Children Teach Us Something Important on the Basketball Court

I recently went to the Wells Fargo Center to watch some kids play a pickup game of basketball. It was not your typical basketball game, however, but not because the kids were playing on the home court of the Philadelphia 76ers. This was a game involving students from the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr and the Al Aqsa Islamic Academy in Philadelphia. It was also the bar mitzvah project of Ari Abramovitz, a middle-school student at Barrack. [Read more…]

PJFF Film: “Havana Curveball”

In this crowd-pleasing documentary that has screened in over 40 film festivals around the world, Mica Jarmel-Schneider, a 13-year-old baseball addict and die-hard San Francisco Giants fan, takes his rabbi’s directive to “help heal the world” to heart while preparing his bar mitzvah project.

The film documents Mica’s desire to connect with his European refugee grandfather via his grandfather’s Cuban roots and their mutual love of baseball. Obliging himself to collect and deliver bats, balls and mitts to kids in Cuba who love baseball as much as he does, but who lack the means to play with real equipment, he dedicates his bar mitzvah project to turning his dream into a reality. With the help of his filmmaker parents, some supportive Cuban activists and an attorney, Mica learns to navigate the U.S. foreign policy threatening his project and eventually lands on Cuban soil with the last 300 pounds of gear in tow.

“Havana Curveball” won “Best Documentary” at the Boston International Kids Festival, and it was an official selection of the Docaviv International Film Festival, the Other Israel Film Festival and the Washington Jewish Film Festival.

The guest speaker for this film showing is Rebecca Alpert, senior associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and professor of religion at Temple University.

PJFF Double Feature: “Supergirl” and “Bar Mitzvah Project”

Both the documentary feature “Supergirl” and the documentary short “Bar Mitzvah Project” tell the story of strong characters: in one, it’s a 95-pound female teenage powerlifter, and in the other, it’s a Holocaust survivor who managed to live through three concentration camps.

Supergirl
Naomi Kutin seems like a typical teenage girl. She goes to school, does her homework, hangs out with friends — but how many 11-year-olds do you know who could honestly claim to be “supergirl,” the strongest girl in the world?

Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, 95-pound Naomi is a competitive powerlifter who lifts nearly triple her bodyweight. Under the tutelage of her powerlifting father, Naomi has broken world records in this testosterone-fueled sport since the age of 8, astonishing spectators and lifters alike. Now, along with preparing for her bat mitzvah and training for the biggest competition of her life, Naomi is faced with new challenges, like navigating difficult dietary restrictions, cyber-bullying and coping with a debilitating health issue that may cost her the world record. As Naomi comes of age and confronts these issues head on, the magnitude of her true strength and character is revealed.

Jessie Auritt, the director of “Supergirl,” will give an introduction to the film.

Bar Mitzvah Projectbar-mitzvah-project-hr-pic-1-1-768x789
Bar Mitzvah boy Benji Elkins of Bala Cynwyd interviews Dr. George Horner, a Holocaust survivor who relates his miraculous story of surviving three Nazi concentration camps and a “march of death.” Dr. Horner describes how the Nazis literally broke his back, ending his dreams of becoming a professional pianist. However, they did not succeed in breaking his spirit. In “Bar Mitzvah Project,” we witness Horner perform a moving rendition of “The Terezin March,” a piece of music composed for piano inside the Terezin camp.

The guest speakers for this film screening are Iris Drechsler (moderator), the PJFF artistic chair, and Benji Elkins, the young man who directed and starred in the film.

Buy tickets here. The ticket price covers both films.

The Mitzvah Bowl

— by Cheryl Friedenberg and Val Franklin

This fall, as the leaves change color and the record-breaking heat and humidity are a thing of the past, parents begin carting back and forth to synagogue for bar or bat mitzvah lessons.

Many of these Philadelphia-area families are preparing their soon-to-be 13-year-old children for their bar/bat mitzvah. While four to eight months seems like a lifetime away, these young adults will reach this important Jewish milestone.

