By Renee Ghert-Zand
Three afternoons a week Jared Tilliss heads to de Toledo High School in West Hills, California, to work in the school’s athletics department. He supports the assistant athletic director by confirming game schedules, assisting with inventory control, filming games and greeting guests at sporting events.
Jared, 22, loves sports – especially baseball – and dreams of working for the Dodgers. His job at de Toledo is an important step toward reaching his goal, and one made possible by a new year-round vocational program for young adults with developmental disabilities created by Camp Ramah in California.
Launched in the fall, Ezra Ba’Ir (“Ezra in the City”) is designed to take current participants and alumni of the camp’s Ezra vocational education program forward. Ezra is the extension of Ramah California’s Tikvah program for campers with disabilities, enabling young adults who have aged out of the camper stage to return to Ramah in the summer. Ezra participants gain job skills and work either at camp or at local businesses in the Ojai, California, area. The vocational program has produced approximately 30 graduates in the last 16 years.
The new Ezra Ba’Ir program places Ezra participants and alumni in meaningful paid internships at Jewish institutions and organizations in the Los Angeles area during the academic year. Partnerships during the current pilot are with Temple Israel of Hollywood, Pressman Academy, de Toledo High School, Sinai Temple and IKAR. Ramah is also partnering on this initiative with ETTA Israel, a Los Angeles organization serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.
Ezra Ba’Ir is supported by a grant from the Caring for Jews in Need Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The interns’ salaries are paid partially by the grant, and partially by the organizations employing the interns.
Becky Sobelman-Stern, chief program officer and executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said, “Our Federation is committed to providing inclusive Jewish opportunities for people of all abilities. Our work in creating programming for teens and young adults with special needs that focuses on building important life skills is a key component of our Caring for Jews In Need strategic initiative. Our Federation’s important partnership with Camp Ramah in California allows these teens and young adults to live more independent and productive lives. We are thrilled to partner with Camp Ramah in California.”
According to Ramah California Tikvah director Elana Naftalin-Kelman, there had been a longstanding demand from Ezra families for year-round vocational programming.
“After years of being asked by our summer families to move into year-round programming, we think the Ezra Ba’Ir program takes the best and most innovative part of our summer vocational program and moves it into the year-round lives of our summer participants,” she said.
Jared’s mother Stacy Tilliss said she had been looking for over a year for a program that would meet Jared’s needs, and could not find one.
“Ramah has been our lifeline and we were over the moon when we heard of even the possibility of a program that would go beyond summer. For young adults 22 and above the programs are very slim pickings… The Ezra Ba’lr program is like we created exactly what Jared would need to be happy and successful. We are still pinching ourselves that this has come to fruition,” Tilliss said.
Rony Rosenbaum also had difficulty finding an appropriate Jewish placement for her 22-year-old son Michael, who has worked as a bagger at a local supermarket in Hollywood for the last three years. Michael also wanted to contribute to the Jewish community work-wise, but there wasn’t anything available.
“The percentage of young people with disabilities who are unemployed is around 85%. Then narrow it down to the Jewish niche, and it’s even harder to find work,” Rosenbaum said.
Thanks to Ezra Ba’Ir, Michael has been working eight hours per week at Temple Hollywood of Israel. He helps with art activities in the synagogue’s early childhood center, and with second grade art, physical education and library classes in the day school.
“I love doing Shabbat services [on Fridays] with the kids. I like working with the kids. They listen to me and they ask interesting questions and share about their families,” Michael said.
The program’s vocational coordinator, Lee Carter, reported that so far each one of the pilot’s seven placements has been a perfect fit. The interns are supported with on-site job coaching, and individual monthly meetings with the interns and their parents, and also with the interns and their employers.
“Ezra Ba’Ir is the only opportunity in the LA Jewish community to get individual support like this. It’s more than the interns would get in a job placement in the general community,” Carter said.
The interns themselves are not the only ones to benefit from the program. “This program supports our Jewish community by showing that there are all types of people in our community – all of whom are important, integral members of our workforce,” Naftalin-Kelman said.
de Toledo’s head of school, Mark Shpall, considers employing Jared a part of the school’s mission and a boon to the school’s community.
“Our mission is to help ‘raise up the next generation of Jewish leaders.’ What better way than to model opening our community and giving opportunities to people like Jared looking to give back and work in a Jewish environment. From our interview of Jared, we knew that he had the skill set to be an addition to our school. This is not a charity mission. Jared is working and helping our athletic department and has been a complete benefit to our staff and athletes,” he said.
“Everyone should have an opportunity to work and make a difference in an area of their passion. Absolute barriers that are placed due to a person’s differences are unfair and frankly, not Jewish,” Shpall said.
Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist covering Israel and the Jewish world. She also consults for the National Ramah Commission and Ramah Israel.