Repair the World Partners with JVC In third year, organization repositions its Baltimore operations

In its first year, Repair the World fellows turned this once trash-strewn West Baltimore lot into an urban garden and gathering place. (David Stuck)

In its first year, Repair the World fellows turned this once trash-strewn West Baltimore lot into an urban garden and gathering place. (David Stuck)

Repair the World, an organization that launched in several major cities in the fall of 2013 with the mission of engaging young Jewish adults in volunteerism, has refocused its Baltimore operations and will now operate under the auspices of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore as part of Jewish Volunteer Connection.

Jewish Volunteer Connection will employ two full-time staffers that will work primarily out of Repair the World’s Highlandtown workshop. Officials expect to have these employees in place by the spring.

While the arrangement is the first of its kind for Repair the World and a departure from its model of 10-month fellowships of immersive service and intentional living, officials at the organization say it was a necessary change that will make the organization more effective in Baltimore.

“We needed to understand what was special about Baltimore that required a different kind of approach,” said its CEO, David Eisner. “The advice we got from a very large number of folks we were talking to was we needed to be less of an independent organization and more aligned and operating under the auspices of a solid and  effective organization.”

While adjustments were made from the first year to second year across Repair the World cities, Baltimore underperformed compared with other cities in both years.

Eisner said officials spoke with 50 to 60 leaders in Baltimore’s Jewish and social justice communities, and The Associated kept coming up. Since The Associated and JVC had already been partners and advisers for Repair the World in Baltimore under its fellowship model in the organization’s first two years, it seemed like a good fit, Eisner said.

Repair the World now has fellows in Detroit, Philadelphia, New York City and Pittsburgh, whose mission to engage Jewish millennials in  volunteerism and make it an essential part of their lives and Jewish identities. While each city partners with its local federation on recruiting and programming, the organization is still fundamentally independent in other cities.

The closeness of the Baltimore community and the reach of The  Associated make Baltimore a unique city that led to a unique arrangement, Eisner said.

“I think it’s a really unique organization in terms of its uniform leadership across the Baltimore Jewish community, in terms of the sort of universal buy-in that all levels of the Jewish community have in working with The Associated and JVC, and I think in terms of the breadth of their lay leadership, it is breathtaking,” he said.

We needed to understand what was special about Baltimore that required a different kind of approach. — David Eisner, CEO, Repair the World

Ashley Pressman, JVC’s executive director, said the partnership is a good fit because the missions of the two organizations are closely aligned, and there is a lot of synergy in the work they both do.

“They are absolutely the expert  in the country in engaging Jewish millennials,” Pressman said. “What JVC brings to the partnership is the relationships with organizations in Maryland.”

As the fellows did, Eisner said the two full-time staffers will similarly build relationships with nonprofits, find ways those organizations can utilize volunteers to have greater capacity and make greater impact and reach out to and enlist young adults in the Jewish community to help those in marginalized communities improve their lives.

Baltimore’s first Repair the World cohort included nine fellows, most of whom were recent college graduates. They lived together and worked with Baltimore organizations such as Civic Works, CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc.), the Incentive Mentoring Project, the mayor’s success mentoring program and Banner Neighborhoods.

In year two, Repair the World  adjusted in its cities as the organization saw fit. It adopted its two main focus areas: food justice and education  justice. How much time fellows spent on particular projects was adjusted.

Eisner said recruitment and training was modified so fellows truly understood that a big part of their jobs would be recruiting inside the Jewish community and to ensure they were excited and comfortable with that. Repair the World officials also saw a need to better set expectations and better explain their mission to nonprofit partners, so adjustments were made in that area.

In its first year, the organization engaged 4,000 participants, which grew to 12,000 in year two, and Eisner said Repair the World is on track to have engaged 15,000 Jewish young adults in year three.

“That’s really because we are learning fast and are very willing to make the changes that we need to make in order to succeed as well as we can,” he said.

Pressman is also committed to that mindset and said JVC will adapt and evolve as the two employees get on the ground.

“We are all working towards the same movement,” she said, “and that movement is about engaging Jews in volunteerism as a way of informing Jewish identity and also as a way of impacting the world.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Duty Calls Responsibility drives unimpressed New Hampshire Jewish voters

politicsLess than thrilled is how some New Hampshire Jewish voters describe their feelings toward the presidential candidates vying for votes in the Granite State. Despite the lackluster enthusiasm for this year’s candidates, the Jews of New Hampshire will do their duty and head to the polls on Feb. 9.

