spring Hill Avenue Temple, a Reform congregation, to his join the crew from his Conservative congregation.

“They have a lot of kids,” says Siegel, a father of three who hopes to create a “comfortable, family-friendly event. “I thought the Super Bowl party was a way to bring the Jewish community of Mobile together.”

“Let’s Come Together,” suggests the party flier.

In downtown Dallas, not far from Cowboy Stadium in suburban Arlington, Chabad is inviting out-of-town Packers and Steelers fans to put aside their rivalry for a day or two and join them for a Super Bowl Shabbat.

“We are expecting fans from all over,” said Zvi Drizin, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi who often works with young adults.

The program includes Friday evening services and a dinner, where Drizin says that “we are planning on serving super bowls of matzoh balls.”

Shabbat morning services the next day will feature the Torah portion Terumah, which is about the building of the Mishkan, the holy sanctuary. Drizin, who is still trying to find a ticket for the big game, is planning on giving the d’var Torah.

“Terumah is about how everything is contributed,” said Drizen, who is thinking of how he will tie his talk into the Super Bowl. “And that’s all about teamwork.”

JTA Wire Service

Edmon J. Rodman writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Yachad Conference draws 200 attendees

Experts and parents help special-needs kids — and each other

Laurie Minchenberg of Passaic wanted advice and information about how her eldest son, Tuvia, 11, who has special needs, could become a bar mitzvah. But she wasn’t sure how to broach the subject with her synagogue leadership.

Anne Rand of Teaneck, whose son Zev became a bar mitzvah several years ago despite learning issues, understands.

The two women shared ideas at Sunday’s Yachad Parent Conference and Resource Fair at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. It brought together 200 people, including experts, parents of children with special needs, and children with special needs and their siblings. Topics included sibling issues, financial planning, and inclusion of youngsters and adults with special needs in the Jewish community.

It was co-sponsored by Yachad/the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, an agency of the Orthodox Union dedicated to the full participation of individuals with disabilities in Jewish life, and UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Council for Special Needs.

The OU has designated February, when the event took place, as North American Inclusion Month, to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in the community, according to Chani Herrmann, director of New Jersey Yachad.

Sharyn J. Gallatin, chair of the JCSN, said “I think what was unique is that it’s the only Jewish fair of its type in our area; we were hoping to raise awareness and let people know there are a myriad of services available close to home.”

While she stressed it was not the point of the conference, a perceived shortage of state services in Bergen County for families of special-needs children helped provide the impetus for the event, Gallatin acknowledged.

New Jersey’s Division of Develop–mental Disabilities does not have an office in Bergen County; the closest office is in Paterson.

Discussions between state legislators and JCSN regarding this issue are “ongoing,” according to Gallatin.

One of the functions of the conference was to connect parents with local organizations that help fill the gap, according to Herrmann. For instance, two local Jewish community centers — the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades and the YJCC in Washington Township — provide summer programming and Sunday programs for kids with special needs. Both sent representatives to the fair.

Autism, Down syndrome, learning disabilities, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder were among the challenges parents sought resources and advice regarding. Children with special needs and their siblings participated in activities including baking hamantaschen and mask-making.

Gallatin ran a session on the rights of special needs children in the public schools and whether to mainstream them.

“It’s every parent’s goal their child be mainstreamed,” she said. “But the right program has to be in place.”

Keynote speaker Dr. Daniel Tomasulo discussed “Interactive Behavioral Therapy,” a form of group psychotherapy for people with intellectual disability to help one another “through kindness and compassion.”

“I led the parents through the exercises so they get to feel what it’s like to move through these exercises and meet new people,” said Tomasulo, author of “Healing Trauma: The Power of Group Treatment for People With Intellectual Disabilities.” He directed parents to the website Thehealingcrowd.com for more information.

Jeff Lichtman, national director of Yachad, spoke about “the effort to include youngsters and adults in the broad Jewish community in meaningful ways of their choice.”

His discussed the myth that inclusion means participation in 100 percent of communal activities.

“The idea that it is not fair if someone is not included 100 percent of the time — I would disagree,” Lichtman told The Jewish Standard. “There are AP classes in high school, regular classes — would you say everyone must be the same and be in every class? Of course not.”

But he stressed that special-needs children should be welcomed in youth group and synagogue life, including having bar and bat mitzvahs if possible. Yachad works with rabbis to help youngsters achieve this goal.

