A Place At The Table

Rabbi Charles S. ShermanBy: Rabbi Charles S. Sherman

Many, many years ago, my wife Leah and I brought our young son Eyal home from the hospital. He had been a patient for close to two years, after a devastating brain stem stroke. Eyal had become a quadriplegic, vent dependent, reliant on a feeding tube for all nutrition. Eyal was six years old the day we wheeled him into our home, which had been partially modified to accommodate his large wheelchair and medical equipment.

We had four other young children at home. Mealtime around our large kitchen table was “pleasant chaos.” Along with good food and sustenance, there were loud conversations, giggles, teasing, people getting up and down, grabbing something else out of the refrigerator, occasional spills, reminders about manners. Once Eyal was home, Leah and I faced a difficult question. Would Eyal come to the table? It seemed almost cruel, to have him sit, smell the aromas, and watch while all the others enjoyed their dinner.

Leah and I went back and forth. But then we asked Eyal. And he said he wanted to come to the table.

at the table

This forced us to become creative. Eyal couldn’t eat — which is, after all, kind of the point of coming to the dinner table. But is it? Whenever we gather at the table, Eyal joins us. Friday nights and Jewish Holidays we chant “the kiddush,” the blessing over the wine. We taught Eyal the words of the kiddush and the melody. We gave him the responsibility of leading us all. In Jewish tradition, it’s very simple. If you say a blessing, then there must be a subsequent action. If you say the blessing over the wine, then you need to drink the wine. But for Eyal, swallowing even a drop of wine is impossible. He silently chants the blessing, because he cannot make any sound, and everyone says “Amen,” to his blessing. Then Leah dips her finger into Eyal’s wine goblet and gently, lovingly, puts a few drops of wine on his lips.

We continue our dinner. Although Eyal cannot eat, he’s an important part of the conversation and banter. We are together and sometimes , truth be told, the food almost seems incidental.

What we have learned as a family is this: Everyone has a place at the table.

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Seven Steps To Friendship

Liane Holliday WilleyBy: Liane Holliday Wiley

If you have certain disabilities, for example Asperger syndrome, chances are pretty good you think friendships are finicky intangibles, too often tinted with colors you can’t see, much less understand. I have Asperger syndrome, an invisible disability that very often leaves people under the impression I’m not friendship worthy. I’m rather blunt, literal minded, overly enthralled by my own interests and easily bothered by most every bit of sensory information you could imagine. None of these traits give the best first impression light on my character.

But truth be told, I rarely have the need for deep friendships that take more than a tidbit of planning or energy. And if super fine diplomacy and much theory of mind are necessary to complete the transaction, then I’ll likely ditch out of the deal. But when the planets align, I get delighted about the thought of a friendship forming. The question for me becomes, what can I do to actually find a friend? Where can I go? Should I disclose my challenges? Will I be safe? Towards some sort of answer, I’ve compiled a Seven Steps to Friendship list. Here’s hoping you find them helpful.

1. Share your story with potential friends. In other words, don’t hide behind your disability. I find if you’re open and honest about your challenges and exceptionalities, other people will soon share theirs and presto, you’ll all find you have more in common than anyone may have imagined.

2. Don’t be afraid or hesitant to be the force that breaks barriers. Any place without wheelchair accessibility, handrails, good lighting, easy to maneuver doors, safe areas away from sensory overloads, nearby security, fire safeguards, clearly marked directional signs, etc., is not a place I’d venture to. No one should. Work with the media or trusted friend to get all establishments to welcome all people so that no one is left out of any opportunity!

3. Let groups that empower and educate people with disabilities help you figure out the tricks behind society’s hedge. For example, my Asperger’s syndrome makes it hard for me to read other people, so I often ask a peer to help me figure out the mores’ and expectations of a group I’d like to meet. A person with a learning disability may struggle with directions, so they could need help and practice figuring out public transportation or the easiest way to get somewhere. A person with no sight might need help putting together an outfit for a special event. There is no end to the list of things we may need to learn before we even get to the potential friend!