“I’ve been a lifelong Democrat,” said Dr. Sol Rockenmacher of Bedford, “[but] this election, both my wife and I are undeclared.”

Though Rockenmacher draws comparisons to Democratic hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — they both grew up the children of immigrants in Brooklyn, N.Y. — he’s disappointed that neither the self-described Democratic socialist nor former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have spoken up about Israel.

“We have three married daughters and five grandchildren, and our biggest concern is national security and second is Israel,” said Rockenmacher. “Speak up Bernie! Speak up Hillary!”

Rockenmacher and his wife, Linda, who belong to Temple Adath Yeshurun, a Reform congregation of approximately 200 in Manchester, have applied for absentee Republican ballots. He is considering Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He is not considering frontrunner Donald Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Abraham, a Conservative synagogue in Nashua, concurred, saying, “People are not tremendously excited about the candidates this time, but I said in synagogue the other day, it’s good because we’re not here to fall in love [with candidates].”

Despite the disappointment with this year’s crop of candidates, both Rockenmacher and Spira-Savett said that they and their fellow Jewish New Hampshirites feel a certain responsibility because of how the primary has influenced the rest of  the race.

Spira-Savett went so far as to discuss politics in his Yom Kippur address. He was nervous at first, but given how political talk permeates the congregation, from people casually chatting about candidates during kiddush to families hosting campaign staffers in their homes for “weeks and months,” it was worth broaching the subject. It helps, he added, that he’s an Independent (“My allegiance to God and Torah is bigger than allegiance to a political party,” he said).

The haftarah for Yom Kippur morning, Spira-Savett explained, asks, “Is our fasting worth anything if we neglect the homeless, don’t feed the hungry? … If we’re really concerned about the Jewish imperative to serve those in our society who have the most need, then we have to talk about politics.”

We have three married daughters and five grandchildren, and our biggest concern is national security and second is Israel. Speak up Bernie! Speak up Hillary!
— Dr. Sol Rockenmacher

“I told the congregation: If you’re a liberal, be  a more Jewish liberal,” he recalled. “If you’re a  conservative, be a more Jewish conservative.”

The Brotherhood at Temple Adath Yeshurun, which Rockenmacher co-chairs, has invited the campaigns to send a representative to its candidate forum on Feb. 4. With the Iowa caucus outcomes, Rockenmacher expects he will hear from campaigns at the last minute, but he’s optimistic given the media coverage that his synagogue’s annual fall candidate forum for local candidates attracts.

Access to candidates and their surrogates is a privilege of living in New Hampshire, one that more than makes up for the inundation of campaign calls — “eight calls a day,” said Spira-Savett —  and mailings.

“When we lived in North Manchester, one of our neighbors had Bob Dole over and we met him, even though we were registered Democrats,” said Rockenmacher.

And when the Rockenmachers supported Gen. Wesley Clark’s Democratic bid for the presidency in 2004, two Jewish politicos, Rahm Emanuel, the now embroiled mayor of Chicago, and Anthony Weiner, the former congressman from New York who resigned amid a sexting scandal, came to their home to stump for the general. Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, is a longtime aid to Clinton.

The Clintons, though, seem to have a certain pull with New Hampshire Jews.

According to Spira-Savett, who joined his congregation seven-and-a-half years ago, the former president and his wife, now running for president, once attended a dance at his synagogue and a number of congregants have pictures with them. He and his family got to meet Hillary Clinton through a congregant who serves in the state senate and worked on a past Clinton campaign.

This year, Spira-Savett took his 12-year-old daughter to a Labor Day parade and Kasich, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has since left  the race, and Sanders took the time to shake his daughter’s hand.

“You can see whoever you want,” said Rockenmacher. “You just have to get there early.”

mapter@midatlanticmedia.com

Obama Visits Baltimore Mosque

President Barack Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore Wednesday in his first visit to a mosque in the U.S. during his presidency. In a 45-minute address, he called on Americans to embrace Islam as a religion of peace.

Obama referenced recent tragedies in Boston, Chattanooga, Tenn. and San Bernardino, Calif., that were carried out by Islamic terrorists and emphasized that they represent only a small fraction of all Muslims.

“Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL, they’re not the first extremists in history to misuse God’s name,” Obama said in the speech. “We’ve seen it before, across faiths. But right now, there is an organized extremist element that draws selectively from Islamic texts, twists them in an attempt to justify their killing and their terror. They combine it with false claims that America and the west are at war with Islam.”

