Strangers Among Us

Rebecca SchorrBy: Rabbi Rebecca Schorr

The holiday of Passover is our annual reenactment of the journey our ancestors took out of the land of bondage towards their destiny of freedom in their own land. Much of the meal concentrates on the meaning of slavery as well as the responsibility of freedom.

One of those responsibilities is reiterated over and over in the Tanach (Bible): “you shall not oppress the stranger.” Why? We are told that it is because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. In other words, from our own experience, we should know better than anyone else what it is like to be an outsider. The frequent repetition of the theme of welcoming the stranger signifies the importance of our obligation towards the vulnerable in our society. We are instructed not to wrong the stranger, but not doing harm to someone is not the same as welcoming him or her.

In Exodus 2:22, Moses’ first son is born.

And she [Tzipporah] bore a son, and he [Moses] called his name Gershom; for he said: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land.’

So much did Moses feel set apart from others in his adopted country of Egypt that his son bore a name reflective of Moses’ discomfort. “A stranger in a strange land.”

I think of this phrase every day as my son, Benjamin, walks into the house after school. As a teen on the autism spectrum, he maneuvers through his day without truly understanding the verbal and nonverbal social landscape. His reports of his social interactions bespeak of his continued confusion as one who is not fluent in the vernacular language and mores.

ben and RebeccaBen’s days are long. He expends a great deal of energy trying to figure out how to insert himself appropriately into conversations with his peers as well as how to participate in group activities. Things that require little effort for those who do not have social or developmental disabilities require intense concentration for Ben. Before I go to sleep, I peek in and watch my exhausted son as he slumbers. All signs of stress and anxiety are erased from his face, and I breathe a sigh of gratitude that he is able to escape, if ever so briefly, from the strangeness of his life.

How often do we come into contact with individuals who seem extraordinarily awkward? Or socially inept? Are we impatient with them? Do we ridicule them? How different might we treat them if we shift our perception?

Imagine that you are working on a project with someone. The instructions have been given several times. And the day before the due date, this individual asks for clarification (again) for something that has been explained in numerous emails.

It’s annoying. It’s aggravating. Infuriating, even.

So let’s reframe it: Let’s imagine this woman has a processing issue.
And that much of her life is spent not understanding what is expected of her.
That would be so hard, don’t you think?

That is how we welcome those who try to function in our strange land. By making allowances for all types of differences. By reframing situations in order to be more understanding. To be kinder. To be more gracious. Simply by remembering that we too were once strangers in a strange land.

Ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, a contributing author of The New Normal: Blogging Disability, and the editor of the CCAR Newsletter. Writing at her blog, This Messy Life, Rebecca finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Engage with her on Twitter!

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Sunflower Interview

Sara Portman Milner (L), Laurie Wexler (R)

Sara Portman Milner (L), Laurie Wexler (R)

Sunflower Bakery was a recipient of the 2013 Ruderman Prize in Inclusion. Below is part one of an interview conducted with the founders, Sara Portman Milner and Laurie Wexler, where they discuss what makes the bakery unique, the community support and how they view inclusion.

Please share with our readers your personal history- where you grew up, professional career etc.

Sara: I grew up in Savannah, Georgia. I was the fifth of six kids. When I was 14 years old, my parents gave birth to a child with Down syndrome. Our family pediatrician and the rabbi of our synagogue told my parents, “don’t bring him home. You have a beautiful family- send him away.” They did the exact opposite- all the kids wanted their baby brother to come home.

My career has been devoted to giving opportunities to people with disabilities- in Savannah, there weren’t many opportunities. There was primarily exclusion. My brother was actually the first to have an inclusive bar mitzvah at our congregation.

I’m a social worker by training. I started the disabilities program at the Greater Washington JCC where I worked for 34 years. The good news is that the Jewish community in DC got together to aim for inclusion. The bakery was a great opportunity to have a match for what I do.

Laurie: I grew up in upstate New York & South Florida, went to college in Texas and received a Masters in Jewish Communal Service from the Hornstein Program at Brandeis. I have worked for several Jewish organizations focusing on local community needs and Israel initiatives in Florida and DC.