Liane speaking on Asperger’s Syndrome and Safety Skills for the Parkway School District in Chesterfield, MO. (Credit Jan Misuraca)

Liane speaking on Asperger’s Syndrome and Safety Skills for the Parkway School District in Chesterfield, MO. (Credit Jan Misuraca)

4. Work with caregiving groups to create more disability friendly experiences. Think: culinary experiences for the blind, competitive events for people with missing limbs, unique nature adventures for people in wheelchairs, model train building classes for people with no hearing. The ideas are as endless as our imaginations. And if you actually create the event, you’re pretty much guaranteed a chance to meet a possible friend.

5. Self-advocate for yourself. Don’t be the wallflower, be the flower. Find ways to illustrate your personality, what you have to offer, and how worthy you are. Show a special talent, your interests, your intellect and/or your love for life. Believe in yourself and let that confidence draw friends to your side.

6. Volunteer your time, energies and ideas. I’ve never left a volunteer event without having passed at least some time with a kindred spirit or good person.

7. Demand respect. Take nothing less than kindness and genuine attitudes. No friends are far better than false friends and that’s a fact!

Good friendships provide much of the power behind a healthy self-esteem and a happy day. Use your intellect to find them, your determination to ignite them and your kindness to keep them.

Professor Liane Holliday Willey, who holds a doctorate in psycholinguistics, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when she was 35 years old. Since her diagnosis, Liane has focused her academic research on females with Asperger syndrome and communication skills for people on the spectrum.

Liane is the author of the new book Safety Skills for Asperger Women: How to Save a Perfectly Good Female Life, and the author of the international best selling books Pretending to be Normal: Living with Aspergers Syndrome, Asperger Syndrome in Adolescence: Living with the Ups, the Downs and Things in Between, Asperger Syndrome in the Family: Redefining Normal. She is also the Senior Editor of Autism Spectrum Quarterly, a blogger for Psychology Today and a consultant with B.R.A.I.N.S. – the Behavioral Resources and Institute for Neuropsychological Services. Liane has been featured in USA Today, The Associated Press, The New York Times, The LA Times, The Washington Post, Autism One Radio, Oxygen TV, several NPR stations and many other media outlets.

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How Innovation And Collaboration Can Deliver Talent

Rick LaferriereBy: Rick Laferriere

The recruitment of talent is one of the fiercest battles taking place in the world of commerce each day.  Employers spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually hiring consultants, leveraging social media, and posting on big-board recruiting sites just to lure candidates. This investment, however, is yielding varying levels of success, as candidates are faced with a process that, in many cases, is increasingly devoid of human interaction and full of challenges and questions.

These challenges, including increased scrutiny around hiring practices and applications with personality assessments that immediately decide a candidate’s fate, have made the experience decidedly frustrating and disengaging for the applicant. Surely and somewhat begrudgingly, the days of walking into your local business office or supermarket asking for a job on the spot have joined the ole’ Victrola as a rare find and a reminder of simpler times.

Add into these challenges the fact that there is an increasing shortage of qualified talent in many fields and hiring leaders are keeping themselves awake at night trying to figure out how to staff their outfits. These same hiring leaders are left to roll the dice on the candidate that most effectively navigated the hiring minefield, all the while wondering if the best candidate may have never been presented for their consideration because of “the process.”  So for the hiring leader, all that’s left is to wait and hope that they chose wisely. This is not an effective strategy. Is there a better way?

There certainly is. Smart, creative employers are winning the talent battle by exploring non-traditional recruiting strategies, including proactive engagement with the community. Vocational rehabilitation agencies, community based organizations and other providers of employment services– especially to persons with disabilities- have long led the way on job driven training. These agencies have been effectively partnering with employers for many years to deliver high quality talent that commits for the long term. Employers that foster deeper partnerships with these community agencies are finding that a vast pool of talent is largely being overlooked and they can benefit from engaging that talent.

CVS employee Arina Karinin, who was recently honored at the Rhode Island State House and by Governor Chafee

CVS employee Arina Karinin, who was recently honored at the Rhode Island State House and by Governor Chafee

Together, employers who embrace this approach and partnering agencies are developing innovative pre-employment programs that are providing candidates with not only an immersion into the jobs employers need done, but also the culture of the employer’s workplace. Through these programs, employers are finding talent that is highly engaged and well trained even before their first official day of work. Candidates, too, are winning because they get to explore a career and determine if an employer is the right fit for them.

