Jobs for people with special needs
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Jobs for people with special needs

Local groups, local business work together on training, internships, employment

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Binyamin works at Ma’adan kosher deli and catering in Teaneck. Courtesy Sinai

For at least 25 years now, Joseph Freedland of Fair Lawn has been hiring people with special needs to help in the production and packaging of shower curtains and hospital curtains at Hospi-Tel in East Orange.

The family business, founded by his father and uncle and now owned by his brother David, has eight to 10 such people working in the factory at any given time. Two of them have been with the company 20-plus years.

“This has become very important to me,” said Mr. Freedland, the company’s vice president for production. “We started by hiring a few people with challenges to do unskilled labor such as moving the curtains from the cutting to sewing stations, hanging them on racks, and packaging them. Over the years we’ve had probably 100 handicapped individuals overall. But more credit goes to our employees who work with these individuals and help them do the assigned tasks and really become their friends. In order to be successful, the special-needs individual has to be accepted into society.”

The ability to find and hold a job is a major hurdle for adults with developmental, physical, and emotional disabilities. Ahead of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, marked every October, the Jewish Standard spoke with local Jewish business owners and with special-needs professionals who provide paid or unpaid work opportunities for this population.

“For young adults in our Jewish communities, the services in terms of finding jobs when they graduate from the school system are very limited,” said Abbe Greenberg, owner of Bright Path Consulting in Teaneck and formerly associate director of J-ADD (Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities). She is a private case manager for people with special needs and their families.

“I have hired a few individuals with special needs myself and am deeply involved with the discussion of employment for adults with special needs,” she said. “There is a real shortage of opportunities.”

About a year ago, in response to a need articulated by parents of young adult children with emotional or developmental challenges, Ms. Greenberg created Bright Path Experience. In this setting, two families paid her to hire their children for jobs designed to instill workplace skills and self-confidence.

“These were two Jewish individuals who, for whatever reason, had no practical work experience at all, not even understanding the concept of getting up and going to work,” Ms. Greenberg said. “Both were living at home and were kind of rudderless. I took them in as paid interns, gave them responsibilities, and taught them how to be employees.

“They got a paycheck and learned how to open a bank account, manage their money, come to work and accomplish tasks, and gain some competitive edge in the world. After six months, they were coming into the office every day in button-down shirts and slacks, doing errands and filing, doing research, making bank deposits. I gave them a tolerant yet rigorous workspace.”

As a result of this experience, one of the young men was able to begin a college program and the other found full-time employment.

The Bergen County-based Sinai Schools, one of the country’s leading Jewish school networks for children with learning or developmental disabilities, provides basic employability skills training for its high school students and also runs two adult programs in which vocational training is a primary aspect.

All four participants in Netivot, Sinai’s day habilitation program at the Jewish Center of Teaneck, and all three residents of Sinai’s Sheli residence for men, also in Teaneck, hold down jobs geared toward helping them become more independent.

Among the local workplaces that accommodate Sinai students and adults – mostly in food services – are Dougie’s Bar-B-Que and Grill in Teaneck, the Frisch School and Yavneh Academy in Paramus, and Ma’adan kosher deli and catering in Teaneck, as well as Yeshiva University. Whereas most vocational training opportunities for its students until now have been in Jewish-owned businesses, Sinai recently began placing men in Toys R Us, Modell’s, Party City, and other Paramus stores.

“We find that most employers in our community are eager to help and find a way to make it work,” Chavie Hagler, Sinai’s adult program director, said. “There is some responsibility on the part of the employer, because although we provide a job coach to be with each employee, there has to be a point person at the place of employment to work with them and be creative in finding tasks for them to do.”

Food services generally work out well, she added. “It has a predictable routine you can be taught and doesn’t have a lot of surprises, so it’s well-suited for most people in our population. I try to change it up so everyone will have a social component. For example, one participant interning at Ma’adan does a lot of back-of-the-store work but also helps customers in order to develop his social skills.”

Ma’adan’s owners, Stuart Kahan and Yossie Markovic, won the Tovei Lev (Goodhearted) Award at Sinai’s 2014 benefit dinner in recognition of their acceptance of Sinai students over the past 30 years.

“In their minds, making a place in their store for people with disabilities is nothing especially noteworthy, and not worthy of recognition. It is simply the right thing to do,” Sinai’s chairman, Rabbi Mark Karasick of Teaneck, said.

