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JFNNJ Spearheads Mission to Israel for Adults With Special Needs

It was Super Sunday—The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s (JFNNJ) fundraising telethon—and, as Federation’s manager of outreach and engagement, Kim Schwartzman was working the phones. Matthew Nieporent, a volunteer at the telethon, approached Kim to ask about Onward Israel, an internship program for college students in Israel. Nieporent was ineligible because he is post-college and has special needs. In the course of their conversation, Nieporent explained that he had visited Israel on an inclusion program for individuals with special needs years before, but he had now aged out of eligibility for that as well. He lamented the lack of Israel programs for those in his circumstances. Nieporent’s plea struck a chord with Schwartzman and she promised to research his request.

Nieporent has Asperger’s, but he doesn’t let that impede his participation in Jewish life. “My Jewish identity means a lot to me. Israel means a lot to me. When I go to programs it makes me feel like I belong with something. Like I’m not alone,” said Nieporent. His mother, Amy Nieporent, says of him, “Matthew has such love for Judaism and the State of Israel that he uses any resource he can to find programs about Judaism and find ways to connect.”

Schwartzman, who has worked for JFNNJ for the past six years, mainly on logistics, coordinating and fundraising for Birthright Israel and Onward Israel, did not want to let Nieporent down. She contacted Israel4All, an Israeli tourism company that customizes travel for groups and individuals with special needs. “Their trips skew toward older adults and those with more physical disabilities, so that didn’t really match up with Matthew’s needs,” Schwartzman explained. “I asked if they had ever worked with a community or federation to create a trip for a new community of people—for those with social disabilities.” That was the moment she decided to explore creating a community JFNNJ trip.

There were many variables to consider. “Fundraisers are not necessarily social workers, and that expertise was a necessity for recruitment and handling of the special needs community,” said Schwartzman. At this point, Federation partnered with Yachad to assist with applications and the intake process to make sure all those technical aspects were handled appropriately. Schwartzman also reached out to the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities (J-ADD), in Paramus, to get their professional input as well.

The trip is set for February 19-26, 2018. Participants will explore Israel for seven days, enjoying a kibbutz experience, the Dead Sea, camel riding and volunteering. There will be a high staff-to-participant ratio, including staff members from Yachad, Israel4All and Federation staff. In an effort to make the trip accessible to all, regardless of finances, Federation has secured $1,000 subsidy for each participant.

JFNNJ CEO Jason Shames commented, “When Federation identifies a need within the community, we act. We have the resources to respond quickly and efficiently and this is no exception. We send over 100 young adults from northern New Jersey to Israel every summer on programs like Birthright Israel, Onward Israel and MASA Israel Journey. Providing an opportunity for young adults with special needs to travel to Israel has been a growing priority for us and we are thrilled to be able to offer this program.”

With all the logistics lining up, JFNNJ is now looking for 10 participants, ages 25-37, from northern New Jersey. The right participants will be individuals who live independently and have social, rather than physical, disorders. There will be an interest session next Thursday, Oct 26, at 7:30 p.m. at JFNNJ at 50 Eisenhower Drive in Paramus.

Schwartzman is passionate about this unique endeavor. “No other federation has done this. And the hope is that, if this is successful, other federations can continue what we’ve started here, because building Jewish identity and continuity is underserved in this population.” Making an experience that seems off limits accessible, and connecting Jews with their homeland, is truly extraordinary. As Amy Nieporent said, “[For Matthew,] to be included and to be able to participate is very important.”

By Michal Rosenberg

 

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