My husband was elected to Congress in 1996, so our family moved to DC. I volunteered at the Ivymount School for students with special needs and the experience stuck with me. I have met numerous adults that have children with disabilities who are eager to find opportunities that will enable their children to become productive members of society. This led me to start exploring ideas for employment training for young adults with disabilities.

The most attractive possibility was to create a pastry arts training program. It also turned out that the DC Jewish community could support another kosher bakery. So, after visiting a bakery in Virginia Beach that employs individuals with disabilities, we married the concept of a kosher bakery with preparing young adults with disabilities to enter the job market.

What makes Sunflower Bakery unique?

Sara: Our chef says: It’s not about baking pastries- it’s about helping people have a career. They should have choices, have meaningful choices. We’re giving them the skills to a career that wasn’t an option to them before. Traditional baking schools are not an option for them. We allow them to develop skills in something they’re interested in. The individualized nature and going beyond skills training (inclusive training) makes it unique. We’re not just teaching baking skills- it’s life skills, professional skills (grooming, showing up etc)- things that are being taught in a very natural, inclusive environment

Laurie: Sunflower is a unique hybrid: it’s a kosher bakery and it’s a place to learn skills. As a nonprofit, it is helpful to have the earned revenue from the sales of products. Sunflower works hard to help the students become trained and ready for the workplace. Some of the students don’t have a service provider or support system in place & we can help get them started. In the end, we can help them to become employees who can go to work and do a job like the employer wants.

Sunflower students preparing mandel bread dough

Sunflower students preparing mandel bread dough

What special teaching methods/special services do you offer/use at the bakery?

Sara: Part of the beauty is that none of the pastry chefs have experience with special education. Therefore, we can mold them to teach and work with the students. We get information from the students, get their individualized education plan which educates us on what avenues are best for teaching them. Do they learn better by reading, watching, listening? We use every learning modality available so each individual learns the skills he/she needs.

Laurie: The very first thing we decided was to hire a professional pastry chef because we knew we wanted a program that was focused on the profession and to prepare them for employment. We were volunteers but we had a professional pastry chef who was paid. Now we have 3 pastry chefs, two work directly with the students and one manages production all day long. We chose baking and pastry- if you can learn to follow a recipe and do what’s asked, you can be successful at producing that product.

Sara: The repetitive nature of the work; you don’t change your cookie recipe every week. We have to deal with sensory issues (light, sound, smells)- they have to be able to work in the kitchen. There are certain accommodations we took into account to make sure they’ll be successful out there.

Did people approve of you starting a bakery that trains/employs people with disabilities?

In the very beginning, it seemed a little difficult for some people to envision. We knew that to be successful, we needed to meet not only the need for employment training for individuals with disabilities, but also provide a broader community benefit. This benefit was providing a kosher, parve bakery under the supervision of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington. Our synagogue, Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, MD, readily donated kitchen space for us to begin the pilot program. Community members first purchased our products because they liked the organization’s mission, they purchased a second time because they liked the product. We then knew we were on the right path. The community is enormously supportive.

What difficulties did you face when starting the business?

The main difficulty in starting this venture was determining the correct blend of a skilled employment training program and a production bakery with pastries for sale. A related challenge was determining an accommodating course of instruction and training that would best position our students for success in employment.

How do you define inclusion?

Laurie: Inclusion is a value. Everyone should have the same opportunities, do as they wish (which goes beyond the educational setting) and people becoming valued members of society. It’s a way of life, giving people the possibility to have meaningful relationships so they can join the community & reach their highest potential.

Sara: It’s NOT about numbers. You have no clue how many people have a disability out there. Everyone should be given opportunities to be the best they can be. While that is not the same for every person, each individual should have the chance to apply their achieved skills to a job to be self-supporting and productive members of a community.

Sara Portman Milner and Laurie Wexler are the co-founders and co-directors of Sunflower Bakery located in Gaithersburg, MD.  They can be reached at or Visit them on Facebook at Sunflower Bakery. 

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One Grant- A Lifetime Of Change

Carole ParrishBy: Carole Parrish

The J.E. & Z.B. Butler Foundation was created in 1954 and remains a living legacy to Zella and Jack Butler and their deep commitment to New York and the Jewish community. Zella and Jack were my aunt and uncle. They were warm, deeply caring people and they treated their nieces and nephews with special affection. The Foundation is committed to continuing Jack and Zella’s vision with diligence, compassion and creativity.