Obama emphasized that it is essential for the United States to deny those groups’ “legitimacy” and not buy into religious propaganda they distribute.

“We can’t be at war with any other religion because the world’s religions are a part of the very fabric of the United States, our national character,” he said.

Baltimore Jewish Council executive director Art Abramson said that although he was not able to attend the speech, the president’s visit was “extremely important and valuable” in helping to bridge religious divides.

“Despite what certain political candidates are accusing the Muslim community of, with President Obama’s visit to the mosque yesterday he has signified that community’s importance as a major part of American life,” he said.

In a written statement, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md) praised the president on his plea for religious tolerance.

“As Americans, religious freedom is baked into our DNA,” he said. “The finer moments of our history are those where we have stood up to bigotry and prejudice. In that spirit, we must seize every opportunity to celebrate the contributions that proud and diverse communities — like Maryland’s Muslim community — bring to our broader society.”

Legislators, Advocates Rally for End-of-Life Option Act Revised bill increases protection from coercion, includes data collection

Del. Shane Pendergrass (center) and Sen. Ronald Young (left) are the sponsors of the End-of-Life Option Act. (Marc Shapiro)

Del. Shane Pendergrass (center) and Sen. Ronald Young (left) are the sponsors of the End-of-Life Option Act. (Marc Shapiro)

Legislators and advocates kicked off this year’s push for the End-of-Life Option Act on Thursday, Jan. 28 ahead of the introduction of Senate and House bills.

The Richard E. Israel and Roger “Pip” Moyer End-of-Life Option Act, sponsored by Del. Shane Pendergrass (D-District 13) and Sen. Ronald Young (D-District 3), would allow terminally ill individuals with six-month prognoses to obtain a prescription for a lethal drug from a physician.

This year’s bill has the support of House Speaker Michael E. Busch and at least one Republican, Baltimore County Delegate Christopher West (District 42B).

“It’s all about personal choice, when you reach a point in life that you say, ‘I can’t bear going on, and I want to make this choice to end on my terms in a peaceful way,’” Young said at the Jan. 28 news conference.

“It’s about people and their experiences and their control over the end of their lives,” Pendergrass, a Jewish delegate who represents Howard County, said.

After the bill failed to make it out of a Senate committee last year, a work group convened over the summer to revise it. This year’s version states that an oral request must be made by a patient in a one-on-one conversation with his or her doctor, something Pendergrass said would help remove the possibility of coercion, which is a concern of the bill’s critics.

“We tried very hard to do everything we can to strengthen that this is the choice of the individual, not the choice of someone else,” she said.

The revised bill also required the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to collect and report data on the issue. Additionally, the name of the bill was changed from the Death with Dignity Act to the End-of-Life Option Act, since some felt the former name implied other deaths were without dignity.

Under the bill, a mentally competent patient must make three requests to obtain a lethal prescription; first an oral request, then a written request, then a second oral request at least 15 days after the first oral request and 48 hours after the written request. The doctor is required to go over all palliative care options and the patient must be able to self-administer the medication.

A number of advocacy organizations joined the bill’s sponsors and many co-sponsors on Jan. 28, including Compassion & Choices, which had a number of Jewish advocates who drove from near and far to show their support and meet with their representatives.

Some had horror stories to tell in explaining why they got involved in the issue.

“In 1992, my father asked me to shoot him in the head. He was a World War II vet,” said Bill Snyder of Gaithersburg. “It’s the only time I ever disobeyed my father … it haunts me.” His father was a smoker, had trouble breathing at the end of his life and was well-aware of what was happening, Snyder said.

Marilyn Shapiro of Owings Mills, 83, said her husband died a horrible death from colon cancer.

“It’s inhumane to let someone suffer like that,” she said. “My own son wanted to cover my husband’s mouth with the pillow. I said, ‘We can’t do that.’ He was so terribly upset to see his father writhing in pain like that.”

Edna Hirsch, a dentist, came down from Harford County to show her support. She’s a two-time breast cancer survivor whose father, a physician, died a painful death.

“On his death bed he very much wished he could have had this medication. He suffered a lot,” she said. “He would have liked to have done it this way.”

Last year, the bill faced opposition from religious communities, including the Orthodox Jewish community, as well as from the Baltimore Jewish Council. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington opposed the bill last year and will not support it this year because it goes against Halacha, Jewish law.