Before the big day, students will practice prayers, Torah and Haftorah portions, write their D’var Torah speech and select a mitzvah project. Mitzvah projects are becoming very creative and individually tailored, as more resources online are available. One local resource is The Mitzvah Bowl, which targets teens/parents that are searching for a meaningful mitzvah project. The website allows families to search hundreds of mitzvah project ideas that are easily organized by interest.

More after the jump.
As one parent, Stacy Emanuel, remarks,

Zac really wanted to have something to do with sports for his mitzvah project. Last summer, I was trolling the web for ideas when I came across your website. I saw info on PeacePlayers and the baseball collection drive and showed them to Zac. He checked out the information and really liked what PeacePlayers stood for. He loved the idea of running a 3-on-3 basketball tournament with his friends. He wanted to make sure that his project was going to be fun for him to do.

We are confident our website has helped hundreds of area bar/bat mitzvah students since its inception in May 2010.

Recently, Alex Smith, a May, 2012 bar mitzvah student, contacted us seeking advice on how to find a mitzvah project. He was interested in working with kids, but was very busy during the school week with school and sports. The Mitzvah Bowl suggested contacting Friendship Circle, a local organization where children and teens with special needs are teamed up with a teen volunteer to enjoy many of the social and recreational opportunities afforded to the community at large. Alex is excited to start his project.

Rabbi Craig Axler of Congregation Beth Or notes

What Cheryl and Val have done in creating The Mitzvah Bowl is not just a mitzvah in itself, it is an invaluable labor of love that will generate countless mitzvot over the years. The Mitzvah Bowl demonstrates so clearly that the work of Tikkun Olam (Repair of the World) starts with finding just one small space to repair and the good works flow exponentially from that first step. I am deeply indebted to them for their coordination, vision and labor in bringing The Mitzvah Bowl to the table!

If you are a parent of a bar/bat mitzvah student, don’t look any further than The Mitzvah Bowl – your guide to finding the ideal mitzvah project. Charitable organizations can be listed on the website by contacting us  at info@themitzvahbowl.com.

For Your Simcha In Israel: Itzik Hagadol


Address:  3 Raziel Street, Jaffa, Israel
Website: http://www.itzikhagadol.com/
Telephone:  Israel  972-3-683-0033, US 1-818-784-4080
Fax Number:  972-3-518-1802
Hours: Saturday – Thursday 11:30 AM – 2:00 AM, Friday – Closed

Ronit Treatman

If your family is dispersed around the world like mine, then sometimes having a simcha requires more than one celebration.  I was recently privileged to participate in my son’s Bar Mitzvah.  He read from the Torah here in Philadelphia and rejoiced with family and friends.  We planned a special visit to Israel in honor of his Bar Mitzvah to continue the celebration with the rest of our family in Israel.  My mission:  to find a restaurant in a central location in Israel around the Tel Aviv area that could arrange a festive meal for twenty-five people.  

I blundered into my first faux pas when I asked my aunts and uncles, “What do you recommend?”  I had just entered the zero-sum game of Middle Eastern politics.  If I followed the advice of one, then I would insult all the others!  My brother proposed Aladdin, a restaurant in Old Jaffa, in a charming six hundred year old building overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  Unfortunately, they could not accommodate a group of our size.  My friend Ned suggested that I check Zagat.  He travels a lot, and they have always come through for him.  I checked with Zagat, and was flabbergasted to discover that Zagat does not cover Israel!  I looked at some restaurants that came up when I Googled restaurants in Tel Aviv.  I was really appalled at the prevalence of pork and shellfish on the menus.  For me, the restaurant did not have to be certified kosher, but I did not want any treif!   So I turned to Chowhound.  

