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Inspiration and Participation: Hamaspik Group Homes Join Community Across Tishrei

October 12, 2015

By Mendy Hecht, Hamaspik Gazette


Month of High Holidays Marked by Full Communal Inclusion for Locals with Disabilities

Walk into any shul during the High Holiday season and you’ll see the full community spectrum.

Towards the front, in the seats typically reserved for honored elders and community leaders, you’ll see an elderly gentleman, dressed in the ageless good taste typical for men like him.  In one corner, you’ll have a young father, shiny brown hair bedecked by tallis, surrounded by a bouncy bunch of boys, all his own.

Across the room, occupying most remaining seats, are men of all ages and backgrounds—olive-skinned teens of Middle Eastern stock, blonde-haired thirty-somethings, sidelocked Chasidic graybeards, clean-shaven black-hatters of the Lithuanian tradition, doctors, lawyers, business owners and bus drivers.

And, if any of those synagogues are within vicinity of the dozen-plus Hamaspik group homes across three counties, chances are you’ll see at least some of their residents in shul, too.

Speaking to the bulk of managers and staff across Hamaspik’s network of Individualized Residential Alternatives (IRAs) immediately after the season, the Gazette gleaned reports of synagogue visits by Hamaspik IRA residents and their staff throughout the Tishrei month.

Those visits were clearly the collective highlight of the season, according to staff across the agency.

What with synagogue services the order of the day on both days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the heady first and last two days of Sukkos, people with disabilities who live in Hamaspik IRAs near those synagogues were notably present throughout (despite the inclement weather)—with their presence underscoring Hamaspik’s unspoken value of giving its beneficiaries the best and most self-guided life possible.

Their presence and participation didn’t just indicate their comfort in the mainstream, or the welcoming embrace of the micro-community that is each synagogue, but the endless furthering of the disability integration that’s among progressive society’s worthiest values.

But before, after and between the synagogue services held across the five holidays of the Tishrei Jewish-calendar month, Hamaspik’s IRA residents found plenty of holiday cheer, too.

The Borough Park-based 38th St. Shvesterhim IRA, the youngest Brooklyn group home of Hamaspik of Kings County, marked Tishrei not just with visits to local shuls, but also to exciting concerts (including Hamaspik’s grand Sukkos concert in Monsey—see “Giving Disability Integration a Mainstream Voice  at Hamaspik Community Concert,” pg. E[X]).

Those outings also included the great American pastime of window shopping, as staff took their “girls” out for a stroll through the indoor and gloriously precipitation-free Atlantic Mall in central Brooklyn on a rainy Thursday, October 1.

Across Brooklyn at Williamsburg’s South 9th Shvesterheim (38th’s sister home in many ways), Home Manager Mrs. Malkie Cziment reports that her residents were embraced by local synagogues—the neighborhood’s Karistirer congregation in particular.

Regarding that synagogue’s positive treatment of her charges, Mrs. Cziment says, “It’s an understatement that ‘they were very nice’!” 

That positive welcome by congregants was only matched by Mrs. Cziment’s exacting attentiveness to each individual’s spiritual needs—ensuring that those bereft of parents attended the Yizkor memorial services over the holidays and even providing each with her own elegant Machzor (High Holiday prayer book).

Perhaps laying the groundwork for that spiritual enrichment was the spirit with which the Tishrei season was ushered in at South 9th during the preceding Elul month, as Manager Cziment supported residents’ New Year’s resolutions with Rosh Hashanah’s approach.

Among other resolutions, Mrs. Cziment reports, the young ladies proved determined to be nice to each other and all others, demonstrating notable respect in that regard to those around them over the season.

Up north in Rockland County, home to a sprawling network of Hamaspik special-needs supports and services, Hamaspik’s group-home residents were right at home at nearby shuls throughout Tishrei.

At the Arcadian Briderheim IRA, managed expertly by longtime Hamaspik lieutenant Shlomo Lebowitz, the “boys” heard the blowing of the shofar so central to Rosh Hashanah at the shul right up the street and around the corner.  For those not ambulatory enough to make it, a dedicated staffer blew it big time—sounding the ancient ram’s horn in the prescribed precise pattern right at home to allow the precious young men with disabilities to hear the sacred sounds.