In 1939 their only child, Barbara, was born with severe developmental disabilities. As there were few options for people with disabilities at that time, Barbara was cared for at the Devereux School in Philadelphia from the age of four until she died in 1993.

The Butlers’ first-hand knowledge of the challenges encountered by individuals with disabilities and their families led to their lifelong commitment to insuring that people with disabilities had access to programs that would enhance their lives. For years, Zella read to visually impaired university students helping them realize their academic dreams in spite of their disabilities. Zella often said, “I have graduated from most of the colleges and universities in the New York area by osmosis.” Jack was a man of humor and grace who had a special rapport with young people, serving as their mentor and friend; his devotion was unconditional. Together they opened their home for Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations. Young and old, family and strangers became friends around their table.

In 2003 the Foundation started funding in Boston, continuing the work that was started in NY. One of the early organizations I met with was The Asperger’s Association of New England (AANE). AANE works to support individuals with Apserger Syndrome and similar autism spectrum issues and their families. They help individuals build meaningful, connected lives by providing information, education, community, support and advocacy.

Dania Jekel, AANE Executive Director: “The Butler Foundation began funding AANE’s child and teen programs in 2005. Before that, our Child and Teen Services department didn’t exist: We had three clinical staff members who handled all calls and questions relating to individuals of all ages, from 2–90 years old. Thanks to the Butler Foundation grant we were able to hire an additional part-time staff person, which greatly enhanced the support we can offer to families”.

Butler educator's conference

AANE Educator’s Conference

The extra staff also enabled AANE to expand educational offerings. Since 2005 they have developed and offered several different seminars and support groups held both in person and online. The online offerings are able to reach families throughout New England who otherwise would be isolated and not able to benefit from all that AANE has to offer. Interaction with parents has helped to shape subsequent programs, ensuring that they are meeting the current needs of the community.

The grant has allowed AANE to offer many options for learning, community building, and problem solving:

  • Asperger Syndrome Information Line:Parents can call or email AANE Child and Teen Services staff whenever they need referrals, have questions or concerns, or just need support to raise and educate their child.
  • Parent Topic Nights: These are free events to discuss the issues that keep parents up at night. Topic nights also include time for parents to meet and network.
  • Workshops: AANE staff and trainers offer in-depth, practical workshops designed around parents’ top concerns, from preventing meltdowns to handling homework to IEPs.
  • Ask the Expert Series: Professionals in the field share their expertise and answer questions on a variety of special topics.
  • Consultations: AANE staff members provide customized information and guidance in order to help parents feel more confident in their ability to plan and advocate for what their children need at school, at home and in the community.
  • Online Support Groups: Groups are free for current members. AANE parents can connect and communicate with other parents 24/7/365 online. AANE also offers moderated discussion/support groups for parents of children or teens.
  • Transition GPS: A coordinated set of workshops and services that address families’ needs during this developmental stage.

Families from the New England area and around the globe have benefited from the work that AANE is doing with children and youth.

One parent writes:

“When my son was diagnosed with AS at age 7, the diagnostician urged us to join AANE. He could not have made a more useful suggestion. Our son is now almost 17, and over the last ten years we have attended many meetings, workshops, webinars, support groups, and conferences. We keep coming back because AANE parent resources are always on the cutting edge of best practices in the field.  Every AANE staff person I know is both knowledgeable and empathetic. The email list for parents of teens with AS is a regular treasure trove of information. My parenting has been much more effective because of AANE, and when I meet younger parents who have a child with AS I always advise them to join.  We are very, very fortunate to have AANE in our community.”

It is gratifying to know that so many individuals, families, schools and communities are being served by the work that AANE is doing. We have watched them grow, always on the cutting edge, always finding ways to serve families, regardless of distance or circumstance. Jack and Zella Butler would be so pleased to know that work like this is being done as a result of their life and their legacy.

Carole Parrish is the Vice President of the JE&ZB Butler Foundation. She heads up the foundation’s work with people with disabilities and at risk youth in the Boston area.