More after the jump.
Chowhound is a message board, “devoted to the pleasure of food and drink,” on which all sorts of visitors record their experiences around the world.  Chowhounds from both Israel and abroad raved about a “shipudia,” a “skewery,” called Itzik Hagadol.  I went to the Itzik Hagadol website and discovered that Itzik has two restaurants: the original Israeli grill restaurant in Jaffa, Israel, and an additional restaurant in Encino, California.  If you click on the Encino location, you may peruse the menu in English.  I was sold as soon as I turned to the first page of the menu.  Twenty house salads!  All the laffah (Iraqi pita) you can eat freshly baked in their tabun (wood fired brick oven).  There is an ample selection of lamb, chicken, beef, turkey, goose, and fish to be grilled over coals.  No pork, no shellfish! There is a separate Kosher grill for observant diners.  It was exactly what I was looking for!  I called to make a reservation.  Due to the time differences, I was not successful in making the arrangements with the staff at the Jaffa location.  I called the restaurant in Encino, California.  Michael, a manager there, is one of the nicest men I have ever dealt with.  He took care of all the arrangements for me.  I planned the menu with him and selected the wine, at a very fair price.  Although I offered, he refused to take a deposit in advance.

When I arrived in Tel Aviv, I verified that Itzik Hagadol was a good choice with my best and most reliable sources.  Every time I took a taxi, I interrogated the driver.  Six cab rides resulted with a unanimous opinion.  Itzik was a great choice, and I was lucky to have snagged a reservation!  At the appointed date and time, we arrived at the restaurant on Raziel Street in Jaffa. Itzik Hagadol is located in an old limestone building with a large green and red neon sign over the door.  There is an open kitchen with a big display window facing the street.  The fresh cuts of meat are on exhibition, and the charcoal grilling and tabun baking are visible to all who walk by or come in.  Itzik himself greeted us, and showed us to our table in the center of the restaurant.  We were seated in a light airy room, surrounded by large, arched windows.  As our family streamed in from all over Israel, Itziks’s staff brought out little plates of fresh, colorful vegetable salads, crunchy falafel balls, olives, pickles, and every conceivable preparation of eggplant.  Pitchers of homemade lemonade and cold water were placed on the table.  There was so much food that the waiters asked us to move back from the table so they could fit it all.  There is an extensive wine list showcasing Israeli wines.  Our table enjoyed the Cabernet Sauvignon Golan.  We said a shehechiyanu, and I think that even in secular Tel Aviv it brought some tears to the eyes of the diners around us.  Fresh hot laffa and Israeli salad accented with freshly minced mint leaves were served, followed by the grilled meats of each diner’s choice.  My lamb skewer was perfectly cooked, moist on the inside, and very flavorful.  We concluded the meal with coffee, mint tea, malabi (rose scented almond pudding) and pareve Bavarian cream topped with chocolate.  

At the end of the meal we went up to Itzik to thank him.  By Mediterranean standards, Itzik is tall.  As he towered over us at about six feet, I thought to myself that his restaurant is not really named Itzik Hagadol (the large) for his height.  I think that this restaurant is very appropriately named Itzik Hagadol for his big heart.  He knew that this dinner was important to me, and he made it important to him.  He personally made sure that everything was perfect.  I am left with the lingering taste of delicious food, a warm ambience, good memories and naches.

Lessons From Our Family Bar Mitzvah Trip to Israel & Egypt


My extended family and I just returned from a family trip to Israel and Egypt to celebrate our younger son’s Bar Mitzvah. We are grateful and blessed that our dream trip was realized. We marked Noah’s becoming a man in the Jewish tradition at the Kotel (the western wall in the Old City of Jerusalem) with 14 members of our family, including all four grandparents, an uncle, cousins, and friends. It was a simcha (happy occasion) beyond words: magical; spiritual; exceeding our every anticipation and expectation. We traveled throughout Israel for 11 days, and then spent four days in Egypt.