We know from research– both internal and external– that persons with disabilities are proven to be more reliable, more productive, more diverse, more creative and more likely to stay in the workplace. Quite simply, these factors reduce costs and increase profits. Inexplicably, not all employers find value in that data, but those that do are creatively leveraging resources to tap into this pipeline of talent and are realizing a competitive advantage.

In the end, through these innovative partnerships, employers are meeting talent goals and are building a more diverse workforce. More importantly, persons with disabilities are realizing that opportunity does truly exist for them in the workplace of their choice. With the bottom line in business more important today than it was yesterday, and the need to address the high rate of unemployment among persons with disabilities, it only makes sense that employers look to recruit talent collaboratively with partnering agencies that are far better prepared to do the jobs that employers want done.

Rick Laferriere is Lead Manager of Workforce Initiatives at CVS Health and a strong advocate for innovative community partnerships that connect employers with talented persons with disabilities. The CVS Health Workforce Initiatives team is a unique team of individuals whose purpose is to help people on their path to better health by cultivating innovative partnerships and programs that attract and equip diverse talent for dynamic and rewarding careers with CVS Health. A native of Boston’s North Shore, Rick holds a degree in Economics from Boston College and serves on the Board of Directors for the Commonwealth Corporation and on a number of local and national advisory councils focused on the creating pipelines of employment for persons with disabilities. Learn more about CVS Caremark which is helping to build a healthier workforce. Like CVS on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

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Natural Supports

Jo Ann SimonsBy: Jo Ann Simons

A while ago, a colleague, Jansi and I, tried a new place for lunch in a wealthy suburb. It was one of those lovely sandwich, soup, salad, coffee places that cater to both professionals and the woman’s lunch-after-tennis crowd.

Since we had never been there before but had gotten a recommendation that they had great soups, we were a little puzzled that the artful menu board didn’t have soups listed. We were talking aloud about this when a middle aged gentleman pointed out a separate small board on the counter with “Today’s Soups” listed. He told us that is where the soups are listed. He seemed to know the cafe well and was greeted as a regular customer.

He seemed to be well liked in this upscale establishment in spite of the fact that his clothes were not equal to the labels of the other customers. Nevertheless, he blended in with the crowd.

After thanking him, I noticed his slow gait and deliberate gestures. We ordered, sat down and began enjoying our lunch. He sat nearby and that’s when Jansi noticed another customer approach him and help him with the bag of chips he had been struggling to open.

natural supports
Returning to the office, Jansi and I spoke about how this man, who clearly had an intellectual disability, had given us assistance in the most natural way and then when he needed assistance, he didn’t seem to need to ask for it. Someone just noticed his struggle and asked if he needed help. We had witnessed the community as it should be. When help is needed- it is given. When help is received- it is accepted.

In the disability community, with having to put everything into a professional context, we call this “natural supports.”

On the way home from work that evening, during our long commute which I often share with Jansi, I reached for a bag of pretzels and as the driver, was struggling to open it. That’s when Jansi asked if I wanted help. She opened the bag and handed it back to me.

We laughed at the recent memory of the earlier struggle of the man with a bag of chips and my current struggle with a bag of pretzels.

We are not so different from each other.

It’s just too bad we don’t notice often enough.

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Let’s Build A More Inclusive Community

At the recent JFNA GA, Jay Ruderman sat down with JNS Editor in Chief Jacob Kamaras to discuss inclusion, philanthropy, the Israel-U.S. Jewry relationship and more. Below is part one of that interview.

The Ruderman Family Foundation is known for its work to advance the inclusion of people with disabilities, but at the 2014 General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the foundation’s president used the concept of inclusion to issue a broader challenge to the Jewish community.

