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Jewish Disability Awareness Month inspires community

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Jewish Disability Awareness Month photo 1

In recognition of Jewish Disability Awareness Month, Jewish Child & Family Services (JCFS) invites synagogues across the Chicagoland area to embrace this opportunity to increase awareness of the needs and strengths of people with disabilities in our communities. Held in February, Jewish Disability Awareness Month was created by The Jewish Federations of North America and a consortium of Jewish Special Educators to raise awareness and support meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Jewish life.

JCFS, a leading provider of programs and services for people with disabilities in the Jewish community and beyond, is pleased to share this list of “10 Ideas to Promote Inclusion” for Synagogues and other Jewish organizations.  This list was compiled in consultation with JCFS’ expert clinicians, drawing from guidelines set forth by the Jewish Federations of North America in its Jewish Disability Awareness Month Resource Guide. JCFS is a partner in serving the community with the Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund.

Speech, Occupational and Developmental Therapies for children, overnight camp for teens with autism or social impairments, Sibshops for brothers and sisters of children with disabilities, and Family Bridges futures planning for aging parents with adult children with disabilities, are among the many services provided by JCFS for people with disabilities and their families.

Jewish Child & Family Services is at the forefront of providing vital, individualized, results-driven services to thousands of children, adults and families of all backgrounds throughout the year.  Services include counseling; therapies for children and adults with developmental disabilities; special educational programs; autism assessment, care of abused and neglected youth; respite and more. For information about our services and programs for people with disabilities, call the Disability Helpline at 773-467-3838, or visit us at jcfs.org.

10 Ideas to Promote Inclusion for People with Disabilities

1. Use People First Language in all communications. Calling someone a “disabled person” puts the disability first, as the sole qualifier of that person. A “person with a disability” is a person first and foremost, and that language emphasizes each person’s individuality, dignity, value and capabilities.

2. Make sure that your facilities are physically welcoming to people with disabilities with accessible entry ways, access to the bima, even as simple as making sure shoveled snow doesn’t block access.

3. Use volunteers or teacher’s aids in the classroom to provide extra attention to young students with special needs. Vary activities so that there is plenty of movement between lessons to help keep active children focused.

4. Create a “buddy system” for congregants with special needs, someone who will introduce him or her to others, make sure he or she is included in Kiddush or other synagogue social activities.

5. Send out a regular newsletter or email message focused on your initiatives and upcoming programs. You can also include a relevant quote in your general congregation bulletins about February and Jewish Disability Awareness. Involve the people with disabilities from your congregation in the creative process.

6. Plan an inclusion Shabbat with other congregations for future initiatives. Creating new approaches may mean adding music, crafting a modified religious service, or bringing in a storyteller. Jewish Child & Family Services can offer resources based on its experience serving individuals and their families who address these issues.

7. After assessing your congregation’s needs, consider special funds or volunteer resources for adaptive technology, special equipment, transportation services, sign language interpreter, large print books, or books in Braille for the blind.

8. Launch a Jewish service-learning project involving children with disabilities and their peers. Incorporating Jewish ideals into service projects strengthens communities and provides volunteers with an opportunity to explore and strengthen their Jewish identities. JCFS offers several collaborative possibilities and resources to increase and reinforce inclusion.

9. Encourage people with disabilities to lead a program or participate in a synagogue services. Help them educate your community on the “do’s and don’ts” of working with people with disabilities. For example, greeting people at eye level is a DO, while mentioning a disability when it is not relevant is a DON’T.

10. February as Jewish Disability Awareness month is an opportunity for Jewish congregations and organizations to engage their communities, volunteers and members to look for new, meaningful “inclusions” in the congregation’s activities on every level.

My Career Israel experience

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My Career Israel experience photo

While applying for a doctorate in clinical psychology, I decided to head to Israel.  I had just spent the year working as an Early Intervention Specialist for toddlers who demonstrated signs of autism or other pervasive developmental disorders.  Yet, I knew that I still needed something else to set me apart from other applicants.  I enrolled in Masa Israel’s Career Israel, to gain professional experience abroad.

My experience during those five months after college could not have been more distinct.  I began Career Israel in September 2008, during the time when Qassam rockets were fired regularly from the Gaza Strip into Sderot and were making their way towards Tel Aviv.  I was in Israel when the army responded with Operation Cast Lead, and saw many of my Israeli peers leave to fight.  Still, despite the fact that I was living in a “war zone,” I felt safe.

Maybe this was because, in Israel, a small country colored with conflict, petty worries are dismissed and life feels immediate.  I experienced this while taking part in discussions about current events and my day-to-day internship responsibilities.  At Kadima, an after-school program for disadvantaged youth with a variety of behavioral and emotional issues, I was able to develop a variety of important skills and truly feel connected to an Israeli team of volunteers.  The sense of community in Israel enabled me to feel emotionally safe.

At Kadima’s Jaffa location, which served Jewish, Arab, Christian, and Ethiopian Israeli youth, I worked with the staff to prepare meals and activities.  Given the opportunity to explore the world of counseling through hands-on work, I took three individual students for one-on-one time each day, helping them with homework, playing games, and just talking in Hebrew.  My students’ resilience amazed me, as did the dedicated staff members, 18-year-olds who postponed army service for a year of community service.