The Baltimore Jewish Council planned to address the matter at its board meeting Thursday. Executive director Art Abramson said the BJC can’t support the bill because it goes against Halacha, but it could step back and not heavily lobby against it. A number of members of the Baltimore Jewish community as well as Pendergrass criticized the BJC for its stance against the legislation.

Those who attended the news conference thought religion should not play a part in the debate.

“It is unthinkable that the conditions of one’s death, one of the most deeply personal moments in one’s life and the lives of their families, might be influenced by the personal beliefs and ideologies of strangers,” said Matthew Goldstein, chair of the Secular Coalition for Maryland. “But this is the reality confronted by those tragically faced with terminal illnesses in Maryland.”

Les Heltzer, a member of B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville who had a close friend die from brain cancer, said religion doesn’t enter into the debate for him.

“Among my friends, the idea of compassion and self-choice at the end of life is not something they put in religious grounds,” he said.

Added Shapiro: “I feel that our rabbis would not be happy with us doing this because they believe God gives life and takes it away, but that’s an old-fashioned feeling. It’s not enlightened.”

Del. Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11) said she felt “very comfortable” as a Jewish legislator supporting the end-of-life option, likening it to issues of choice in women’s reproductive issues and same-sex marriage.

“I imagine that religious leaders would differ on those too. As a legislator, I have to represent all the people in my district,” she said. “I feel very comfortable as a Jewish legislator supporting this as I do the other issues that I mentioned.”

According to a 2015 Goucher Poll, 60 percent of Maryland residents support the end-of-life option, and 35 percent oppose it.

Among the Senate bill sponsors are Montgomery County Sens. Jamie Raskin, Cheryl Kagan, Brian Feldman, Nancy King, Richard Madaleno Jr. and Roger Manno, Baltimore City Sen. Lisa Gladden and Baltimore County Sen. Delores Kelley. The House bill sponsors include Baltimore City Dels. Curt Anderson, Peter Hammen, Maggie McIntosh, Nathaniel T. Oaks, Sandy Rosenberg and Mary Washington, Montgomery County Dels. Marc Korman, Benjamin Kramer, Andrew Platt, Kirill Reznick and Craig Zucker, among others, and Baltimore County Dels. Stephen Lafferty and Hettleman.

“This is something I’ve heard about from constituents. It’s really important to community members in Baltimore County,” Hettleman said. “Personally, I just feel like this is something that every individual should be able to consult with their faith leader, with their family, with their doctor and make a decision for themselves.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

From Crofton to Clinton Joel Wanger cites his Jewish faith as a factor in becoming politically active

Joel Wanger (right) says working for progressive candidates such as Hillary Clinton is an important way to “live” his Judaism. (Provided)

Joel Wanger (right) says working for progressive candidates such as Hillary Clinton is an important way to “live” his Judaism. (Provided)

It was the deep-seated Jewish values of social justice that spurred Crofton, Md., native Joel Wanger to become involved in politics. Wanger “fell in love” with the campaign lifestyle while in college at Northeastern University in Boston, he said, prompting him to apply for the Israel Government Fellows program that is run by Masa Israel.

“The thing that stuck with me the most about that experience was what it means to be an American Jew versus a Jew from anywhere else in the world,” he said.

Wanger’s fellowship involved work with the Israeli Presidential Conference, including assisting different speakers with position papers.

“The theme of the conference was ‘Tomorrow,’ and it was all about the tomorrow of the world, the tomorrow of the people and the tomorrow of Israel,” he said.

“I was really able to see some of the differences and the starkness between being an American Jew and a Russian Jew, a Spanish Jew and seeing what those opportunities are.”

Wanger said his passion for tikkun olam started well before this point. He became familiar with social justice work through attending Camp Harlem in Pennsylvania as a child through his teen years as well as his involvement with his synagogue youth group in Bowie, Md.

After finishing the fellowship program in 2012, Wanger spent the next few months figuring out what he wanted to do next. It was during an interview with progressive organization Democratic GAIN that he was asked if he would be interested in submitting his resume to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. He accepted and was placed in Las Vegas as a field organizer.

Wanger said that as soon as the 2012 election ended he began anticipating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s launch for a 2016 presidential bid, and when she made her campaign announcement last year, he wasted no time in getting involved.

“I actually arrived in Nevada on April 13, 2015, which was the day that she announced, and one of the opportunities that I wanted to pursue in getting out here that early was that Las Vegas really does have a large Jewish community,” he said. “As Jewish Americans, we share values with Clinton. Her fights are our fights, and it’s not just about donating money, it’s about our shared values and getting involved in the campaign in a more concrete way.”

