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Innovation Initiative and Jewish Abilities Atlanta Team Up

By Atlanta Jewish Community, Federation Innovation, Jewish Abilities Atlanta

Jewish Atlanta’s growth and development depend on our ability to address the ever-changing needs of our community with creativity, foresight, and courage. Federation’s Jewish Innovation Initiative offers local changemakers the opportunity to expand the dynamic ecosystem of our city and brings exciting global ventures into Atlanta. One such program is Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM), a global movement of communities that create and disseminate affordable solutions that address the challenges faced by people with disabilities, older adults, and more. Teams of volunteer “makers” join those who have identified a need in the disability community to create concepts, working models, prototypes, or products that are specifically designed to solve identified challenges.

Last week, Jewish Atlanta was thrilled to host the TOM Fellowship Kickoff Event. 75 students from around the globe,  representing schools in the U.S., Israel, and other countries worked across a variety of disciplines, from engineering to occupational therapy to meet, share ideas, and become inspired by the ways they can work together to benefit the disabled community. It was an incredible example of the many ways Federation supports the Jewish landscape in Atlanta.

TOM, started in 2014 and has grown from one community in Israel to dozens of locations around the world. TOM’S partnership with Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta started through Hillels of Georgia. In 2019, Hillel was awarded a grant by the Innovation Initiative to introduce TOM to Georgia Tech. Since then, in collaboration with Hillel, the Innovation Fund has supported TOM’s growth. In January of 2019, TOM presented at Federation’s Propel Pitch Competition and was awarded as one of the events finalists.

Over the past 4 years, Federation’s Innovation and Jewish Abilities Atlanta (JAA) initiatives have been instrumental in providing resources to TOM such as grant funding, training, and help to build relationships with our local community. On Tuesday, JAA’s Training Coordinator Lindsey Flax led an accessibility training session for the TOM fellows. JAA promotes an inclusive community that celebrates the uniqueness and abilities of every person across the lifespan and lifts the voices and perspectives of people with disabilities. The training taught fellows about interacting with people with disabilities online and in person. Topics included inclusive language and social media accessibility.

Society disables people by designing everything to meet the needs of only people who are not disabled. For social media accessibility, Lindsey spoke about how to make social media content accessible for users with disabilities.

TOM’s Director of Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning, Mikhal Kotlyar, says “The Jewish values behind TOM are so special, and it’s valuable to spread the idea of tikkun olam (repairing the world). The chance to have all our leaders and fellows in one place is unparalleled and allows us to capture the imaginations of these students in a different way.” 

The Advocacy Efforts of Jewish Abilities Atlanta

By Jewish Abilities Atlanta

Jewish Abilities Atlanta advocates for Jewish people with disabilities and works to ensure that Jewish spaces are accessible to all people. The JAA community is full of bright, talented individuals who advocate for themselves and their peers and work to make Jewish Atlanta inclusive for individuals like Susan Berch:

Susan Berch has worked at Jewish Family & Career Services for the last 29 years, but not everyone knows her passion for advocacy. One form of self-advocacy that Susan is involved in is Supported Decision-Making (SDM). It involves getting a person support with making a decision. This process can vary from person to person, but the foundation of SDM is creating a plan that shows who will support the individual, and how. The plan must respect the person’s autonomy by making sure they make their own decisions and that their decision-making rights are not removed or diluted. Susan used SDM when she recently planned a vacation to Hawaii with her friends, and when she bought her condominium 20 years ago, as well as other day-to-day decisions.

For most people, having choice and control over their daily lives is deeply important. But many people with disabilities don’t have access to making everyday choices and decisions. This is why JAA works to raise awareness of SDM. JAA hosted a SDM webinar where Susan presented with other colleagues on the importance of SDM and how it is a human right. JAA continues to provide education and support so people with disabilities can have the opportunity that Susan has: to live the life of their choosing.