While in Israel, I found that daily life seemed more meaningful.  Surrounded by a diverse community that celebrates the Jewish faith, it was incredible to experience the Jewish calendar as the national calendar.  There was nothing more comforting than seeing Hanukkah lights brightening the entire city or enjoying the weekly tradition of Shabbat dinners followed by a true day of rest.  It was also thrilling to be able to light the Hanukkah candles alongside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, an opportunity provided to me, thanks to Career Israel.

Being in Israel during a time of heightened conflict allowed me to experience the collective passion and perseverance of the Jewish people whose common goal is to maintain a Jewish homeland.  I found this reality remarkably humbling.

Now back in the U.S., I am in my second year at a Psy.D. program at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, en route to becoming a child and adolescent clinical psychologist.  I think about my Career Israel experience frequently and I believe that my letter of recommendation from the Career Israel program helped me gain acceptance to some of the more competitive psychological externships in Chicago.

Last summer, I returned to Israel to interview first-aid responders of Magen David Adom (MDA) as part of a clinical research project.  As I progress with my studies and clinical work, I hope to become professionally involved with the mental health field in Israel.  Israel is one of my homes, forever woven with my identity and I simply can’t get enough of it!

Masa Israel Journey connects young Jewish adults to 5-12 month immersive, life-changing experiences in Israel.  For more information or to find the right program for you, contact Aimee Weiss at aimeew@masaisrael.org and visit www.masaisrael.org.

Yali’s handbags help cancer survivors carry on

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Yali's handbags photo 1 

While talking with 20-year-old Yali Derman, I wondered how it was possible that someone so full of life has had to fight so hard to survive.

A two-time cancer survivor, Yali spoke with poise, elegance and maturity beyond her years about her time at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago and how she used her creative talents to help her combat illness and now is helping other children do the same through her handbag collection.

Yali was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of four and had a recurrence at the age of 10, when she received a life-saving bone marrow transplant from her brother.

“At the time of my treatment, sibling bone marrow transplantation was a new and evolving type of treatment for my condition so it really was a remarkable experience,” Yali said.

During her treatments, Yali was often in isolation, and found comfort in the creative art therapy programs offered by the hospital’s Family Services funded by K.I.D.S.S. for KIDS: Kindness Is Doing Something Special For Kids, an all-volunteer fundraising auxiliary of Children’s Memorial Hospital. It was there that she first began experimenting in handbag design.

“What I always say is that I needed a powerful vocabulary to express my autobiographical voice and I wanted to feel like a person, like a creative, fun-loving kid, and I wanted to be seen for who I was aside from a sick child,” she said. “Sometimes the hardest story to tell is your own and that’s really where the art therapy program helped me and ultimately that’s where the power of the purse came to me.”

She used the concept of the bandana, typically used to cover the heads of cancer patients, for inspiration.  

“My main idea was that I took the bandanas that were intended to cover my hairless head and really defiantly made purses out of them,” she said. “Soon that paisley bandana became the symbol of the cancer experience that I always place in as a design element in my handbags. It’s a symbol of transforming this experience and my situation into something different, something positive.”

Yali, who attended Solomon Schechter Day School, Chicagoland Jewish High School, and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, says it is part of her personal philosophy to embody the idea of hiddur mitzvah. She first learned the term, which means “beautifying the commandment,” while serving as president and founder of Va’ad Vogue, the CJHS fashion club.

“This was really how I found my voice, the way that I could praise the Almighty and observe tikkun olam,” Yali said. “I would say that my Jewish education and religious background really emphasize to me that when I’m fulfilling a commandment or performing a good deed I can do it in a beautiful way.”

At 17, Yali had an incredible opportunity to design a personalized handbag with Kate Spade to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the organization that orchestrated the experience. The bag raised $50,000 and Yali and Kate Spade were honored as donors of the year.

Soon after, Yali started her own brand of handbags, trademarked Yali’s Carry On ® to signify how cancer survivors carry on in the face of their medical baggage.

While still in high school, Yali created a pink beach tote as part of a school charity project, which marked the alliance between K.I.D.S.S. for Kids and Yali. The beach tote raised $10,000 in just a few months—more than surpassing her original goal of $1,000—for K.I.D.S.S. for KIDS to go toward funding the new playroom being built in the new Children’s Memorial Hospital, due for completion in 2013.

Yali calls her newest bag her “pride and joy so far.” The bag features a peacock, a symbol of renewal with a tail composed of varying paisleys, long to represent each survivor’s story. The tail does not circle the entire bag because Yali’s story is still ongoing. There are 18 colors on the bag “that symbolize life’s vibrancy, chai.” She says the purse encourages “moving forward and carrying on in the face of adversity.”

There are also elements of the bag that come from biblical interpretation and midrashim. “I think that’s really where handbag design relates to Torah, which sounds somewhat hilarious, but it’s true,” she said.

Yali's handbags photo 2 

So why purses?

