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Meet JAA’s Very Inclusion People (VIP) Nominees 

Atlanta is blessed to have many remarkable advocates for people with disabilities and programs that include people of diverse abilities in all aspects of Jewish LifeThe Jewish community has decided to highlight their inspiring stories of inclusion all month long. Make sure to follow JAA on Facebook to join in the celebration. You can find that link below. 

Make a donation in honor of a VIP by clicking the “Donate to JAA” button below.

Dr. Melissa Wikoff, Au.D. - Audiologist at Peachtree Hearing

Nominated by Josh Wikoff

Working with individuals with hearing impairments, you naturally have an aspect of inclusion in your everyday life. 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.

Samantha Shabman Trief - Rabbi at Temple Sinai

Nominated by Sari Earl, Temple Sinai Hineini Committee

Rabbi Samantha Trief supports Temple Sinai's Accessibility and Inclusivity Committee, Hineini, creating programs and access points to highlight people with disabilities. She advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities, not only within Temple Sinai, but also across all of Jewish Atlanta. Even during her recent maternity leave, she continued to raise her voice for others and coordinated speakers for the upcoming Disability Awareness Shabbat in February. In addition, Rabbi Trief has been a member of the Jewish Abilities Alliance committee since 2021.

Carla Lindemann -- Self-Advocate

Nominated by Abby Frantz, JF&CS

Carla is a client and self-advocate at JF&CS in the Intellectual Developmental Disability Program. From Abby Frantz, Community Access Program Manager, "Carla is a champion for inclusion and demonstrates that self-advocates come in many different packages. Carla truly is a role model for the younger generation of those with disabilities. She has shown others to be proud of your disability and to never let anything get in the way of being a part of your community." Along with her dad, Carla recently addressed the Dunwoody City Council to advocate for more disability-friendly residential zoning codes. In addition to her advocacy work, Carla is very involved in a variety of programs across the community - Lekotek of Georgia, Chastain Stables, Challenger Baseball at Murphey Candler Park, Dunwoody High School, Emory Baseball, Kyle Pease Foundation, Camp Isidore Alterman (where she was the first camper to use a wheelchair), and Temple Emanu-El (where she was bat mitzvahed by Rabbi Scott Colbert).

Cathy Filson - Educator at The Temple

Nominated by Rabbi Steven Rau, The Temple

Prior to moving to Atlanta in 2020, Cathy Filson was a special educator in Pittsburgh. She joined The Temple's education team shortly after arriving and has been tutoring b'nei mitzvah students with learning differences ever since. Cathy is now the head of The Temple's learning lab, working with over 50 diverse learners. Cathy has enhanced the learning lab with multi-sensory tools that she has personally created. From Rabbi Steven Rau, "Cathy teaches with love, compassion, patience and wisdom. She is a true leader and advocate in the inclusion world."

Raina Baroff - Educator, B'nai Torah Preschool

Raina Baroff is a preschool teacher at Congregation B’nai Torah and an advocate for inclusion of all types of learners. In 2021, Raina took part in Jewish Abilities Alliance’s pilot program to create a cohort of preschool inclusion champions across Jewish Atlanta. Alongside other educators, Raina explored best practices in preschool inclusion, including sensory strategies, inclusive circle times, and making the most of thoughtful conversations. She was dedicated to this process and brought inclusive practices back to B’nai Torah classrooms. For her participation in the cohort, Raina received a $250 grant from JAA to create a sensory classroom within the preschool. After completing this cohort, Raina has continued to champion inclusion at B’nai Torah, committing to not only implement the skills and strategies she learned in the cohort, but also champion the importance of inclusion to her colleagues.

Sophie Greenfield - Founder, Go Long for Luke

Nominated by Chanky Freedman, Friendship Circle of Atlanta

At 9 years old, Sophie Greenfield founded Go Long for Luke, a non-profit organization to raise funding and awareness for people with autism. Sophie, a junior at The Weber School, was inspired by her twin brother, Luke, who has autism. Since founding Go Long for Luke, Sophie has coordinated 6 fundraising events in New York and Atlanta, raising over $200,000 for causes supporting individuals with autism, including a recent gift to Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta for their day camp inclusion program. Sophie is determined to raise enough funding to provide a recreational day program and group homes so individuals with autism can have a thriving, safe, and healthy life.

Temple Emanu-El Koleinu Committee

Nominated by Susie Davidow, Temple Emanu-El

The Koleinu Committee was formed 5 years ago to increase awareness and facilitate inclusive participation for everyone at Temple Emanu-El, and is made up of a diverse group of parents, advocates, and professionals. Koleinu means "giving voice to everyone in the community, regardless of need or ability." Koleinu has made Temple Emanu-El inclusive in many ways, including creating a Shalom Sanctuary, a space connected to the main sanctuary so those who need a sensory break can still participate in services and feel connected to the community. They have also created a Taslich service that is user friendly and provided adaptive prayer books, as well as an assistive technology room, where students of the religious school can receive additional, supported instruction. From co-chair Susie Davidow, “Koleinu has created an atmosphere where children and adults with varying abilities have found a place to worship, learn and create Kehillah.”

Todd Besmertnik - Self-Advocate

Nominated by Rebecca Cheskes

Todd Besmertnik began living away from his family in April 2019 with the help of the Zimmerman-Horowitz Independent Living Program at Jewish Family and Career Services. While he maintains an incredibly close relationship with his family, he was ready to take a major step towards a more independent lifestyle. Todd considers himself a self-advocate when it comes to both his disability and his faith. In the fall of 2021, Rosh Hashanah was approaching. His parents, Sid and Laurie, hoped that he would join them for the holidays and invited him to come and celebrate as he always had in the past. Todd demonstrated his dedication to his home by insisting that he wanted to stay at his house and celebrate with his roommates. Todd has a great relationship with his housemates, some of whom are of differing religious backgrounds. Todd jokes by saying, “I think I’ve made my roommate a little bit Jewish now.” Todd’s work as a role model continues outside of his home life. While attending the IndependenceWORKS Community Access Group at JF&CS, Todd is always ready to teach others the importance of being true to yourself, your culture, and your faith. This year for the 3rd time, he will serve as judge for the JF&CS JDAIM Kugel Cook-off; last year in addition to being a judge he was also the keynote speaker. In addition, Todd is an advocate for the whole community – pictured here is Todd at the state capitol, advocating for a reduction in the Medicaid waiting list and the passage of Gracie’s Law. In all aspects of the phrase, Todd Besmertnik is a Very Inclusive Person!

Janel Margaretta - Chief Development and Communications Officer, MJCCA

Nominated by MJCCA

Janel Margaretta is the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta's Chief Development and Communications Officer. Her investment in cultivating an inclusive Jewish community in Atlanta is evident in her professional career and beyond. As the mother of a child with autism, Janel has worked tirelessly to ensure that children with varying needs are able to have access to programs and enriching opportunities at the Marcus JCC and throughout the community. Janel cultivates and strengthens relationships with key community members, lay leaders, and professionals, and consistently emphasizes the importance of inclusivity and engaging individuals with diverse needs. She uses her personal experience to provide support to families and professionals as they navigate the growing and ever-changing needs of the community. Her passion, transparency, and advocacy help guide the Marcus JCC to continue enhancing the scope and impact of its program and services, ensuring a welcoming and supportive environment for all.

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