Observations? Lessons learned?  I have many, but here are just a few:

More after the jump

  • How incredibly fortunate we were, at this rare moment in Jewish history, that we could celebrate this special mitzvah in our ancient homeland at our holiest site, in freedom and security; a mere 62 years after Israel’s re-establishment founding, 43 years after Jerusalem’s liberation, and nearly more than 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple;
  • We were in awe that during the Bar Mitzvah Shacharit (morning) services at the southern section of the Kotel (in the Masorti (Conservative Movement)-sanctioned section of the southern Wall by the Robinson Arch that there was no doubt the direction we bowed and our reader’s table faced — the Wall was right there; we were touching it. Yet, perched directly above us was the Al Asqa Mosque, sitting atop the Temple Mount there is also the  reminder that we are in the shadows of our enemies and detractors;
  • The excitement for the Bar Mitzvah ceremony was palpable. There were four other families close by celebrating their simchas just like us: loud, incessant drumbeating accompanying Bar Mitzvah boys to their celebrations created an atmosphere of even more awe for the occasion;
  • Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening services) at the Kotel: a magnet drawing all – haredim (ultra-orthodox), soldiers, and secular– but all there to bring in the Sabbath spirit. Words  do not do justice here;
  • Israel is vibrant, green, gleaming, thriving, a marvel and miracle of history, a true oasis,  given the volatile and hostile neighborhood in which it lives;
  • Religious diversity is celebrated and protected for all faiths in dignity throughout the country, and is especially evident in Jerusalem;
  • It is amazing how much Israel has accomplished, with so little resources, in such a short time and under constant existential threat; from Shoah (Holocaust) to tkumah (rebirth); and amazing how just how small Israel is in size yet feels so big in spirit;
  • Food is plentiful, bountiful, clean and healthy; yet smoking is prevalent;
  • Appreciation of even the otherwise mundane: trucks, signs, roads, stores, products, media, TV: all bear Hebrew names and titles-Israel totally has built its own culture, which we should not take for granted;
  • Patriotism runs high, with flags prominently displayed;
  • Faces of the people, old, young, ultra-Orthodox and secular-brave;  proud; living their lives;
  • We were part of record crowds of tourists; inspiring to see tours of Birthright, college kids, teens, missions, Asians, Christian groups from around the world;
  • Co-existence: Our visit to Hadassah Hospital where all are treated equally regardless of ethnicity, religion or faith, the triumph of biology over ideology; our Egyptian tour guide knew to go to Israel to get the best medical care for his operation;
  • Israelis are generally far more tolerant of their Arab or Muslim citizens than is portrayed by Western media, and opportunities abound for those Arabs who want to participate in the economy;
  • Democracy is thriving, business is booming; construction projects in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are visible everywhere;
  • The markets and streets — Ben Yehuda Street, Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, Camel Market in Tel Aviv — are packed with shoppers;
  • The countryside is beautiful: Rosh Hanikra, the Jezreel Vally, Safed, the Hula Valley, Gallilee, the Golan. It is evident that the there is not the same enthusiasm, know-how, or attitude toward growth, agriculture, sustainability in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan — visible just beyond Israel’s borders;
  • Israel must keep the Golan and a demilitarized Jordan River Valley for strategic and security purposes– go there and you see why it is imperative;
  • Without Israel, the raison d’être natural safe haven for the Jewish people, our vibrancy power in the Diaspora is diminished considerably; ie the Holocaust;
  • Go on an archeological dig: feel, explore, sift through and touch direct proof of Israel’s past;
  • We planted trees in JNF forest; Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees in it since its founding, or over the last 100 years; get your hands dirty, plant and bring life to the land;
  • Contrast to Egypt is staggering and instructive. It is clear why you “go down” to Egypt: You are in an autocratic police state and third-world country. Cairo has 25 million residents (itself over three times more people than all of Israel) and is bustling; polluted; dense; poor; scattered animals, donkeys, horses, goats, chickens roam in the streets. Security is everywhere, yet it is tolerant to tourists, who are treated well- far better than the local population. Museums are in poor shape to house their priceless treasures; the Pyramids our Jewish ancestors built, tombs of the Pharoahs in Luxor, and the Nile where Moses was drawn from are still there to see. Food is not as nourishing or attractive as in Israel — especially fruits and vegetables – and lack of hygiene is a big issue (We had to brush our teeth with bottled water even in five-star hotels and tried to avoid any foods washed in water). The vast majority of Egyptians are concerned not with bashing Israel and Jews but making a living and simply getting by;
  • The Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, one of oldest in world, is protected by the state, but it needs work and tender, loving care;
  • We were happy that our exodus was easy without needing Pharoah’s permission;

