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The Blog Is Moving…But Staying The Same

For almost four years and 360+ posts, Zeh Lezeh has been our blog’s home. We have heard from experts, educators, community leaders, parents, siblings, philanthropists and members of our community. The blog has grown and become a place where we can discuss inclusion and how to move our society forward.

But alas, it’s time for this part of the journey to come to an end.

Starting tomorrow (Thursday March 12), the blog will move to its permanent home on our foundation’s website and Zeh Lezeh will be shutting its doors.

For our subscribers, you will continue to receive an email when a new post is published (usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays). The email will come from “Ruderman Family Foundation” and the subject line will be the title of the blog post. The email will appear in your Inbox around 8am EST. If you do not receive the email, please check your Spam folder and mark the email as “not spam.”

The email itself will look a little different than what you have been receiving until now. We encourage you to open, click and read.

So as we bid a fond farewell to Zeh Lezeh, Dear Reader, we look forward to continuing the conversation in a new place. Thank you for subscribing, reading and commenting. We enjoy receiving your feedback and are always happy to hear from you.

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Independent Living

avital sandler loeffBy: Avital Sandler-Loeff

In the U.S. today, 20,000 Americans live in institutions out of 320,000,000 citizens, a very miniscule percentage. However, in Israel, 10,000 people with disabilities out of 8,000,000 residents are institutionalized. Such striking realities help to illustrate how Israel is still 30 years behind the United States in creating opportunities for Independent Living for people with disabilities.

Israel Unlimited, the strategic partnership of JDC-Israel, the Government of Israel and the Ruderman Family Foundation, has committed itself to promoting an inclusive Israeli society. Through mechanisms that support Independent Living, accessibility and changing attitudes, the partnership keeps the notion of “community” in mind with every pilot program, project and undertaking.

We envision an Israeli society where, like able-bodied young people, Israelis with disabilities can choose who they want to live with and where they want to live. We believe that with changing attitudes and genuine opportunity we can create a community that embraces, celebrates and values people with disabilities.

“Supported Housing” is an innovative model that helps young adults make the transition into the community and has demonstrated that independent living is possible in Israel. The program includes mentors and care coordinators that provide young adults with assistance in finding suitable apartments, training and help in adapting to an independent lifestyle and ongoing support to settle in their new homes. Our pilot project is now expanding nationally. In January, we will widen “Supported Housing” from its three current locations to nine new locations across Israel.

Though Israel Unlimited has not yet transformed the reality of institutionalization in Israel, we are taking impactful steps to transform the individual worlds of people like Lior, a thriving participant of our Supported Housing program.

Lior, 29, an employee of the municipality of Tel Aviv, is a young person with a disability. Lior always wanted to live independently, but felt overwhelmed and confused about how to go about doing so. Within the Supported Housing program he found guidance from his Independent Living counselor, Yael. He has not only found an apartment and selected a roommate, but learned how to cook, pay bills and run errands.

Lior (right) with Tomer

Lior (right) with Tomer

With his roommate Tomer, they have created a warm home and a safe place. Now their next challenge is to find girlfriends and have  meaningful relationships.

The program fills a critical gap in the range of housing options that are available to people with disabilities in Israel, which until recently ranged from large institutions to hostels, assisted living arrangements, and community housing, but lacked- to a great extent- the possibility of living independently. By filling this gap, young adults with disabilities will have the opportunity to choose where they want to live, with whom they want to live and they’ll be able to play an active role in their own lives.

We are proud to see that change is beginning to take hold in Israeli society as barriers are broken down and attitudes changed. These successes makes us confident that inclusive communities will shape the future of Israel’s disability landscape.

Avital Sandler-Loeff serves as the director of Israel Unlimited, a strategic partnership between the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Israeli Government and the Ruderman Family Foundation. Israel Unlimited was named one of the Zero Project’s Most Innovative Practices in 2015 for working towards a world without barriers for people with disabilities.

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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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Independence Day?

Jo Ann SimonsBy: Jo Ann Simons

We recently celebrated Independence Day in the United States. We celebrate with parades, picnics, baseball, concerts and fireworks. I am not sure how many people actually took time to reflect on our independence but I thought a lot about the independence I take for granted. Not grand independence like freedom from tyranny or the right to vote but the independence that most people with disabilities still do not have.

Last night, I went out to dinner and ate too much. Then I took my 5 and 7 year old nieces out for ice cream- way past their bedtime. This morning, I decided to sleep late. I went to the gym and worked out for as long as I wanted. Spur of the moment, I met a friend for coffee. I decided to skip breakfast and have lunch before noon. I ate popcorn after my early lunch because I felt like it. I haven’t made my bed.