Making (Accessible) Jewish Places

By Gather Grants, Jewish Abilities Atlanta

When Eleanor Pearlman heard about Gather Grants last fall, she knew she had to do something that involved kids. “I love working with kids, being around them,” she says. Gather Grants are an initiative of Federation’s Making Jewish Places, Next Gen, and PJ Library Atlanta that gives community members $180 microgrants in order to hold events in their neighborhoods and gather meaningfully. Immediately, Eleanor knew what she wanted to do.  

She and her parents went to Kroger and Spicy Peach and bought candy and frosting. They split the materials up and created individual kits so neighborhood kids could make their own candy sukkahs. “Kids love candy,” Eleanor says, and she’s right. The children and parents who attended the gathering each got a bag with supplies, and Eleanor gave a talk about sukkot and its symbols: sukkahs, lulav and etrog. Then, she invited the kids to use their candy and make and decorate their own sukkahs. The families had a blast making and eating their sukkahs, and Eleanor facilitated the whole thing. 

Relational Engagement Manager, Carla Birnbaum, was immediately impressed with Eleanor’s application for funding. “The Gather Grant program is meant to engage Jewish Atlanta in a meaningful and empowering way. Eleanor’s idea was both of those things and more. Her resourcefulness and enthusiasm surrounding this program is wonderful!” 

Eleanor is a senior in high school, and in addition to being great with little ones, she’s also a woman with a disability.  

“Sometimes adults don’t know how to talk to me. They might say ‘Oh, I’m so sorry you’re in a wheelchair.’ But I’m grateful for my wheelchair; my chair gives me freedom and independence.”  

But kids aren’t intimidated. “Kids think my chair is neat and interesting, and they take it at face value.” It’s one of the reasons she loves being around children so much; they understand that people are unique.   

February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), when Jewish organizations and communities worldwide work to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities. Organizations like Jewish Abilities Atlanta work all year to ensure that Jewish people with disabilities don’t miss out on any aspect of Jewish life, but not all Jews know about these resources.  

In addition to being a wheelchair user, Eleanor also lives with a chronic illness. She sometimes has to miss classes due to appointments or hospitalizations, but says that her Jewish school has been extremely helpful and accommodating. They understand her needs as an individual, and work with her and her family to make sure she isn’t missing out.  

Eleanor says, “I think it’s important for parents of kids with disabilities to do their research and find resources.” She says that parents shouldn’t assume that their kids can’t participate in activities like summer camp. Eleanor herself attended overnight Jewish summer camp at Camp Simcha Special every year that she was eligible except 2020, when camp was closed due to COVID.  

Eleanor says she would love to do another Gather Grant. “For somebody who is disabled, it’s sometimes hard for me to go to other people’s houses to celebrate shabbat or other holidays—there might be stairs, or narrow hallways, or other inaccessible spaces. To bring people to my home, to my sukkah, is much easier and more relaxing.” The next round of Gather Grant applications opens on March 1 and will be themed around Israel’s 75th birthday. 

JADAIM might be ending today, but we should focus all year on making Jewish Atlanta an accessible and inclusive place for all people.  

February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month

By Jewish Abilities Atlanta

Did you know that nearly 20% of the population lives with a disability and/or a mental health condition? February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), and all month, Federation and RespectAbility will be amplifying the voices and experiences of people with disabilities.

The purpose of JDAIM is for Jewish communities across the world to raise awareness and champion the rights of all Jews to be accepted and included in all aspects of Jewish life. It is the perfect time of year to read and watch stories by Jewish artists with disabilities, and learn what civil right struggles are still happening today in the disability community.

Assumptions can be made that disabled people look a particular way, but it’s important not to jump to conclusions about a person’s disability status based on how they look. Disabilities can be apparent and non-apparent, and by making our communities more accessible and inclusive, everyone can belong.

Belonging is an essential human need, and everyone deserves to have their personal Jewish journey affirmed. It is vital that people with disabilities can access and thrive in Jewish spaces. JDAIM is an important time, but the need for accessibility and inclusion lasts the whole year round.

To learn how Federation supports people with disabilities all year long, please visit the Jewish Abilities Atlanta website.