“I think that we look at people and we label them very quickly,” Jay Ruderman told me Nov. 11 on the stage of the GA’s “press pit,” a section of the exhibition hall where conference attendees got the chance to listen to journalists interview various Jewish leaders. “[We’ll say] ‘You’re in a wheelchair,’ or ‘you’re a different color,’ or ‘you have a different orientation.’ And that’s not what we should be about. We should be about saying, ‘Okay. You’re Jewish. You identify Jewishly, and we’re all in this together, and let’s figure out how to build a big tent.’”

In addition to disability issues, the Ruderman Family Foundation—which has offices in Boston and Israel—prioritizes fostering a more nuanced understanding of the American Jewish community among Israelis and modeling the practice of strategic philanthropy worldwide. The following is a condensed version of my interview with Jay Ruderman at the GA.

What would you fix about the Jewish community?

“Most Jewish philanthropy is given Jewishly. Jewish organizations are mainly focused on ensuring continuity. So if you’re looking at Jewish day schools, or Jewish camping, or trips to Israel, it’s all about the same thing: How do we engage younger Jews to be connected to our Jewish community? Which makes sense, and that’s a laudable goal. But what we’re not doing a good job at is including people on the fringes of our society—people with disabilities, the gay and lesbian community, intermarried families, Jews living in poverty. There are all sorts of groups that are excluded from our community. First of all, I don’t think that that’s a great value system for the Jewish community. But furthermore, young Americans already live in a more inclusive society, and if you build a Jewish community that looks like a country club that excludes a bunch of people, I think you’re going to turn off the very people that you’re trying to attract. So [our foundation is] out there talking to fellow philanthropists, talking to Jewish organizations, [saying] ‘Let’s build a more inclusive community that represents Jewish values of fairness, and in the process going to build a community that’s more attractive to younger generations.”

Jay Ruderman interview

During the controversy surrounding the recent report about a senior Obama administration official called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a chickenshit, your foundation instead focused on another insult of Netanyahu mentioned in the same report—“Aspergery, derived from Asperger syndrome. What does this usage of a disability insult teach us about the power of language?

“First of all, our point when this whole story came out is based on the premise that it’s true, that someone said it. I believe someone said it, I don’t believe Jeffrey Goldberg would have written it if someone hadn’t said it. I don’t know who said it. In any case, the point is that people can’t use terms of disability in a derogatory manner. And we do it all the time. When I read the [Atlantic magazine] article, it jumped out at me. Like what is this? Aspergery? How could you use a disability that millions of people live with and try to put someone down that way? But we do it all the time when we talk to people. [We say] ‘What are you blind?’ ‘Are you deaf?’ And you hear this all the time. It’s not correct. There’s been a huge campaign that’s been going on for years not to use the word ‘retarded.’ And that’s been a successful campaign. And especially younger people in our society, they know that these terms are not okay, it’s not cool to talk that way. So that was our point [in responding to the ‘Aspergery’ insult]. Obviously the disability community picked up on it, and I have to give credit to the Jewish community, they also picked up on it.”

The interview was originally posted by JNS.

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A Beautiful Conclusion

Leslie TubulBy: Leslie Tubul

The Breira B’Ramah in-cabin inclusion program at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires allows us the luxury of tailoring our program to the unique needs of each individual. This past summer, we saw a beautiful example of how this approach enabled our first camper to complete his Gesher (oldest age group) summer.

Joshua* (name changed to protect camper privacy) started attending Camp Ramah as a rising fifth grader. For the next five summers, he returned to camp for one session. Josh never stayed for a full two-month summer; we were concerned that the energy required to negotiate the fast-paced and highly social camp experience would deplete his resources, as is the case with most of campers in the Breira program. Even going into his Gesher summer, our assessment was that Josh was not ready to stay the whole summer.

We all know that children grow and develop in uneven and unpredictable ways. Josh returned to camp this past summer displaying a level of maturity we had not seen previously. His ability to interact appropriately with his peers had soared and he had learned to regulate his emotions. We were delighted to see the degree of seriousness and commitment Josh brought to his work as a CIT (counselor in training), as well as his ability to make positive contributions to the various planning committees that are part of the Gesher experience.