We Jews need to be strong and proud and mindful – reminded that our strength depends on the security of Israel, the miracle in the Middle East. We should be awefully proud of the  morally-centric nation that Israel is– the nation of the Jews which we have helped build. Stand up for Israel; do not yield to the “political correctness,” and moral relativists. The invitation to all its neighbors to join it in peace and prosperity has been there since its founding; however, its neighbor’s goals are anathema, hostile, backwards.

Go visit Israel.

Be there with our people and celebrate and be proud.  

Am Yisrael Chai!

Searching for Lior at the Special Olympics

I was to say the least, concerned. Among the two thousand Pennsylvania Special Olympics athletes, plus coaches, parents and volunteers streaming by, so far nary a Jewish star or kippah to easily indicate someone to interview for this paper.  Wait, wait, Lior Liebling’s name is on the participant list. I know him; he’s Jewish. We’re in the same congregations and he was the star in  Praying with Lior, a film that documented his bar mitzvah as a person with Down Syndrome.

photo by Barry Bub, MD

Best to seek out the Philadelphia County banner within the one-mile-long opening parade. Hmm, Lior isn’t marching with them, but another handsome teen begins dancing about me with an American flag, saluting me repeatedly. I pause my search to make his acquaintance but he continues his dance without responding. “I’m his mom, he’ll need me to speak for him.” This woman, marching draped affectionately over the shoulders by two youthful participants, explains the doctors had told her to institutionalize her son for life within twenty four hours of his birth. “The doctor said
he would never walk, communicate or be able to function in society.” Special Olympics programs are sport and health educational programs for those from age 8-80 living with intellectual impairment caused by inherited conditions, various diseases, malnutrition, accidents, and fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Now look at him!’ The flag-twirling lad’s mom gestures with visible love and pride. “My son goes regularly for practice with our neighborhood Special Olympics team. You must have faith the Lord won’t give you more than you can handle,” she explains and continues: “Seek out all possible resources, be persistent, don’t listen to the nay-sayers, never give up. He is constantly growing and changing.”

So where is Lior? Could he be marching under another county? Yes! The Philly coach says to look for him with the Montgomery County contingent. Better hustle up to their spot in the parade.

“Say coach, I’m looking for Lior Liebling or do you know if you have anyone Jewish in your delegation?” This woman, a twenty-something coach self-identifies as half-Jewish but non-practicing, and indicates Lior hasn’t joined the parade yet. She introduces me to a Jewish Special Olympics basketball player. He’s a member of Beth Shalom, tells me he had great bar mitzvah and loves music. When he’s called away by his coach to join a team cheer, I bow in appreciation for his time and the parade moves on.

It’s getting toward evening, might as well look for Lior at the opening ceremony. The Penn State Marching Band and cheerleaders at the main gate herald the inpouring of 2000 participants plus surely well over a 1000 volunteers, coaches and family members into the football stadium. Amy, a radiant young athlete is carried onto the field by a Penn State football player who towers over me by at least two feet, his biceps the width of trees. The big screen on the scoreboard displays Amy’s symbolic joy as the crowd roars. Soon county delegations rise, cheer and sit in waves, as the Special Olympics roll of counties is called. Up and down the bleechers I roam seeking Lior, all-the-while taking in the sight of excited youth and adult participants from intellectual disabilities overtly apparent and not, as well as every race, religion and culture within Pennsylvania. Hmm…maybe Lior didn’t make it, even though he’s on the list? Better e-mail his family to check; I’ll ask if they want to we meet up for Shabbat dinner, that would be special.