Wanger, 27, said several other millennials have become involved with the Clinton campaign in Nevada, thanks to the use of Twitter as a recruitment tool. He said social media has been a much greater force in this campaign than it was while he was working for the Ohio Democratic Party in 2014. People his age who support Clinton do so because she has been a “fighter” for the middle class, he said, which is a quality that is personal to him.

“As a millennial, whether it’s women’s reproductive health or raising the minimum wage, these are all issues that I care about,” he said. “Not just as a citizen, but as somebody who was in college during the financial crisis and saw the job market go down. These are things that are important to me.”

Wanger drew a sharp distinction between the proposal of Clinton to make college debt free and that of the tuition-free concept put forth by Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “The new college compact that Hillary Clinton has proposed really focuses on the idea of making sure you can graduate college debt free,” he said. “Because while it would be amazing to have everyone go to college for free, I agree with Clinton when she says Donald Trump’s children probably don’t need to go to college for free.”

Wanger said he feels “confident” that Clinton will emerge victorious in the Nevada caucus on Feb. 20. Much of his work in the campaign has focused on organizing the group Jewish Americans for Hillary, which he launched in August. This involves identifying “captains” at the different synagogues in Las Vegas and organizing house parties as a means of engaging people from across all age groups. Wanger said he feels this is the role he sees for himself when it comes to giving back.

“I could live my Judaism not by making aliyah or by being kosher or being shomer Shabbos,” he said, “but by working in progressive politics for candidates like President Barack Obama, like Hillary Clinton, who are fighting to make the world a better place, who are fighting to repair the world.” JT

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Beth Tfiloh Student Makes a Wish: Laker for a Day

Yitzi Teichman, 18, who has been battling brain cancer, signed a one-day contract with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 31, thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Lakers. Teichman, a Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School student, was given the VIP treatment, received special items signed by the players, participated in pregame warm-ups on the court and stood with the team during the national anthem before a home game with the Charlotte Hornets, said a spokesperson from Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic.

Teichman wore a number 18 jersey, which, in addition to his age, means “chai” or “life” in Hebrew.

Lakers star Kobe Bryant sent the teen a video message several months ago before his surgery.

“I hear you have a big challenge ahead,” Bryant said in the video,  according to NBA.com. “But I know you will respond, just like we do, and take the challenge straight on and come out stronger and tougher for it.”

The Lakers lost their game that night, but Teichman was still a winner after a full day with his favorite team, and he walked out of the Staples Center with a signed game ball and the players’ game shoes.

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

BJC: No Anti-BDS Bill This Session

briefBJCThe Baltimore Jewish Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) will not pursue a bill against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel in this year’s Maryland General  Assembly session.

“We spent a few weeks researching it and there’s no problem now,” BJC executive director Art Abramson said. “Given everything else going on, budget issues … there’s no sense in fighting a battle that’s not needed at the moment.”

The bill would have prevented pension divestment, making it so state pensions could not be invested in companies that support the BDS movement, and would have changed the state’s procurement contract process so that companies who support BDS could not earn state contracts. Both measures are similar to laws  enacted relating to companies who do business with Iran.

BJC officials researched both of those issues and found that while there is pressure on some companies to divest, none have. Sarah Mersky, director of government relations at the BJC, said one small electrical workers union passed a statement in support of BDS, but it is not clear if it has divested.

“It’s something we’re really tracking, where unions are, because if a larger union were to divest, it would have an effect on the state,” she said. “We’re just working really hard to talk to different elected officials about it and continuing to have conversations.”

Abramson said he believes the bill would have passed this year because of support from legislators and partnering with the JCRC, but didn’t think it would pass it there was no way to show a problem exists.

“I am pleasantly surprised given a lot of rhetoric in this state about BDS that that there isn’t a problem,” he said. “The council and our counterparts in D.C. will certainly get into this as soon as and if it becomes a problem.”

The other issue is that BDS supporters in Maryland argue that the bill goes against free speech.

“It’s got nothing to do with this, and I did not want this to become a free speech issue,” Abramson said.

The BJC is continuing to speak with legislators about the BDS movement and monitoring the movement in Maryland and on Maryland’s  college campuses.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

The Ability to Succeed Employers look beyond disabilities, find dedicated, talented workers

Randy Duchesneau is director of the national leadership program at RespectAbility.

