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JCCs head for the Hill

An opportunity to lobby for those with special needs

working-outFor the past seven years, the Tucson Jewish Community Center has offered Taglit, a program that provides meaningful work and enrichment opportunities for young adults with special needs.

And because of that commitment to serving those who comprise what is often an underserved community, Todd Rockoff, the JCC’s CEO and president, will be heading to Capitol Hill on Feb. 2 to participate in Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD). There he will be lobbying on their behalf.

“We have a deep commitment to people with special needs, with programming for them and want to delve more into this area,” he says. “I thought it should be worthwhile to be a part of the conversation.”

To that end, he’s already scheduled time with his Arizona Congresswoman, Rep. Martha McSally. Organized by the Jewish Disability Network, the day of lobbying will connect Jewish communal lay and professional leaders to top government officials. JCC Association is one the sponsoring organizations of JDAD.

The JCC has taken a lead in the community on such issues, Rockoff notes, complete with a special abilities task force. “It’s a great role for the JCC to play.”

Taglit started seven years ago with a push from the JCC’s chief operating office, Denise Wolf. The first year, two people were enrolled, but today the program has 36, or “double chai,” as Emily Malin, the enthusiastic director of special needs services at the J, likes to point out. They are between high school age and 39, with a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities. They come for one of two groups—Avodah and Ha-Ash-Arah, offering vocational and enrichment opportunities, respectively.

Those in Avodah begin each day with a class focusing on a life skill. From there they either volunteer in the community, or work in various departments of the JCC, including the fitness center, the early childhood education program, or the laundry. They also assist with mailings and greeting members, Malin says. After that they workout, eat lunch and then come together for an afternoon class in music therapy, yoga or karate.

music-therapyThe Ha-Ash-Arah participants begin each day with chuggim, or an elective, which could be yoga, art, or a book club. There are outings to local attractions such as the zoo, or an art studio, or attending a university class, and time to work on individual projects. They also volunteer at non-profit organizations, and as they do with the other group, return to the JCC to follow a similar schedule of lunch and afternoon classes.

Fridays for both groups includes coming together as a larger group for songs, prayers over the candles and challah and a chance for everyone to have a turn saying what they’ve been thankful for the week.

And while only six of the program’s participants are Jewish, “the Jewish nature of the program brings a strong ‘family’ feeling” to it, Malin says. “It is about coming together with our Taglit family. By emphasizing wellness, social action, education, and fun, we work to meet each individual’s unique needs through a program spirited by Jewish values and communal harmony. Taglit is very big on tikkun olam and I feel Jewish values play a huge part in wanting to do more for the world with their friends.”

In turn, the program itself is a manifestation of the JCC’s emphasis on tikkun olam (repairing the world). It has gone a long way toward helping those who use the JCC recognize the different abilities of the Taglit participants.

good-friendsRockoff sees the JCC’s leadership in the community regarding special needs services as a growing one. Funding comes from the state, and while a few participants pay privately, most are subsidized.

So taking time for advocacy, when he sees growth ahead, simply makes sense.

“We’ve done research over the past two years in the community to identify future needs, what happens after age 30 [for this population], as well as looking at respite care,” he says.

“Recognizing leadership roles JCCs can play in the community in this area is what JCC Association hopes to encourage by signing on as a sponsoring organization for Jewish Disability Advocacy Day”, says Robin Ballin, JCC Association senior vice president.

“JCCs are already working with these populations. Their voices can be a powerful in speaking up for them,” she says. “It’s only natural that JCCs take the lead as advocates for those with special needs and the programming that serves them.”

Jewish Disability Advocacy Day

Date: Thursday, Feb. 2
Time: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Location: Rayburn House Office Building, Capitol Hill, Washington D.C.

For more information, contact Robin Ballin.

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