It’s morning and a new day. I’m at Track and Field where a coach said Lior is listed in the program. While scanning for Lior, I see Amy in a cabana tent chatting, it would be nice to find out more about her. Her mom is with her and upon seeing my press pass and being introduced to my husband Barry Bub, a physician who teaches healing healthcare communication skills, she tells us a bit about Amy’s history. A neonatal test had revealed Down Syndrome and a heart condition; the neonatologist advised her to abort the fetus. “So I changed doctors; that doctor didn’t want to deal with this, that much was clear. I wanted this pregnancy so much. I thought, Well, I’ll deal with problems as we come to them. I really want a child so I’ll keep this fetus.” Amy’s sister Erin adds:  “Tell people she’s just my sister, like a normal sister relationship, we play, we fight, we kiss and make up. Amy teaches me to be more caring and responsible, to realize others have more problems. I wish every teen would take a turn volunteering at the Special Olympics; this sure puts my own problems into perspective.”

There aren’t many parents present. I wonder aloud to Amy’s mom as to whether it’s because with so many Special Olympics volunteers, parents of some participants might see this as the rare chance for a  weekend off themselves. Amy and Erin’s mom sighs and agrees, “I haven’t had such a weekend yet, possibly when she’s older. That would be good. I’m fortunate, my husband and parents are supportive. My sister, too, she’s a speech therapist and that is also helpful.” Still thinking about religion and spirituality I inquire, “Do you participate in a faith tradition?” The mom looks at me oddly, “We belong to a church, we go sometimes.”

While Special Olympics athletes must qualify as intellectually impaired, my husband now declares me to be “belief-challenged.” True enough. I’ve been asking individuals whether they belong to faith communities, initially almost missing that it is the Special Olympics experience itself that is a living faith community. Special Olympics is a faith community without religious auspices, a community that has faith in each life’s evolving nature within the holy context of support and affirmation within skillful boundaries.

Here at the Special Olympics each athlete strives to attain his/her personal best and reaches out to help the other athletes to attain theirs. While there are various awards, an important one is for finishing in one’s category, be that basketball, long jump, equestrian skills, swimming, tennis, bocce, and much more. Writing this, my eyes rest at the swimming area upon a perhaps thirty-something woman with evident Down Syndrome and other disabilities laboring heavily on a walker to reach her starting position. Her coach helps hoist her up and in the water she swims flat out as near perfect to a pro as I can discern.

Over at the basketball games, an apparently non-verbal near Leonard de Caprio teen look-alike with stares through me. He begins wordless repeated sighing in response to my asking if his team is up next. A coach comes over and explains when the young man, his son Evan does speak, he verbally cuts and pastes remembered lines from movies to communicate. Out on the court Evan runs, leaps, guards a lad who has the ball, who then passes it to him. Aw, he misses the rim shot. Coach Clyde, we learn, is also Evan’s father and with his mother also has an older son with Asperbergers. The referree’s whistle blows, coach/father calls out, “Evan, you can do better than that, you know you can.” He turns to us and explains: “You learn to see past the handicap; they want to be treated like everyone else. He’ll lay back and take the easy road unless he’s pushed. They’ll try to manipulate you just like any other teen.”

There’s no alcohol available and clearly none is needed here for happiness. Spirits soar as each person’s abilities have room to shine. On a tip from a coach who thought he saw Lior at the long jump awards, we head to the outdoor track to find that now wheelchair races are underway and Lior’s group is off visiting other sports. Just one man stops his wheelchair six inches short of the finish line. His coach moves to face him, just behind the line: “You can do it Daniel, I know you can. One more push and you’ll have completed the race, done your personal best. Come on, just a bit more.” Silence. “Daniel, you know you can finish this race.” There no indication that this man, whose physical appearance is tiny, contracted and frail, is even listening…the heat is extreme, who would even want to finish? The sun feels so direct I begin to wonder if my fingernails will sunburn atop the camera zoom. The crowd, at a distance, realizes he’s begun moving again before I do and I’m barely six feet away. The cheering is building in volume, feet rhythmically pound the metal bleechers: “Go, Daniel, go, Daniel…yes, YES!” They’re on their feet for him and yes, his back wheels cross the finish line! Phew…I’m exhausted. As his coach wheels him toward the reward podium, a teen first aid volunteer brings a cup of ice-water and shakes his hand, “You did it! That was great!” She turns to me with an aside, “Volunteering here is the highlight of my year; I always come out.” At the podium, a state trooper in full regalia confers Daniel’s participation medalion to Miss Pennsylvania Teen Dairy Queen. Daniel he bows his head as she places it around his neck and immediately his thin arthritis ridden arms go up in the universal symbol for a triumphal personal best. He finished the race!