Josh understood that he was limited to staying at camp for only one session, but he was not happy about it. He desperately wanted to stay through Gesher’s three-day trip to Washington, D.C. After meeting with all parties involved, a decision was made to allow Josh to participate in the trip. Once Josh returned, he self-advocated that he be allowed to stay for the remainder of the summer. Again, we assessed the situation. We determined that, yes, Josh would be the first camper in Breira to complete his Gesher summer.

The last Shabbat of the summer is the most significant for Gesher, since it’s the last Shabbat these teens will spend together as campers. One of the most inspiring moments of the summer took place as more than 500 campers and staff sat in the amphitheater overlooking the lake and heard Josh’s voice as he led the camp in Ma’ariv (the evening service).

Ramah Berkshires
But this was not the last surprise of the summer. On the final night of camp, Josh distributed a Shabbat-o-gram to his fellow campers and staff members:

Gesher Tzevet (staff members): Thank you for making my last summer in camp meaningful and fun, for helping me through struggles and for being there whenever I did something productive and accomplishing. Also, thank you so much for successfully enabling me to stay the full Gesher summer!

Campers: You guys made an extremely large contribution to who I am today. All of your humor, support, dedication and encouragement have helped mold my identity. You have opened a special place in my heart that can never be removed or manipulated. I feel so proud and happy that I have been able to grow up with you and have been able to create memorable bonds and relationships. Even though our edah will be separated physically after camp, remember that we are Gesher 2014, and nobody from the outside world can take that away from us.

How wonderful it is that at his home away from home, Josh learned to self-advocate, and that we were able to recognize his growth and hear his words. Although we cannot guarantee that every camper in Breira will realize the same degree of success, it is still critical that we maintain an ever-evolving disabilities support program. Josh’s growth and individuation was the result of years of professional support and nurturing; with a vision, resources, and expert professional staff, we can continue to widen and extend the range of what is possible for all our campers.

This post originally appeared on the Ramah Berkshires site

Leslie Tubul, LSW, is director of the Breira B’Ramah program at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. She holds masters degrees from both Columbia University and The Jewish Theological Seminary in social work and Judaic studies. She has over twenty years of experience working in school settings with students and families in both Israel and the U.S. Her areas of specialty include staff supervision and individual and group counseling, focusing on social skills, communication, self-esteem, and bullying prevention. Currently, Leslie also serves as a social worker at a private school for students in need of out-of-district special education placements.

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We Are Souls

Rabbi Steven WernickBy: Rabbi Steven C. Wernick

I recently reconnected with a young woman who changed my life in a profound way, forever expanding my understanding of the meaning of kehilla (congregation) and what it means to be created in the image of God.

In 1992, while serving as the youth director for Congregation Beth Kodesh, just outside of Los Angeles, I met Dina Springer. Dina was a bright and determined teen with CP (cerebral palsy). As a result, even the most rudimentary motor tasks posed significant logistical challenges for her. Though always surrounded in synagogue by her supportive family – whose care for her was regarded as the most natural task in the world – it was impossible to miss the multiple obstacles that someone like Dina overcame just to be part of the kehilla on a Shabbat, holiday or special occasion.

For those of us who are able-bodied, one of the most important consciousness raising experiences is to encounter the innumerable challenges posed by the physical space of the synagogue by looking through the eyes of someone who has a disability. From the very act of sitting and standing, to ascending the bima (podium in center of synagogue), to praying out loud to holding a prayer book to making one’s voice heard, the multiple motor requirements are daunting to anyone who is limited in their mobility.

Add to the physical challenges the social barriers one must overcome as a teen – disabled or not — and you can begin to understand what Dina faced.

As a young rabbinical student, something about Dina touched and inspired me. Looking back, I think it was a combination of her determination, intelligence and preternatural wisdom and willingness to put herself out there. Though limited by her body, Dina so wanted to be a regular teenager; she so wished to be just one of the kids, heedless, happy, no different from the others.

Anyone who was a teenager can relate to this yearning.

Yet Dina was different and it was the undeniable aspect of her otherness that touched me deeply. I empathized deeply with her spunk and her willingness to risk. And I decided to do something to change the landscape in my small community of Congregation Beth Kodesh.