“[Historically], some rabbis said, ‘No, he can’t be bar mitzvahed because he didn’t go to Hebrew school,’” said Lichtman. “We might help a family find a congregation whose rabbi is willing to work with a special-needs child, or better yet, provide the family’s rabbi with resources.

“Ninety percent of the time it’s out of ignorance, not meanness,” that a rabbi will balk at helping a special-needs child fulfill the rite, according to Lichtman. “We’ll say, ‘Let’s talk with the rabbi and discuss how other congregations have handled this.’”

Stephen Ehrens, CPA, an estate and financial planning adviser for Northwestern Mutual Financial Network in Fairfield, Conn., discussed setting up trust funds for children with special needs so they do not lose eligibility for benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) after their parents die. He has a daughter with special needs.

“I saw all the issues we had for my daughter and all the things I was concerned about,” Ehrens told the Standard. “There is no centralized place to get information. You’re grasping at straws, fighting with schools, trying to get medications, a million questions. I thought this would be great field to help others.”

He added that he found the conference helpful, especially Tomasulo’s lecture.

Other parents shared Ehrens’ view of the fair’s value, and mentioned the chance to bond with other parents.

Minchenberg spoke of a talk Rand gave on helping her son Zev, who stutters, to deliver his bar mitzvah speech.

“It gave me ideas,” said Minchenberg, citing Rand’s providing a copy of her son’s speech, which concerned Moses, a biblical hero who struggled with a stutter. “I thought, ‘I can go to this fellow parent and ask for advice because she has a more in-depth understanding of what a bar mitzvah for a special-needs child is about.’”

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Devora Rand, 8, sister of a child with learning issues, attended Yachad’s resource fair.
 
 

A special group takes on special needs

Yachad participants find their place in the community

Lois GoldrichLocal
Published: 27 July 2012
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Friends gather around Zack Pollak of Passaic on Yachad’s Yad B’Yad Israel trip.

Chani Herrmann, director of New Jersey Yachad, is very clear on what makes her program special.

“It’s inclusion,” said Herrmann, who heads the local office of the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, an agency of the Orthodox Union. “Our mission is to promote the inclusion of individuals with special needs into the broader Jewish community.”

“And,” she added, “we want them to have fun.”

Yachad serves people with a range of developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, Down’s syndrome, neurological impairment, and learning disabilities.

“The reason we’re successful is because everyone finds their place and their comfort level,” Herrmann said.

“Sometimes, people say we’re the community’s best kept secret,” she added, stressing that her group serves people from all parts of the Jewish world.

Herrmann said that while New Jersey Yachad is part of a national initiative — and every state chapter is different — “I believe we are innovative. We’re the only chapter that’s serving whole families through support groups, sibling events, community conferences, and vocational services.”

Though it serves the whole state, New Jersey Yachad has been based in Bergen County for the past six years. This year, it is expanding its presence in Middlesex County as well; it hired two chapter coordinators who will be based there; they will offer support groups for parents and Sunday socialization programs and host the group’s second annual parent conference and resource fair.

Even though most programs so far have taken place in Bergen County, “We have individuals from all different areas involved with our programs,” Herrmann said.

Those programs include social and recreational events, social skills groups, sibling events, and most recently, vocational training.

“We’ve got mother support groups, father support groups, and counseling for siblings,” the New Jersey director said. Once a year, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, the organization brings together families from all over New Jersey to network with one another.

The New Jersey group also offers a Shabbaton program twice a month, providing respite for families “while their kids are having an incredible weekend of fun and inclusion,” Herrmann said.

That respite, she added, is very important. “That’s time they can spend with their other children and their spouse. It’s important for people to know about it.”

Elisabeth Kooijmans of Teaneck couldn’t agree more. Her daughter Hadassah is part of the Junior Yachad division.

“Hadassah loves going on a Yachad Shabbaton because it is 24 hours of nonstop entertainment, attention, and excitement,” Kooijmans said. “The monitors are very energetic, loving, and fun. For us, it is a moment to pay more attention to the siblings and a whole Shabbat not to have to be in a state of constant alert. The first Shabbat Hadassah went to a Yachad Shabbaton, we could use the same tablecloth for lunch as we had used the previous evening. I cannot remember the last time that happened, if ever.”

Amy Citron, also of Teaneck, is the mother of a child with autism. “I never imagined how much my son, who is severely autistic, would love his Yachad Shabbatons,” she said. “Meanwhile, my family can relax knowing how happy he is and reconnect with each other. These Shabbatons make a positive impact on our entire family and help to alleviate what can be a very stressful and alienating situation in our Orthodox lifestyle.”