Welcome Amy Murphy to Jewish Abilities Atlanta

By Jewish Abilities Atlanta

Meet Amy Murphy, our new Manager of Jewish Abilities Atlanta (JAA). Amy joined the Federation team in September, and we are thrilled to have her onboard.

JAA works to make the Jewish community inclusive for people with varying abilities. The initiative raises community awareness, teaches best practices for inclusion, provides sensitivity and awareness training, holds educational consultations with Jewish preschools, and engages in advocacy work with other organizations.

Amy comes to Federation from the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA), where she was the director of the Blonder Family Department of Special Needs, and she has been working with marginalized people for decades. Amy began her career as a social worker in the U.S., and later in the UK.

Amy lived in Ireland for 23 years, where she started her family. She took a break from professional life when her children were small, but in 2001 she returned to work. She felt that moving into advocacy work for people with disabilities was “a good transition” from social work. It was a different way of “supporting and empowering vulnerable people.”

The Covid-19 pandemic brought Amy back to Atlanta to be near family. She quickly became part of the Jewish disability community here, working with advocates like Annie Garrett, Howie Rosenberg, Sheryl Arno, Jan Jay and more. Amy was previously a member of the JAA’s external community inclusion committee. She says that working towards inclusion is vital because it is “accepting people for who they are so they can be their authentic self.”

With her work at JAA, she constantly asks herself, “How can we support individuals and families to have better experiences and be part of community?” Educating people about best practices for inclusion (including communication and language) is vital. Recently, JAA created and distributed an information guide for ushers at a synagogue on inclusive language so they can make visitors to their congregations feel welcomed and included.

Amy also says that as a community, we must challenge our ideas about the ways things have “always been done” and be open to change and new ways.

Current JAA initiatives include providing sign language interpretation for Nyle DeMarco’s presentation at the 31st Edition of the Book Festival of the MJCCA. DeMarco, a deaf author and filmmaker, will be discussing his book, Deaf Utopia: A Memoir—and a Love Letter to a Way of Life. Additionally, JAA is currently accepting applications for Inclusion Microgrants. These microgrants will give up to $1500 a piece to selected organizations to create opportunities for inclusion for people with disabilities. Applications will be accepted through November 28.

Amy is excited to be at JAA and working towards a more inclusive Jewish community. She is passionate about making sure that all people feel welcomed and considered in public spaces. “Inclusivity touches every aspect of our lives – it’s in where we work, where we learn, where we worship and where we shop.”


Honoring Karen Botnick Paz With a Fund in Her Name

By Atlanta Jewish Community, Jewish Abilities Atlanta, PHILANTHROPY

Karen Botnick Paz has spent much of her adult life advocating for people with disabilities in the Jewish community. This month, she is retiring as the Donor Research and Special Projects Associate at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. In her honor, the Karen Botnick Paz Jewish Abilities Fund has been established at the Atlanta Jewish Foundation.   

Karen has dedicated herself to the Jewish community and championed programs that provide resources to help individuals and families navigate the challenges of living with a disability. This passion has been Karen’s lifelong focus and is deeply personal to her.   

As a young girl, she went to Camp Barney Medintz, first as a camper in the early 70s and then as a counselor. She remembers that one year, a girl in her cabin was developmentally disabled, and this young woman had no specialized support. She recalls how difficult camp was for this friend and how some of the other girls in their cabin didn’t understand her struggles; they singled her out and made her feel different.  

Witnessing this had a profound impact on young Karen. “It was a different time, of course; there was so much we didn’t know. But how much easier would this camp experience have been if she’d had the resources she needed?” Through social media, Karen has reconnected with her. This woman, now in her 60s, is finally going to college—with those cabin mates from long ago cheering her on as she proudly posts her most recent accomplishments. 

Special needs support in Atlanta’s Jewish community was just beginning in 1966 when the Atlanta Bureau of Jewish Education started a Sunday School program called Havanah. In 1976, in partnership with the Atlanta Jewish Community Center, a day camp program was added. In September 1982, the Atlanta Bureau of Jewish Education re-structured Havanah, adding a program called Amit to serve students with learning disabilities. Havanah continued to work with students with more significant developmental disabilities. 