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The Trials And Tribulations Of Raising A Taxpayer

Andrea GruberBy: Andrea Gruber

  • 500,000 individuals with autism will enter the job force during the next decade.
  • 65% of adults with disabilities are unemployed.
  • Hiring a person with a disability should not be considered charity. It is a sound business decision that brings well-qualified talent into the workforce.

I think about these statistics each and every day. They haunt me like a bad dream, and float in and out of my consciousness continually. I am driven by pure selfishness to see that these statistics do not define my son. I am the mother of an incredible young man. Marc is disciplined, hardworking, congenial, and driven to succeed. However, he has one obstacle standing in his way to long-term, meaningful employment: Marc has autism. Sadly, this single characteristic will completely overshadow all of his incredible skills and attributes in many areas of his life, especially when it comes to establishing a career.

I have three children in their 20’s and, like most parents, I want my grown children to find work that they are passionate about—jobs that not only provide them income, but also get them out of bed every morning with enthusiasm and commitment. Together with my husband, we are raising taxpayers; these are individuals we hope will work hard in a meaningful job and enjoy a rich and full life. Unfortunately, the world at large does not share our vision. As difficult as it is for a typical young adult to find his or her place in the world, a person with disabilities is that much more challenged.

Our family lives in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. But, before you roll your eyes and think, “No wonder this young man cannot find a job,” I would like to tell you that Detroit is not what you have been led to believe on the national news. There are many opportunities here. Our area is slowly growing and its residents are committed to seeing Detroit revitalized and reborn. With that said, the economics of our area do increase the difficulty in finding employment for a person with disabilities. This is a national problem.

Marc GruberFew employers seem to realize that individuals with learning differences can bring myriad skills and talents to the workplace. In fact, it has been statistically proven that individuals with disabilities increase the overall quality of the workplace. Walgreen’s, KPMG, Merck, and SunTrust Banks have all experienced this firsthand. Each of these businesses has achieved high levels of success by employing individuals without typical resumes. For example, at one of the warehouses that Walgreen’s operates, 40% of the staff members have disabilities. It is one of their highest-producing facilities in the country. All of the employees work together and bring their skills and talents to the workplace to make this facility an incredible success.

April is Autism Awareness Month. This means 30 days during which parents, educators, organizations, and all those touched by this lifelong disability try to teach others about living a life with autism. I am hoping that within the next 30 days, there will be an employer that will look at my son’s resume and be persuaded to hire him because of his ABILITIES, not the things he cannot do. My son, like so many of his peers, is capable of much more than sweeping a floor, folding laundry, clearing a table, or watering plants. My son is bright, disciplined, hardworking, driven to succeed, and congenial, and one day he WILL be a taxpayer.

Andrea Storch Gruber and her family reside in Southfield, Michigan. She is a member of the statewide group, Parents Raising Taxpayers. Most recently, Andrea helped to organize a Community Conversation to bring light to the issue of employment for individuals with disabilities. Her son, Marc, has participated in Atzmayim, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s Tikvah Vocational Program, which receives funding from the Ruderman Family Foundation. His resume and visual portfolio are available upon request!

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Bricks, Breaking And Completeness

Yudit SidikmanBy: Yehudit Zicklin-Sidikman

In 1998 I began a wonderful trip into the world of Rabbi Adin Steinsalz’s Biyur Tanya (the Tanya is an early work of Hasidic philosophy, published in 1797). Though the Tanya has lots of very deep Kabbalistic concepts, most above my ability to really comprehend, Rabbi Steinsaltz has a way of making them very accessible. After 16 years of learning, I went to visit the Rabbi to ask two questions I had that were bothering me. This blog will address the question of how Torah/God values perfection or completeness.

There is a thought that as each person is a complete entity, so is each generation, each world, each level of understanding. The metaphor used in Torah to describe completeness is the human body. This truly bothered me. First, I have spent my entire adult life working with all different types of less than perfect people. As a matter of fact, I am one of them. So, if the standard of completeness and perfection is a perfect “body” where does that leave me and the people I know and love?

In questioning the Rabbi he told a story of a man who has outlived every prediction ever made of how long he was going to live with ALS. A man who to this day communicates by blinking and continues to write. The Rabbi’s answer to my question was that it is not about physical completeness, but rather about being comfortably and completely you.