As youth director, I undertook the daunting task of dedicating the regional USY conference we were hosting that year to the concept of diversity, starting by introducing Dina to the 200-plus kids who would be assembling at our kehilla.

Though Dina and her family embraced this idea, there was no way of guaranteeing that it was sound, and I went into the convention hounded with uncertainty. Certainly, the concept was right, relevant, and central to Judaism’s notion of Klal Yisrael (the entire Jewish nation) but teens are a tricky audience. Their need to be accepted socially often trumps sensitivity. Personal insecurity often turns kids callous, not kind.

The dignity of a young woman was in my hands. What if my idea backfired and Dina felt ridiculed or diminished by the exposure? She was the lynchpin of our entire event. The convention planning was focused on her as an individual and also a representative of the world of the disabled.

Inclusive congregation

Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, NJ, which started a Shabbat L’Khulam service that supports the full inclusion of all people, regardless of abilities.
Danielle Sass featured in the picture touching a kid-level mezuzah the temple affixed.

Many years have passed. Recently, I reached out to Dina. She is now Dina Springer Garcia. Married and the mother of a child, she and I communicated by Facebook and then phone about the personal impact of that USY convention, which was a mega-success – indeed, an important milestone in the life of Congregation Beth Kodesh. Dina recalled how proud she felt that together, we had helped so many of her peers – and the kehilla at large – to open their eyes.

Dina shared with me that prior to that convention she often felt invisible to her peers. The USY convention reversed that reality. The convention was not just successful on a programmatic level; it provided her with a voice. It proved a turning point in her life.

Empowered by the experience, Dina went on to teach people with disabilities how to advocate for themselves and now belongs to a kehilla where the obstacles that exist in most conventional synagogues are absent.

Dina’s advice to me was this: Education. Education. Education.

This prescription might sound simple but it involves thoughtful planning as well as persistent, up-close and personal work to raise the awareness that embracing people with different abilities and disabilities goes far beyond providing a ramp for wheelchair accessibility. It begins with hearing the individual stories of the struggles to stand side-by-side with other members of the community. It involves small matters that are often overlooked.

But perhaps first it begins with a radical gesture: the proactive gesture of synagogue leadership towards people like Dina, the commitment to include everyone along the spectrum of ability; it entails curiosity about their unique stories and situations; it is built upon the breaking of boundaries between those who are able and those who are differentiated so that our kehilla is strengthened by true diversity.

Choosing inclusivity as an ethic is not just a matter of accommodating the other. It is not just being nice or kind or doing the right thing.

Adopting inclusivity involves a radical reimagining of kehilla as the place where all of us define and redefine what it means to be created in the image of God.

Though we are just at the beginning of the Genesis narrative cycle, my mind moves forward to the book of Exodus to contemplate the character of Moses. Plagued by self-doubt, incredulous to find himself appointed by God as the leader of the Jewish People, Moses is described in the text as being “kvad peh u’kvad lashon,” literally, “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”

Though many Midrashists muse about what Moses’ affliction was, the fact remains: Moses, chosen to meet God face to face, struggled with a form of disability, likely related to speech. Supported by his siblings, surrounded by family, given prophetic voice, he was able to rise to greatness.

I will never forget the example set by the Springer family, who brought their young daughter to synagogue regularly, who lifted her onto the bima, who removed obstacles with their own hands, who made sure she was a full member of the kehilla.

As United Synagogue goes forward in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation to make inclusivity the rule (as opposed to the exception) of every kehilla, I know that Dina is right: it all begins with education. And for the first lesson, I would choose this teaching from the “Yigdal” prayer, recited daily in the morning. Speaking of God, the poet says, “Ein lo d’mut ha-guf, v’eino guf – God does not have the image of a body, nor does God have a body.”

We are more than our bodies. That is one of the great teachings of the Torah when it says we are made in the image of God. And that is one of the great teachings of Jewish leaders like Dina Springer Garcia who inspire us to see each other as souls – eternal, connected, shining brightly.

Rabbi Steven Wernick is CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Engage USCJ on Twitter and Like them on Facebook.

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