“I really do believe in the power of the purse,” Yali said. “The purse is something that’s very unique to a woman. People don’t necessarily only invest in handbags because they look nice, but they also have to be functional… Bags tell a story about the person that is carrying them…it’s sort of a biography of the woman when you empty out all of its contents.”

So what’s next for Yali?

Currently, she is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania in the school of nursing. Her dream job is to be an advanced practice pediatric oncology nurse, where she could integrate her creative talents with nursing.

But, she said, handbag design is most definitely still in her future.

“Absolutely,” Yali said. “[It’s] one of the ways that I carry on fashionably, Judaically, philanthropically and really my handbags are carry-ons and they’re a metaphor for the way that I want to carry on with vibrant elegance, vast purpose and a meaningful voice for the cancer experience—I think that’s where my future leads me.”

Yali’s Carry On for K.I.D.S.S. event will take place Sunday, March 6 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Saks Fifth Avenue Renaissance Place in Highland Park. Meet Yali, and help her support Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago with her limited edition tote bag ($85). All proceeds from the sale of each tote plus 5% of store sales to benefit K.I.D.S.S. for Kids. www.kidssforkids.org. 

To learn more about Yali or to pre-order the bag, visit www.yaliscarryon.com. 

Listen to your mother

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New online Jewish dating site lets moms be the matchmaker for their kids

Listen to your mother photo

Danielle and Brad Weisberg, co-founders of TheJMom.com, with their matchmaker mom, Barbara.

Siblings Brad and Danielle Weisberg were checking out a dating website one day last year. When Brad left to run errands, their mother, Barbara, also in the room at the time, asked if she could sift through profiles for him in his absence. By the time he returned a couple hours later, Barbara had jotted down a list of 10 Jewish women’s screen names for him to contact. It turned out he was impressed by many of the profiles his mother chose. “My mother had put more effort and time into the process than I ever could or would and she enjoyed doing it,” said Brad.

While some young Jewish singles may think this scenario is the set up for a bad Jewish joke, and would have been mortified at the thought of their mother coaching them on a singles website, not Brad and Danielle. They appreciated their mother’s help, so much so that she gave them the idea to start a website called “The JMom.com” for Jewish moms—and some dads too—to match their single children up on dates with other Jews.

Brad and Danielle’s aunt also inspired them to create the site after she fixed up her own son with a woman, who he later married, so the siblings thought maybe there was something to this matchmaking mother concept.

Brad, age 30, and Danielle, 26—both single Jewish transplants to Chicago from Louisville—launched The JMom in November with their friend, computer programmer Matt Pulley.

Danielle, who initially dreamed up the idea for the site, fends off criticism that it’s geared toward pushy, meddlesome parents. “We’re close to our parents and they’re not overbearing or pushy by any means,” she said. “They care about us and want us to be happy—and that’s who the site is for.”

Their mother, who lives in Louisville, echoes her daughter’s sentiments. “As a parent, you are only as happy as your least happy child,” she said.

Back before the internet, during the Fiddler on the Roof era and much more recently too, it was common for parents to fix up their children. In fact, like so many Jewish couples, Barbara and her husband—Brad and Danielle’s father—met on a blind date more than 36 years ago, and they’ve been happily married ever since.

Unlike when she and her husband met, dating is more challenging today, according to Barbara, with life busier and more complicated for her children’s generation than it was for Baby Boomers. “Younger people today have seen the world—many went away to college and work outside of their hometowns,” she said. “They’ve had more life experiences. They’ve seen so much and they’re not going to settle.”

Brad and Danielle hope to modernize the old-fashioned way of parents fixing up their kids by bringing the setup to the internet, which means parents who live in different cities than their children can still fix them up hundreds of miles away.

Here’s how the site works: A parent—or another relative—writes a profile, including information and a photograph of their child and information about their family as well. Then, if the parent spots a potential set up, they contact the parent of the potential date. Once both parties agree to set up their kids, the profiles are emailed to their children. The kids then take it from there and can choose whether or not to email their potential match.

“There is no negative to it. You don’t have to go on a date with somebody if you don’t want to,” said Brad, “but it opens up a new network of people so you could potentially find the love of your life.”

As hopeful as they are that The JMom will lead people to their beshert, the Weisbergs are also keeping a sense of humor about the site. “The information the mothers are writing about their kids is hysterical,” said Brad. “Every parent thinks their children are wonderful—and they are in their eyes.” Barbara wrote profiles for both Brad and Danielle. “She said stuff like, ‘He’s a great dancer.’ I would never say that about myself,” said Brad.

The Weisberg siblings have had other funny interactions with people using the site. One mother recently e-mailed The JMom with a technical question, and then wrote the following: “I don’t have much time, I want grandchildren!” Another mom said she had signed her single child up without permission to do so and was soon found out by her kid. The busted mom e-mailed The JMom with this: “Take me off! I’m in trouble!” The site’s creators advise that parents get the green light from their offspring before signing them up to avoid conflict.

Ultimately, The JMom offers one more tool to fix up Jewish singles, according to Brad. “If we can match up 100 people and we get one marriage out of that, we’ve done our job.”

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