To me, this is the message that I teach about inclusion. It is not my job to define completeness. It is my job to help whomever I teach feel good about being exactly who they are, as they are, on their journey in this life. It is about you feeling great about being completely you.

One of my favorite organizations to work with is Shutaf because they get this. You can see it in the eyes of their madatzim (young leaders with disabilities). Last week I got to teach them how to break boards and bricks. What? Really? Yes, we broke boards and bricks with our hands and our indomitable spirit. And I did it just a little bit differently then I usually do.

Disclaimer: No trees were harmed in the running of this workshop. We use re-breakable boards.

Caption: Amutat El Halev

Caption: Amutat El Halev

What was different? We broke through all of the things we don’t like about ourselves. And all of the not nice things that other people think about us or say to us. We broke through “stupid” and “retard.” We broke through “gimp” and “lazy.” We broke through everything these amazing young people could think of. On one hand, it was so sad for me to hear how much they were carrying with them, because we filled 25 boards with different “bad” things to break through. On the other hand, we broke through 25 boards with positive affirmations!

The following week they came to attack the bricks. I’ll share a little trade secret. When we break re-breakable boards, I can help them get through it. The way I hold it and the way I put pressure on it, I can help just about everyone to succeed in breaking a board. Not so with the bricks. When it comes to breaking a brick, I can coach and I can cheerlead, but it is really the person and the brick in front of them. I must say I was a bit nervous. I hate it when someone who really wants to succeed and really needs to succeed can’t. It wasn’t enough that I was fighting my own demons about this group’s ability to succeed in this but I was hearing it from others around me. “Really? You are going to break bricks with Shutaf?” “What if?” And “What if?”

Hey, hold it! Exactly! What if! What if they succeed? What if they can do this? What if this empowering breaking through the seemingly impossible is a gift I can give them? What if I believe in the power that they have to achieve whatever it is that they set their minds too? What if we as a community stop looking at “them” and start looking at “us” as a complete community that needs each other to truly be complete. With all of our parts, whatever they may be, intact, including and cherished.

So what happened when they came to El haLev? They broke. And boy, did they break! My favorite success was a young man who was so completely reticent to even walk up to the brick. I looked him in the eyes and I said, “Repeat after me. I am strong!” “I am strong!” “I can do this!” “I can do this!” “I am strong!” “I am strong!” “I can do this!” “I can do this!” “Now! Break that brick!” and he did. I have never in my life felt such deep satisfaction. I have never seen such a momentous change in the way a person looks before and after a break. Though I am certain that there are plenty of people in this young man’s life who tell him that he is capable to do whatever it is that he wants to do, I am pretty certain no one has ever told him that he is strong.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, walked out just a little taller that evening. It is amazing how completely transforming breaking can be. And yes, being “complete”, just like the Rabbi said, is about how completely good we feel about ourselves.

An Israeli-based renowned motivational speaker who has taught thousands to find their inner strength, Yudit’s passion is teaching. An educator with over 30 years’ experience in special education, particularly inclusion, she is a founder, senior instructor and the CEO of El HaLev. El Halev is a women-run NGO working to end violence by providing personal safety & empowerment programs for women, children, seniors & people with disabilities. Like them on Facebook!

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A Thousand Words

jo ann cropBy: Jo Ann Simons

Sometimes a picture is just a picture and sometimes it’s more. On a recent Caribbean vacation we were taking a bus tour when I looked forward and saw something so ordinary but so powerful that I grabbed my cellphone and took a picture. It was a young man’s leg in the aisle of the bus. He was wearing rugged footwear and a fashionable bathing suit and a polo shirt. His hands were clasped together. I couldn’t see his face but he might be handsome, thoughtful and strong. I imagined him happy, accomplished and satisfied. I saw him, in that moment, how I do see him and how I hope the world sees him.

Without judgement.