Randy Duchesneau is director of the national leadership program at RespectAbility. (Lauren Appelbaum)

Yoel Krigsman, 48, is an average Jewish Baltimorean by most accounts; he has a wife and four children, davens regularly and commutes to Washington, D.C., where he has managed computer systems at Gallaudet University for 18 years.

But statistics indicate that employers would think twice about hiring him because he’s deaf.

Dr. Andrew Houtenville, director of research for the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, said, based on a bureau of labor statistics job report, the number of employed people with disabilities has decreased by 4.3 percent from December 2014 to December 2015. The institute released its year-in-review report during the first week of February, which is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month.

A wide range of disabilities affects approximately 56 million Americans, and while the job market in general fluctuates, the challenges of finding employment for people with disabilities are constant.

Part of the challenge stems from peoples’ perceptions of those with disabilities.

“I happen to be deaf. I don’t consider myself deaf first — I’m Jewish first,” said Krigsman, who speaks and reads lips but also uses American Sign Language. “Other hearing-impaired people [might] say they’re deaf first and Jewish second,”

Krigsman, who moved to Baltimore from New York, got his job at Gallaudet University, a private university in Washington D.C. for the deaf and hard of hearing, after exceling in a computer course.

Krigsman’s abilities are what earned him his job, and several experts emphasized that a person’s skills — even when they are disabled — can be utilized well if they are given the right tasks.

But challenges for finding employment can begin with how — and if — a person with disabilities completes a high school education.

“Some individuals with disabilities graduate [high school] at 18,” said Mira Labovitz, Baltimore coordinator for Yachad, a global organization dedicated to addressing the needs of Jewish individuals with disabilities. “If they are in a special needs school, some are on a diploma track, and some are on a vocational track.”

cover2Labovitz added the vocational track connects students with state employment agencies that help them find a career path based on their skills and desires.

And, as Eric Adler, whose son has autism, told the Jewish Times last October, even if students do graduate, they may not be equipped, or qualified, to hold down a full-time job.

While disabled students are entitled to certain benefits from the Developmental Disability Administration, if an individual graduates at 17 or 18, they aren’t entitled to any services from the DDA until they are 21.

“When the school bus stops coming, they don’t have much to do during their day. So they sit on their parents’ couch,” said Jennifer Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, a national nonprofit that works for the inclusion and empowerment of the disabled community. “When their parents die, they sit on their siblings’ couch. This is a huge problem for them.”

According to statistics provided by RespectAbility, 300,000 people with disabilities age into the workforce each year — when they turn 18.

“There are many myths and stereotypes surrounding [autistic spectrum disorder], and employers can be reluctant to hire people on the spectrum,” said Theresa Ballinger, treasurer of the Howard County Autism Society, via email. “Employers need to understand individuals with disabilities like ASD are an untapped resource. Many who work are very excited about their jobs, and they’re really dedicated. All they need is a workplace that’s accommodating and welcoming.”

Randy Duchesneau, 30, director of the national leadership program at RespectAbility, has felt the impact of public perception. At Cornell University, he was an exceptional student who easily nailed interviews and landed internships. Then during his senior year, a gymnastics accident left him a quadriplegic, and he underwent a year of rehabilitation. When Duchesneau returned to Cornell, despite having an excellent resume, his experiences with interviews and internships changed.

“If I disclosed my disability in a cover letter I wouldn’t be selected [for an interview] at all,” said Duchesneau.

cover3Struggling to find employment, he went on to earn a master’s degree in public health from Yale University. It was there he learned to leverage his networks and eventually landed an internship at the Department of Health and Human Services.

“People think I’m intelligent because I have these degrees [from Cornell and Yale]. But for people who don’t have these degrees from top universities,” said Duchesneau, “there’s an additional stigma that [employers] think [people with disabilities] are limited in what they are capable of doing.”

But that perception, claims Krigsman, could easily be ameliorated.

“[There’s] not enough education about what we do. What is normal in our world may not look normal in yours,” he said.

For example, some people in the deaf community might beat a tabletop with their fist, which could be misinterpreted as anger. But Krigsman said it’s done to get someone’s attention because a deaf person feels the vibrations.

“Sometimes we don’t realize how loud that can be,” said Krigsman.

He added that people apologize to him when they find out he is deaf.

“What are you sorry about? I didn’t do anything to make you feel sorry,” said Krigsman. “Why do they keep saying that? It’s because it’s something new to them.”

“There’s always hesitation that [the employer doesn’t] know anything about these individuals, and they are weary of what the [individual] brings to the table,” said Jack Gourdji, executive director of the Jewish Union Foundation in New York, a partner of Yachad.