Bing! An email about Lior: “He’s there on his own. Thanks for reaching out to us.” So he’s here for sure. Ok, but where?

“Why did you decide to race backwards?” my husband asks as Daniel comes towards the stands. “Because one of my feet drag and stop the chair when I try to race forwards.” Daniel points at two men leaning against the stands behind us, “Ask my coaches, they’ll tell you.” Coach Don readily explains, “Riding backwards, it’s Daniel’s innovation.” Actually, what does a Special Olympics coach do? “I help them understand the rules, practice, loosen up before the games begin, ensure they stay in their lane, administer their medications and help them remain emotionally appropriate. We go through training programs to work with these athletes. Perhaps most significantly, we help them learn how to be part of a team; that’s not always easy.” How did Don get involved? “I have a son with autism. Most coaches here have a family member involved.” Day job? “Scale inspector.”

Don adds one thing more: “I also train future coaches.” He then pins the microphone onto the man beside him, James, who proudly shows me his Assistant Coach tag. Daniel began as a Special Olympics athlete, referred by the special education class teacher in high school. He works in a factory for those with special needs and represents athletes on the Special Olympics board. When his father died he used his inheritance to buy his own home and lives alone. “I am very happy with my life,” Daniel tells us, “I have everything I need. I also hope to take courses one day to become a full coach.” I don’t ask if he practices a religion. What for? The man is the epitomy of spirit.

We head to the stands, maybe Lior’s up there. Against the railing a photo is underway, a young woman wearing a bronze medal in a hug with a probable grandmother and perhaps her mother? I call out a hearty congratulations and they turn to meet us. Turns out to be her grandmother and her aunt Alia, who is her guardian. “Her father died in a tragic accident, and my niece suffered brain damage from chemo and radiation therapy for cancer as a child. Her mom couldn’t care for her, so we took her and her mother visits every week; we’re her guardians. Pointing to the athletes she notes: “Raising these children isn’t for everyone, yet for some of us, it’s a gift to be able to do this.” Alia, along with parent after parent we encounter throughout the weekend describes the experience of community within the Special Olympics as a turning point for the child, from introversion and isolation, to friendships and belief in themselves as worthy people with unique skills and talents. “Through preparing for the games her muscle tone has improved, as have her balance and social skills. She’s now 19 and a total blessing in our lives. Community and support, that’s the critical factor, the turning point. You have to give them a chance. She’s in a job training program at local pizza and coffee shops. Give them a chance, it will bring you such joy!”

Barry looks at me, “I’m heading over to check out the equestrian part of the games. I suppose you’re going to keep looking for Lior?” A random woman with Down Syndrome watching the games beside us reaches out to hold my hand, so I answer him: “I’ll see you later, honey. Let me know what it’s like over there.” As though she’d been evesdropping on my soul, my new hand-holding Special Olympics game date kisses my hand and says: “We play for fun; that’s how you win at life.”

One of the great koans in Judaism is an injunction by Reb Nachman of Breslov, mitzvah gedolah lihiyote b’simchah tamid, “the greatest mitzvah is to live in perpetual happiness.” By God, she’s got it. I think she’s got it! Here, politics and religion are invisibly trumped by support, courage, and persistence. I hope by now, that even I’ve got it.

A favor please. Should you should happen to see Lior, please let him know Reb Goldie sends regards.