July 4thThe point I am trying to make is I have the independence to control much of my life. Sure, I have obligations and responsibilities but I don’t ask permission from anyone about when I go to sleep, wake up or what I eat or when. I am free to be with whoever I want. I can do things spontaneously, like keeping my young nieces out after 10 PM- or occasionally bending the rules, like when small children should go to sleep.

Most people with disabilities who depend on others for care, do not even have even enjoy this level of independence. Caregivers often make the decisions about these simple acts of daily living without input from the people they serve. While we work for the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in major areas of life, such as economic security, employment, housing, education and religious life, let’s not lose sight of the very important rights to independence:

The right to choose your friends.
The right to set your own schedule.
The right to eat when you want.
The right to skip your chores for another day.
The right to take risks.
The right to skip breakfast and eat popcorn.
The right to make bad decisions.

I have personal and professional experience. As a professional, I have seen the loss of dignity that comes when others make the decisions about when a person gets up, showers, exercises, eats and controls their access to friends and even family.

Personally, I have worked hard to make sure that my son Jon, who has Down syndrome, has as much control over his life as possible. I may not like all his decisions and choices- he stays up until after midnight most nights, he drinks too much diet soda, he has had way too much success in trying to taste every kind of beer in the world. But I work hard to smother all my maternal instincts and let him live his life and respect that he is 35.

It is hard sometimes and occasionally dangerous. Jon does not like to bother people and when he was sick recently, he minimized his symptoms. He has a complicated cardiac condition and in the area of his health, I draw the line. I choose his physicians but he makes his treatment decisions.

We don’t have to wait until next July 4th to start our own kind of fireworks, where people with disabilities get to control their own lives and the rest of us step back.

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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Affording Inclusion

Lisa FriedmanBy:  Lisa Friedman

The question we should ask is, “How can we NOT afford inclusion?” Given all the research, all the discussions, all the evidence; how can any Jewish institution afford to turn away a single person who wants to belong?

To be clear, when I use the word “afford” there is certainly a reference to finances. But it is essential that we make inclusion a reality regardless of our means. When I say we can’t afford to turn anyone away, it’s because I believe, genuinely and wholeheartedly, that there is a place for every person in the Jewish community. So why is it that we have yet to make the shift from wondering how we, as synagogues, camps and Jewish institutions, can afford inclusion, to making inclusion a priority and FINDING the money?

I get it, trust me. I live in the real world of synagogue life….the world of declining membership, budget challenges and tough choices. But we need to think about what it means to be a part of a community that excludes. When we turn someone away, we lessen ourselves. That’s just not a risk any of us should be willing to take.

Alexis Kashar, a special education attorney in New York who happens to be deaf says it best, “When I am not in temple, my family of five is not in temple. The ripple effect is real.”

While there is no denying that some aspects of accommodating people with disabilities can carry hefty price tags, becoming an inclusive organization is not always expensive. Here are practical, inexpensive and realistic ways to make inclusion a reality for your organization:

The most significant barrier to inclusion is attitude; and changing attitudes is free.
It’s hard work. It takes genuine commitment. But it is free.

You can begin by being mindful and intentional in the way you speak. Help to change the way clergy, staff, teachers, madrichim (teen teaching assistants) and board members speak. Change the wording on your forms, website, and school and synagogue communications to be fully inclusive. Make this one deliberate change and then reflect on what this change has brought to your community.


Invest in professional development
This could be where you get the “biggest bang for your buck.” Most religious schools have a budget for professional development. A congregation can bring someone in to lead a full-day or a half-day workshop for teachers and madrichim. Include members of the clergy and board. Consider inviting parents or running a parallel learning track for parents and lay leaders. When everyone is invested, you reduce the possibility that anyone will consider inclusion “someone else’s issue.” You have the potential to move your community to a place of “this is who we are” and “this is what we do.” Maintain the learning with in-person or virtual check-in opportunities throughout the year.

Use your synagogue’s existing tools to promote inclusion.
As discussed above, you can make inclusion a synagogue-wide priority. Encourage clergy to offer sermons about the value of inclusion. Select texts to study together at weekly Torah study, in committee meetings or at special programs. Write about inclusion in your synagogue bulletin and highlight success stories in your monthly newsletter. Incorporate lessons on disability awareness, tolerance and acceptance in religious school classes, at youth group events and at board meetings.

“It is not your responsibility to finish the work (of perfecting the world), but neither are you free to desist from it” ~ Pirkei Avot: 2:16

Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey where she  oversees an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. She also consults with congregations to develop inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training.  Lisa is a blogger on the issue of disabilities and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter to learn more.

Read our last post: Sunflower Interview Part Two
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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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