For the past four years, Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck has hosted what it calls a Simchaton, when Yachad members and their advisors participate in the community’s Simchat Torah prayer services, meals, and dancing.

“Our shul is very proud of our deep relationship with Yachad,” Rabbi Shalom Baum said. “The Yachad members ignite and inspire our congregation.” Calling Yachad staff and volunteers “passionate and selfless in their dedication to the most special kids and adults of the Yachad program,” he said that “while we do what we can to help Yachad, they elevate our Simchat Torah in a deeply spiritual way.”

Baum said his daughter chose to spend this summer on Yachad’s Yad B’Yad program, a five-week Israel trip for 70 students — 35 students with special needs, 35 without.

“They learn about each other and their differences,” said Herrmann, pointing out that many participants, from both groups, have come from Bergen County.

“I am inspired to know that so many teenagers from our chinuch [Jewish education] system are engaged in such a meaningful program,” Baum said, adding that his daughter “is having a phenomenal experience seeing Israel with her new Yachad friends.”

Herrmann said that when it plans social and recreational events, Yachad does not run “self-contained programs. They’re not just for kids with special needs.”

Rather, she explained, her group typically is approached by some community organization, such as a school, that wants Yachad to be part of its event or Shabbaton.

Programs are targeted to three different age groups: Junior Yachad, for 8- to 15-year-olds; Senior Yachad, 16-25; and Rayim, for adults 26 and older.

“It’s real inclusion,” Herrmann said. “The junior group partners with junior high school students or youth groups in the community; seniors partner with high school students; and Rayim partners with universities or young adult communities.”

While trained professionals — social workers, special educators, and psychologists — oversee all Yachad programs, the group has attracted many volunteers as well.

“College students volunteer by the hundreds,” Herrmann said. But whether volunteer or professional, the role of those people who accompany Yachad members to social events “is to bring everyone together as participants, so that they learn from one another and have a good time.”

One of a kind

Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, Yachad’s national director, based in the OU’s New York headquarters, says there are two ways to look at life.

“We look at it as the glass half full,” he said. “Without minimizing individuals’ disabilities, we focus on their abilities. We’re all created in the image of God, and each and every one of us has abilities.”

As his organization grows — in its 25th year, Yachad is now serving nearly 10,000 individuals and families in the United States and Canada — it is facing a new challenge.

“We are trying to balance care, compassion, and love for the individual and family with a professional attitude,” he said. “Neither on their own is sufficient.” To be loving without knowing what to do or how to do it “doesn’t cut it,” he added.

“As you grow, that becomes more of a challenge,” he said.

Still, he said, he remains extremely proud of the group’s accomplishments.

“When we started, there was little out there” for people with special needs, he said. “While there is still a lot to be done, we brought the issue of disabilities, of inclusion, to the community.”

And, he said, “We continue to be the only national organization serving the Jewish community in the area of special needs and the only agency to facilitate inclusion. We’ve come a long way in sensitizing the community to the obligation and benefits of inclusion.”

He is also proud that in an increasingly polarized world, “where everything becomes denominational,” Yachad has been a unifying force.

“There are few places left where Jews of all stripes can come together — and do come together — respectfully and joyfully. I wish there more places where we could say this.”

Lichtman pointed out that at Yachad Shabbatonim, “You see some boys who are clearly chasidish and some who may have just put on a kippah, or you may see a girl wearing pants. Everything is okay.”

The Yachad director said the organization is looking toward the future and wants to take inclusion to the next level.

“We’re trying to get to places we aren’t already and do something with the local community wherever it may be,” he said. Having created North American Inclusion Month several years ago to accomplish this goal — partnering with local groups on projects such as sensitivity training workshops, scholars in residence, and so on — the organization will use this year’s February event to launch a new initiative.

“This year, our focus will be to try to have every synagogue create an inclusion committee,” Lichtman said. “While we probably won’t get all of them, we hope to enlist hundreds across the country. We’ll help as a resource. Their task will be to think about and hopefully implement strategies to promote inclusion in their synagogue.”

‘Hands-on’ vocational training

New Jersey Yachad increasingly is committed to vocational training, Chani Herrmann said.

Though the special needs organization already had vocational programs in six summer camps — and this year more than 225 Yachad participants are attending these camps both as campers and as workers in training — this summer the group added a day camp to its roster.