Karen began her involvement with Amit as a volunteer in the late ’90s as a board member for Jewish Educational Services (JES). At the time, Amit was a special needs Sunday School program run by JES. In 2001, it became an independent agency serving the Atlanta Jewish community in a broader capacity and eventually a SACS accredited school program called The Amit Community School. In 2004, Karen’s work as a volunteer transitioned into a professional role as Director of Programming at Amit.   

While at Amit, she worked closely with the Coordinated Network of Services for Persons with Disabilities, which was started in 1989 by the then-named Atlanta Jewish Federation. It brought together three agencies: the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA), Jewish Family & Career Services (JF&CS), and The Amit Program. Of these programs, Karen says, “MJCCA provided social and recreational programs, JF&CS offered vocational support and independent living, and Amit expanded special education support services.”  

In 2013, Karen began working at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta as part of the Philanthropy Team while continuing her passion for disability advocacy. 

In 2015, a diagnosis made her life’s passion even more personal. She learned that she has an inoperable brain tumor, which she has likely been living with for 10 or more years. The news was shocking but also explained so much. The seizure medication affects her energy levels, and the tumor’s location impacts her executive function (and it has been doing so for a long time). Karen’s children have learning differences, and her daughter has Tourette Syndrome. Karen spent years learning what accommodations they needed to be happy and successful adults and was able to use those lessons to advocate for her own needs. The parallels remind her of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Coincidences are G-d’s way of remaining anonymous.”  

She says that proper accommodations for people with differences are invaluable. Her children have thrived thanks to the specialized support they received. And thanks to the resources at her fingertips, Karen could continue her career. She felt she must continue her profession after her diagnosis, saying, “Doing this work has been more than a job. It has been a supportive place for people to connect while working to make the community more inclusive and welcoming.”  

While Karen is retiring from the professional world, she does not plan to stop her advocacy work anytime soon. “Because I have institutional knowledge of our community, I feel a responsibility to represent all those who came before. I want to continue championing the connections and relationships that have made such a difference. There is still work to be done.” When asked what she looks forward to about retirement, Karen says, “Aside from spending more time with family and friends, I want to tap back into my creativity and use those skills to preserve family history and memories; we all deserve to be more than a picture on a wall once we are gone.”  

The Karen Botnick Paz Jewish Abilities Fund will undoubtedly ensure that. This endowment will support Federation’s Jewish Abilities Atlanta (JAA) initiative. JAA aims to provide a welcoming and accessible Jewish community, foster collaboration around disability inclusion, and increase the capacity of Jewish Atlanta organizations to engage people with differing abilities. Karen says, “Our community offers a wide net of services, and people don’t always know they’re available until they need them.” She hopes more people will learn of Jewish Atlanta’s accessibility initiatives and feel welcomed into the community. And the fund that bears her name will allow many more people in Atlanta to benefit from JAA’s work.   

Karen shared, “I have been blessed with a meaningful career and ongoing opportunities to make a difference. This quote, which I learned from my late father, has shaped my life both professionally and personally: The work is not for you to finish, nor are you free to desist from it. Pirke Avot: 2:21.” 

Karen will be thanked for her service to the community at the Women’s Philanthropy Fall Event on Wednesday, October 26th, at 6:30 pm at Temple Sinai. Register for the Women’s Philanthropy Fall Event here.  

To contribute to the Karen Botnick Paz Jewish Abilities Fund, please click here.

Time to Laugh with Pamela Schuller

By Jewish Abilities Atlanta

The Jewish Abilities Alliance of Atlanta (JAA) is proud to present Time to Laugh, a free, live comedy and storytelling event featuring Pamela Rae Schuller, Wednesday, May 11, 7 pm at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. Pamela Schuller champions inclusion differently. As a teen, Pamela had the worst-diagnosed case of Tourettes Syndrome in the country, a touch of OCD, and a whole lot of pent-up anger. She spent years depressed and wishing her differences away. Over time, she started looking at her life differently and turned her obstacles and challenges into the very fuel that propels her.