Jo Ann St KittsThis picture is my son and it was taken last month on St. Kitts. I was sitting several rows behind him on that bus. Without his face visible, it was possible for me to see, for several exquisite moments, the hope I have for a truly inclusive world. A world where Jonathan was judged by his employment success and not by the facial features that tell the world he has Down syndrome. A man who has his own home, who decides what time to go to bed, get up, shower and what time to eat. What if they saw him as a powerful swimmer and not someone whose chest is defined by the scars of open heart surgery? What if they saw him as a man with 6000 songs on his I Pod and not someone wearing hearing aids?

What if disability were invisible and we judged people by their character? While I believe that differences and individuality ought to be celebrated and embraced, they are NOT a reason to exclude or discriminate.

Or judge.

What if it didn’t matter because we didn’t notice?

Or care?

Jo Ann Simons is a Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation and President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers

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An Inclusive Tu Bishvat Seder

Daniel SchwartzBy: Daniel Schwartz

A highlight of the year for the entire New England Yachad community is the Tu B’Shevat Seder with K’sharim and Shaarei Tefillah Synagogue, which was held recently in Newton, MA. The Tu B’Shevat Seder ceremony commemorates the new year for trees, which falls on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat. Individuals of all ages with disabilities, their families and the broader Jewish community participated. Congregation Shaarei Tefillah and its rabbi, Benjamin Samuels, have consistently shown eagerness to take initiatives to include people with disabilities into their community. Shaarei also co-sponsored the event and was recently recognized nationally by the Hineinu Initiative as one of the most “Inclusive synagogues in the country.”

Over 130 people attended the Tu B’shevat Seder. Over forty teen ‘peer participants’ also attended the Seder to enjoy the evening alongside their Yachad friends. At Yachad we don’t have “volunteers” because everything we do is inclusive – so our cadre or middle and high school students without disabilities, who attend activities alongside the individuals with disabilities, are called peer participants.

The Seder opened with two activities: working on a community mural with artist Tova Speter and completing a make-and-take arts and crafts project. The tables of the Shaarei Tefillah social hall were adorned with art supplies, make-your-own flower pots, stencils, and ceramic tiles waiting to be decorated. As the Seder participants began to create these bright, nature and/or tree-related projects, the atmosphere was one of friendship. Around the room, people helped each other out with their art, offering Tu B’Shevat inspired ideas for each other’s art projects and socializing. Eventually, the vast majority of people in the room had their own project to take home– either a decorative tile or a flower pot– and each was specific to each participant’s taste, yet united as part of one general theme of Tu B’Shevat and renewal.

Yachad tu bishvat
Perhaps most impressively, the girls of The Binah School in Sharon, MA led an array of activities. First, these motivated students publicized their recent projects in school that were part of a Binah School unit that focused on inclusion. Then, the Binah School invited the seder participants, table by table, outside into the synagogue’s atrium to contribute to their mural. The mural created by the Binah school and Tova Speter is traveling in pieces to disabilities groups and programs from across Greater Boston in addition to Yachad and K’sharim and is set to be the first public mural on display in the town of Sharon. The mural represents values of community and sharing. Every participant who wished to contribute had an opportunity to draw his or her own design in an individual portion of the mural. This activity was a great builder of self-esteem for all, especially the artistically talented Seder participants. (Unfortunately, I do not fit into this category!)

The Tu B’Shevat Seder  continued with eating fruits and nuts of all kinds- from papaya to mango, kiwi to apricots, carob to cashews. The goal was to commemorate the new year for the trees and celebrate what they bring forth.

This year’s Tu B’Shevat seder was fun, inspirational, and unifying for our communities. We hope we can reach even higher heights in Seders to come!

Daniel Schwartz is a senior at The Maimonides School in Brookline. Among his many other hobbies and interests, which include baseball, acting, and Jewish learning, he has been involved for the past three years in New England Yachad.  Daniel writes, “Our local Yachad club began as a small group of Maimo students who would go together to events within the Jewish community with a handful of people with disabilities. It remained small for many years. After a few of us attended Yachad’s National Leadership Shabbaton 2 years ago, we became committed to helping transform our Yachad chapter. Our commitment to doing more programs with individuals with disabilities received a huge boost with the support of Liz Offen, an inclusion expert, hired as the Director of New England Yachad. In a short time, our chapter grew to more than 250 participants– students and adults, people with and without disabilities, within the broader Jewish community.” Contact New England Yachad at

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