“I was there yesterday,” Herrmann said; she had just made a visit to Camp Moshava Ba’ir, housed at the Frisch School in Paramus. Camp season began June 25 and will end Aug. 17.

“This is our first day camp,” she said. “We have job coaches on site with the Yachad participants to train them to do different jobs.”

Some, she said, are assisting in art or dance classes. Others are helping the sports staff, and still other Yachad trainees are helping to serve lunch and snacks.

“They’re really hands-on within the camp,” she said. “I went to visit yesterday and I was blown away. I spoke to the person who runs the sports program and she said this is so good for the camp, for the Yachad participants, for everybody.”

The Yachad trainees, she said, “know that they’re part of the camp. It’s been beautiful — a great display of inclusion.”

Herrmann pointed out that New Jersey Yachad is now a qualified provider of self-directed day services through the state’s Division of Developmental Disabilities. This means that the agency can be selected by disabled high school graduates who receive state funding to pay for professional services.

“We will provide these services all year long,” she said, adding that Yachad will focus on job skills — resume writing, interview techniques, computer training —providing hands-on work experience guided by job coaches.

“We haven’t even advertised, and we already have five individuals signed up for this,” she said. “Our plan is to start small, do well, then grow.”

While some employers, such as bookseller J. Levine in New York, have stepped forward to give the Yachad workers a try, “We’re currently looking for partners in the community to offer this opportunity to Yachad participants,” said Herrmann. “We’re reaching out to people we believe understand our mission and will be willing to give them a chance to be successful.”

Feedback from employers has been positive, she said, noting that the J. Levine trainee went on to become a paid employee.

“Employers are not only giving back but they’re receiving,” Herrmann said. “Our participants have a lot to give. If we can help them find their strengths, they can do a good job and serve a company well. It’s win-win.”

A successful summer

By all accounts, Yachad participants are thriving at Moshava Ba’ir.

“I saw a young woman there who has been working with us for the last year on vocational skills,” Herrmann said. “The times I spent with her she was quiet and reserved. When I saw her, three weeks into camp, she was a confident young woman, happy and social. She was interacting with staff and taking chances.

“When people feel they are being productive, it makes a world of difference. People with special needs should be included for their sake and for others’ sake. We have to give them the opportunity.”

Ariella Silver, the camp’s vocational program director, said the seven young adults she is supervising there — from all over Bergen County — each come with individual goals based on their own vocational development during the year.

Silver, who has coordinated Yachad special programs for many years and now is working on a doctorate in psychology, said job skills training includes “how to act, what to do after you complete an activity, how to communicate, and how to effectively interact with younger children and work on their level.” Participants also learn to ask for help and accept constructive criticism.

She offers her students one-on-one coaching, though sometimes Yachad participants function without a job coach “to increase their sense of independence and give them a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

The feedback from the camp has been “amazing,” she said. “The camp is so welcoming and on board with our mission and goals for the summer. We weren’t sure what we were walking into, but I’m more and more impressed.”

Silver recalled a recent encounter with specialty staff from cooking and art.

“They were just hanging out, sharing stories, and getting to know one another,” she said. “The third person with them was one of my ladies.

“One young lady in our program came up to me last week and said ‘I bet I know more of the counselors’ names than you do,’” Silver said. “This was one bet that I was thrilled that I lost. She had been working all summer on introducing herself to the other staff members in camp, and now she can greet nearly everyone by name. In return, the staff knows her and gladly includes her in their conversations and breaks in the staff lounge.”

The Yachad participants “are tremendously enjoying the summer,” she said. “Three that have left [to join the Yad B’Yad program] said they want to do it again.”

Her students love both the camp and Yachad, she said, adding that at least four of the summer trainees will continue their vocational development with Yachad during the year.

Elissa Richter of Teaneck, who teaches pre-k at Yeshiva Noam in Paramus during the school year and early childhood art at the camp during the summer, said that her Yachad assistants come to her before the start of each class.

“I explain what we’ll be doing,” Richter said. “I may give them a job, like gluing, or they’ll pass out bowls or set up tables.” She added that she can really use the help.

“They’ve been great,” she said, noting that she has learned the particular strengths and needs of her Yachad assistants from the job coaches. Some of them, for example, need more guidance in talking to and engaging other people.

“I try to address that,” she said. “They may need to be more talkative or learn to follow directions. I try to gear it to that. It helps that the job coach explains it.”