JUF works with individuals on social skills, workplace skills and behavior to help prepare people with disabilities for a business setting. It then finds volunteer and employment opportunities based on his or her skills.

“We always send job coaches with them,” said Gourdji. “The responsibility of a job coach is to assist the individual to the point that they can handle things on their own.”

Gourdji explained job coaches give employers some reassurance about hiring people with disabilities. With a coach present, the employer knows  the task will get done.

However, Gourdji emphasized that jobs are earned, not just awarded.

“I never place somebody as a favor,” said Gourdji. “I do it because I feel over a period of time, if not immediately, I believe they can succeed at the job.”

Devorah Lieberman, 31, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y, and has used Yachad’s services since she was 12. When she came of employment age, she also turned to JUF. She, and her mother, Andrea, credits the organization for her success in gaining employment, despite having Down syndrome.

cover4“The confidence they’ve given her and the abilities they’ve given her are wonderful,” said Andrea. “People should not be afraid to let your child do something. They are very optimistic about what they can do. Just let them try and go as far as they possibly can.”

Now, Devorah has three jobs: one at a clothing store in Manhattan; another at the Foundation for Jewish Camp; and a third at Yachad. Her message to the nondisabled community is concise.

“[They should] not make fun of my syndrome,” said Devorah. “They should treat me with the same respect [as anyone else] and not judge me by [my] disability.”

Positive experiences employing people with disabilities can be the incentive for some business leaders to make more hires and encourage others to do the same.

“I think the best motivation doesn’t come from governors, it comes from business leaders talking to each other,” Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said. “When they can say, ‘[Employing someone with a disability] has helped our company,’ then that is more powerful.”

Markell, who has championed employment of people with disabilities during his time in office, launched the initiative “A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities in 2012” as the chair of the National Governors Association.

Markell’s reason for taking up the cause, he said, was his experience visiting a bank several years ago. He met a disabled man who was creating T-shirts for promotional material. Markell asked him what he did before getting that job.

“I sat at home watching television with my parents,” the man said.

“A light bulb went off in my head about how much his quality of life improved because of this job,” said Markell. “He had a purpose and a reason to get up every day. It was a big quality-of-life improvement for him and his family because he wasn’t sitting around doing nothing.”

Despite the negative perceptions held by some, businesses have thrived because of people with disabilities.

“Baking lends itself beautifully to people with certain disabilities,” said Sarah Milner, who has spent most of her career helping people with disabilities as a social worker.

Milner, with co-founder Laurie Wexler, also runs Sunflower Bakery in Gaithersburg, Md. In addition to running a full production bakery, they aim “to prepare individuals with developmental or other cognitive disabilities for employment in baking and related industries through skilled on-the-job training.” They offer 10-week courses, and students work alongside people without disabilities. Similar to JUF, students learn skills necessary to be successful in any work place such as promptness and self-advocacy.

Milner said some disabilities are conducive for the precise procedures of baking such as making exact measurements, following recipes and making repetitive motions.

cover5Another business known for hiring workers with disabilities is Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. Sinai’s workforce development program, called VSP, tries “to maximize the employability of persons with barriers to employment,” said Mira Appleby, manager of program development at VSP, such as  employee Walter Beatty.

Beatty, 57, grew up in Baltimore City and struggled with alcoholism, something one in 12 Americans experience, according to the American Psychological Association.

After completing six months of rehabilitation, he was determined to change his life around and credits VSP for helping him do it.

“VSP taught me how to speak with people and how to be courteous to people,” said Beatty, who works as a cook at Northwest Hospital. “VSP taught me how to stand up properly, how to act toward people. They took the bad attitude from me and made me change my attitude around.”

Beatty is celebrating six years of sobriety and said spending time with his niece’s children every day after work keeps him motivated.

While Beatty doesn’t have the same challenges as those who are physically or mentally disabled, he did face the doubts and criticisms of others who didn’t think he would be successful. Despite that, he’s been recognized at the hospital as an exemplary employee and takes pride in helping others succeed.

“While there may be some accommodations that have to be made,” said Markell, “what most [employers] will find is that people with disabilities are great employees. They show up, they are grateful for their job, there is less turnover, and they do a good job.”

Milner added there is a moral responsibility to be considered as well.