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Of course, like all other Hamaspik group homes, the Arcadian group found itself on the second Chol Hamoed “Intermediate Day” of Sukkos, or Thursday, Oct. 1, at the grand Hamaspik concert.   It should be noted that for Arcadian, as with all other group homes, the concert was but one of several local trips across Chol Hamoed.

The Wannamaker Briderheim IRA, so named because it’s located on Wannamaker Rd. and it’s a Briderheim (Yiddish lit. “brothers home”) and it’s an IRA, wasted no time and lost no opportunity maximizing the Tishrei spirit throughout Tishrei—largely because, well, it was Tishrei. 

That Hamaspik of Rockland County group home, which under the equally youthful Manager Joel (Feish) Horowitz is the youngest of that agency’s cluster of group homes, had all of its residents attend the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at nearby synagogues.  After authoritative safety consultations with doctors, some even managed to make good on their wishes to fast for the entire sacred day, taking any medications without food or water.

Driving home the point of community acceptance and presence more than anything else, though, was the gentlemen’s presence at “Hakafos” (lit. “Circuits”). 

Hakafos refers to the traditional dancing conducted in synagogues on the back-to-back holidays of Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, in which congregants form a great circle (symbolizing unity and equality, by the way) around the bimah, or central reading table.

Wrapping the Torah scrolls in their arms while singing popular customary melodies, congregants dance seven revolutions around the bimah—creating scenes of spontaneity, expressiveness and joy that not only capture the essence of the holiday but also serve as a spiritual culmination of the entire month of holidays.

If anything, Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah are lots of fun.  The formalities of the synagogue give way to men of all ages skipping about like kids, the kids thrilling to the candies and colorful flags they get to wave about, and a song on everyone’s lips.

Becoming an indelible part and parcel of that scene were the young men of Wannamaker, who not only danced along with their typical peers but were cheered on as they participated and even got to dance while holding the precious Torah scrolls—just like everyone else.

Hamaspik of Rockland County’s first group home, the Forshay Briderheim IRA, marked Tishrei primarily by doing pretty much everything.

That’s because most of its residents are very high-functioning young men with intellectual or other disabilities—a fact which, under the leadership of Manager Mrs. Sarah Fischer, doesn’t stop them from participating in the rich life of the community surrounding them to the extent possible.

For starters, the young men aided and abetted Forshay’s team of capable Direct Support Professional (DSP) staff in putting up the home’s beautiful backyard sukkah (the vegetation-topped, Biblically-mandated outdoor hut in which Orthodox Jews take meals and even bundle up to sleep during the seven day of Sukkos, symbolizing G-d’s encompassing protection).

Mrs. Fischer saw to it that each of the gentlemen also received his own set of Lulav and Esrog, the four-part bouquet of sorts used on Sukkos in special synagogue rituals.  (A lulav is actually an unopened palm leaf; the esrog is the citron fruit while the rest of the set consists of myrtle and willow branches.)

Significantly, wishing to do as their community does, they all fasted throughout Yom Kippur, the Manager notes, with most even remaining in shul for services for most of the time, she adds.

Chol Hamoed was enjoyed by Forshay mostly by attending the Hamaspik concert.

According to Mrs. Fischer, however, the highlight of the entire holiday month was not just the live music and dancing at two local synagogues during Sukkos’ Intermediate Days in which the young men participated, but the fact that at one of them, Congregation Netzach Yisroel under the leadership of the much-loved Grand Rabbi Chaim L. Rotenberg, all the gentlemen were called up to the Torah reading on Simchas Torah.

“Getting an aliyah,” or being called up to the bimah when the Torah is being read, is a communal honor and status symbol on any day—and all the more so when you get your aliyah on Simchas Torah, the holiday that celebrates everything that is Torah.

But it wasn’t just Simchas Torah that made Hamaspik’s beneficiaries with disabilities feel they belong.  It was the entire Tishrei.  And it was the entire community.