Through comedy, storytelling, and laughter Pamela helps audiences frame a new mindset to become more inclusive. Her stories of growing up in a body she had no control over are engaging, powerful, a little bit heart-wrenching, and unapologetically funny. Pamela doesn’t just “tolerate” what makes her different; she embraces it, loves it, and finds the funny in it… while challenging her audiences to do the same. Register here for this free and unforgettable event.

Jewish Abilities Alliance Celebrates Very Inclusive People

By Atlanta Jewish Community, CARING, Jewish Abilities Atlanta

Atlanta is blessed to have many remarkable advocates for people with disabilities and many programs that include people of diverse abilities in all aspects of Jewish Life. The Jewish Abilities Alliance (JAA) calls them VIP’s — Very Inclusive People. We are highlighting their commitment to inclusion all month long.

Dr. Melissa Wikoff, Au. D | Audiologist, Peachtree Hearing

“Working with individuals with hearing impairments, you naturally have an aspect of inclusion in your everyday life.” Dr. Melissa Wikoff, Au.D. takes inclusion to the next level by routinely advocating for her patients and the hearing-impaired community. Since starting her practice, Peachtree Hearing, Dr. Wikoff has founded a program to provide free hearing aids to Holocaust survivors, she has overseen the installation of two Hearing Loops in local synagogues, she advocates for students with hearing impairments in local schools, and she serves on the inclusion committee at Etz Chaim.


Our Commitment Runs Deep

By Atlanta Jewish Community, CARING, Jewish Abilities Atlanta

By Matt Bronfman, Federation Board Chair
February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. This subject is personal to our family, and we have experienced firsthand how the Federation helps people with disabilities more fully participate in all that Jewish Atlanta offers. Federation does so in multiple ways.

First, together with the Jewish Abilities Alliance (JAA), Federation provides individuals, and their families with information and access to resources, services, support groups, workshops and clinics, and recreational programs within their community. Second, the annual campaign provides crucial financial support, targeting a myriad of needs. Moreover, the Atlanta Jewish Foundation connects our donors to organizations or projects doing innovative work in this space. Finally, we are the community’s convener, sharing information between our diverse organizations that allows them to collaborate more effectively. At every step, Federation is there to meet our community’s needs because we know that we are stronger and more successful together.

Atlanta Innovates Again: World’s First Inclusive Melton Program

By Atlanta Jewish Community, CARING, Jewish Abilities Atlanta

The Florence Melton School is the largest adult Jewish learning program in the world. Atlanta’s Melton program, part of the Lisa F. Brill Institute for Jewish Learning at the MJCCA, has one of the largest enrollments in North America. So, leave it to Atlanta to pioneer the world’s first inclusive Melton class that brings adults with and without disabilities together to learn virtually.

The unique, inclusive, Melton curriculum, called Members of the Tribe (MOT) is in its second semester with an enrollment of 17 students. It has been hailed as a ground-breaking effort to break barriers in adult education. Discussions are underway with the Florence Melton School Institute at Hebrew University about replicating the local Atlanta adaptation of the curriculum worldwide.

“We would never have had this class without guidance and support from the Jewish Abilities Alliance of Atlanta (JAA),” said Talya Gorsetman, who runs adult learning at the MJCCA. “JAA introduced us to Jay Kessler who helped it. Even more crucially, JAA has guided us about the nuances of inclusive language and other best practices when working with people of diverse abilities. Our teachers have also been wonderful, and we are so proud that this curriculum is going global.”

As for Jay Kessler, this longtime Jewish advocate in Atlanta for people with disabilities is both a cheerleader and recruiter who attends every class. “When Talya Gorsetman first told me about the class, I knew it had the unique potential to connect people with disabilities to people without disabilities,” Kessler said. “Every time I attend class, I am inspired. Devorah Lowenstein, this semester’s teacher asked the class, ‘what’s precious to you?’ A student named Rachel Gray, who has Down syndrome said, ‘My soul is precious to me, because my soul teaches me how to talk to God.’  “The Rebbe himself couldn’t have said it better.”

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