“If every Jewish employer “[regardless of his or her type of business] would hire one person with a disability, what a great thing that would be,” she said. “We are all responsible for one another, and it’s not except for the people with disabilities.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

‘Heart of Gold’ Charles Oberman, usher for decades at Baltimore venues

Charles Oberman (photo provided)

Charles Oberman (photo provided)

If there were a song that best described the life of Baltimore resident Charles Oberman, it would be Frank Sinatra’s “Young at Heart,” his family members say. Oberman, perhaps best known for his 40-plus years as a supervisory usher for the Orioles and at Royal Farms Arena, died on Jan. 23 at the age of 96.

“No matter what section of town we would go in, there would always be someone who knew him,” said his niece, Sandy Rosen who has been Oberman’s caretaker for the past seven years.

“I tried to get him to join the senior center and he refused because it’s all old people,” she joked. “What I’ve noticed about him the most, even in his last couple of senior years, is that he loved and embraced everybody. He was the most unpretentious person you ever you met.”

Oberman served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, where he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands between 1942 and 1945. One year later, he married Rose [Adelman] Oberman — a union that lasted more than 50 years until her death in 2009.

That was his life … The arena was really his second family. He saw generations come and go. Little boys who came to ice skate at the arena would [years later] take their own children to ice skate.
— Sandy Rosen, niece of Charles Oberman

Oberman began to work as an usher at what was then known as the Baltimore Civic Center when it opened in 1962. He often worked hockey games when the now-defunct AHL Baltimore Clippers were in town, and he had the opportunity to witness the Beatles’ only visit to Baltimore, in 1964.

“It was fantastic. I couldn’t see for an hour after the performance for all the flashbulbs that went off. The police had to move the horse patrols in to try to clear Howard Street,” Oberman told the Baltimore Sun in 1992, reflecting on the performance. His tenure at the arena has become the stuff of legend, even to the point of receiving recognition and a plaque from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake a few years back.

“That was his life. Not so much the Orioles, but the arena was really his second family,” Rosen said of Oberman’s career. “He saw generations come and go. Little boys who came to ice skate at the arena would [years later] take their own children to ice skate.”

Rosen said that her uncle had “a heart of gold” and taught everyone he knew to accept everyone despite their differences, and to be humble.

“He looked out for people,” she said.

Oberman’s son-in-law, Mark Donald, said his legacy will be the generations of Baltimoreans he got to know from his ushering days.

“Charlie was a very, very outgoing person,” Donald said. “He never met anybody he didn’t like. He was a people person.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Jewish Nonprofit Testifies on Food Insecurity among Military, Veteran Families

A Jewish nonprofit dedicated to ending hunger in the United States and Israel provided testimony on Capitol Hill on Jan. 12.

On behalf of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of the nonprofit, testified before the House Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Nutrition. The Jewish nonprofit is leading nationwide efforts to address food insecurity among military and veteran families.

“Across the country, service members were — and still are — showing up at food pantries, sometimes in uniform, looking for help in feeding their families,” Leibman said, in her submitted testimony. “While many emergency food providers have responded by developing specific and innovative programs to assist food-insecure military families, most of these organizations are strapped by increasing demands for services in general and have limited capacity to address this population.”

According to testimony provided by MAZON, there is a food pantry on or near every single naval and marine base in the United States.

Part of what accounts for this food insecurity is federal policies that make lower-ranking service members, especially those with families living off base or in private housing, ineligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. The Basic Allowance for Housing is excluded for calculating some federal programs, such as WIC and Head Start, but included for others. MAZON advocates for excluding BAH for the purpose of eligibility for all nutrition assistance programs.

Erika Tebbens’ story, as a former military spouse who struggled with food insecurity and began working with MAZON a year ago, drove this point home for the committee.

Tebbens left her job as a teacher when her husband was assigned to the Kitsap Peninsula. Her job prospects were few and became lessened when her son, Jack, was born. Tebbens could only work when her husband was off duty, as the family could not afford child care and, like many military families, did not have family or friends nearby.

Her civilian doctor told her about WIC, and while the family qualified for that federal program, it did not qualify for SNAP, even though both programs fall under the USDA.

“We were left wondering how we were going to survive even while my husband went to work serving his country,” said Tebbens.

To make ends meet, Tebbens and her family moved into an apartment under their housing allowance, shared one used car, lived without amenities and deferred student loan payments. The family is now on stable financial footing and no longer needs assistance.

“Being in a military family is challenging in ways most people can never imagine,” said Tebbens. “You make so many sacrifices: missed time with loved ones; not having a constant place to call home; job security for dependents; and so much more. I don’t ever want another military family to worry about food the way we did.”