“The campers treat them normally,” she added. “They look at them as my assistants.”

Annette, who lives in Fort Lee, is one of Richter’s helpers. She clearly is enjoying her experience at camp.

She cited not only “new and exciting activities” but her own progress as well.

“The specialty staff were very impressed with the way I was helping the children. I feel my overall work ethic has improved,” she said, adding that “the little kids are sweet and eager to learn. They are at an innocent age and we should be less jaded and enjoy things as they do.”

According to Herrmann, parents are pleased as well.

Keith Dickter of Elizabeth, whose daughter Dorit is working at the camp and joining Yachad’s vocational program full time in September, said he is “amazed that Dorit is having such a great time helping the campers while at the same time learning so much from her job coaches.”

Dorit echoes her father’s enthusiasm. She told Silver that she is now introducing herself more to the campers.

“I noticed that I am doing better,” she said. “This program has helped me grow a lot. I enjoy going to camp and working hard.”

Dorit is especially appreciative of the help offered by the job coaches, who, she said, are “always here to help us improve our skills.”

Herrmann said she hopes the summer trainees will make connections in the community and learn what it means to be a worker. She is also hopeful that this experience will help them find paying jobs, or at least provide additional networking opportunities.

“Our job is to prepare them for work,” she said. “They won’t be in this program forever.”

For more information about New Jersey Yachad’s programs and services, email Chani Herrmann at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). For more information about Yachad’s eight different inclusive summer programs, email Nechama Braun at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Yachad course focuses on relationship building

Lois GoldrichLocal
Published: 09 November 2012
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Yachad participants and high school students enjoy one of the many activities coordinated by the special needs program. Courtesy Yachad

Successful communication — knowing how to relate to others — comes easily to some, harder to others. Not surprising, it may be especially hard for people with learning, communication, and social needs.

In 2001 Yachad created the “Relationship Building Course” to address this problem.

The group, an agency of the Orthodox Union, has now expanded that course, offering a six-semester program targeting basic social skills. Participants may graduate into an advanced socialization program after three to four years.

“If we want to help people with developmental disabilities lead more successful lives, we have to teach them how to relate to others,” said Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, Yachad’s national director. He noted that RBC was created when a number of older Yachad members said that they were interested in getting married.

“Before they get to an intimate relationship, they need to learn the foundational social skills for successful communication,” he said.

Since its founding, the program “has helped scores of individuals with developmental disabilities become more proficient at forging lasting friendships and improving their performance at work,” Lichtman said.

Chani Herrmann, Yachad’s New Jersey director, said that the local group has been coordinating the RBC program for the last six years, and approximately 15 young adults participate each semester. Social work interns from various accredited schools of social work staff the groups, and Herrman supervises them.

“Often, young adults with certain challenges do not pick up on social cues and therefore need step-by-step guidance in approaching certain things,” Herrmann said. For example, “How do you introduce yourself to someone new? What kinds of topics can you talk about with someone you have just met?”

She noted that participants introduce a variety of questions during the program.

“Our clients raise issues such as living in a group home and feelings of independence, difficulties getting along with others, making friends, and where they can go to meet new people,” she said. In addition, they “often discuss their hopes for the future and the dreams that they have.”

She noted that “teaching them about personal space and boundaries is a key component of the program. Using the Circles Program, we teach the clients who the people are in their lives and where they fall in ‘their circle.’ This allows us to talk to them further about who is important to them, who is a friend, and who is a stranger. Once we help them identify those things, we can explore boundaries.”

For the first time this year, classes will be offered in Cedarhurst as well as Brooklyn and Teaneck. The Teaneck course began on Oct. 22.

Herrmann said that the RBC curriculum has been updated to meet the needs of those clients who have already completed the beginning course and now can move up to the next level.”

An OU statement noted that beginners, intermediate, and advanced classes will run concurrently at each location so that participants of varying social-skills experience can join RBC at the start of each semester and be placed in the group most appropriate to their needs.

The six-semester course includes segments on relationships, beginning communication and conversation skills, understanding social cues, advanced communication and social media skills (for example, differentiating between private and public topics of conversation; learning appropriate written expression via social media, email, phone, and text messages), advanced social cues, and self-advocacy.

Next winter, the course will add a dating and marriage curriculum. RBC will also introduce Chaverim, a new division that includes individuals across the autistic spectrum.

For more information about Yachad or RBC, call Chani Herrmann at (212) 613-8373 or email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 
 
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