“We started our store 1982, the same year Sinai started,” Mr. Kahan said. “A few years later, they needed something for the older kids to do to integrate them into the work world and build up their confidence and teach them some skills.”

The partners created a job for one Sinai student: packing, labeling and inventorying candies. After a few years they found more tasks for Sinai kids to do.

“Over the years we’ve taken students almost every semester,” Mr. Kahan said. “Now we have a boy with Down syndrome who comes a few days a week for a few hours. I was blown away by his abilities. He’s bright and funny, and a diligent worker.

“We’re teaching him how to crack eggs, how to cook them and how to make egg salad. He’s also doing inventory and telling us what we need to order – hopefully these are things he can use in the future.”

Though Ma’adan does not pay Sinai interns, Mr. Kahan and Mr. Markovic invest no small amount of time and attention in their vocational training. “I don’t know if we’d hire these guys full time because this work environment could be too intense for them, but other businesses are geared to this type of worker,” Mr. Kahan said. “Quite a few had the potential and eventually they found something.”

Rabbi Yisrael Rothwachs, Sinai’s dean, said that the students’ parents are eager for their kids to find gratifying employment. “Like all parents, they want their children to be as independent as possible and to be happy,” he said.

Feige Weinstein, who son, Yosef Weinstein, 35, is a Sheli resident, said that both she and her son are very happy about his employment at Dougie’s. He works there as a waiter four days a week. While he was still a student at Sinai, he learned workplace skills through internships at a kosher pizza store, a wine store, a dry cleaner, and a paint store, all on Teaneck’s West Englewood Avenue, as is Dougie’s.

“Yosef, like every person, needs to be busy,” Ms. Weinstein said. “He’s blessed to be a people person and likes to smile, say hello, and give high-fives. People at Dougie’s are very kind to him, and very accepting. He loves to go to work and he needs to work – not that he makes much money, but that’s not the point. I’m hoping he can get another job for Sundays and Fridays.”

According to Rabbi Rothwachs, “Usually we are happy with our lot in life when we feel we are being productive and filling a need and we are part of a community. Often, because individuals with disabilities have challenges that put them on the sidelines, families are left feeling that their child can’t be a productive part of the workforce. That’s why this aspect of what we’re doing is so important. Maybe these young men will never master Jewish texts, but they can hold onto a job and contribute to the broader community.”

He emphasizes that the benefits are not only for the worker. “When parents and children walk into a store and see someone there with a disability who is able to help them, that sends a strong message.”

Teaneck General Store owner Bruce Prince has two Jewish special-needs students from Teaneck High School working in unpaid internships for a couple of hours a day under the supervision of job coaches with the New Jersey branch of Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities.

This is not the first time Mr. Prince has participated in this program, so he has a system in place for working with the coach and high school counselor to match each intern’s strengths with an appropriate task.

“We sell a lot of board games and card games here, and one of the guys sits down with new games and figures out how to play it and what is the best age for playing it, and writes a synopsis that we copy and place by the game so customers know what’s good for different age groups,” he said.

Other tasks include taking inventory, stocking shelves, and taking out the trash. “Depending on the individual, I would consider hiring someone with disabilities,” said Mr. Prince, who will be honored at Yachad’s breakfast on October 26. “We did hire one young man the summer before last.”

Jeffrey Manas of Teaneck, owner-operator of Bayit Interiors, took on a Yachad client as an unpaid once-a-week intern last year, and now pays him minimum wage.

“Last year he did menial things like inventory, and he did a good job. Then I started teaching him to use my tools with my supervision; a little drilling and putting in screws. He learned how to use a tape measure and how to tie knots. I do a lot of stringing and restringing, so that’s important. To you and me, maybe it’s nothing, but he was excited about it,” Mr. Manas said.

“I’m trying to teach him skills that can be used in an office,” he continued. “He knows the alphabet and does my filing. This year I’m working on having him answer telephones. I am writing out a script and helping him practice; I think it will be a tremendous plus because he can work in any office if knows how to answer phones. In the short run it helps me, and in long run it helps him. It’s a credit to my customers that they are very accepting of him, and satisfied that he’s there doing something productive.”

Reva Judas, project coordinator for NJ Yachad and its vocational program, said that most clients are between 22 and 39 and have a variety of physical, developmental, and emotional disabilities.

“At first, all our clients were working at Five Star Caterers and in the Yachad office in New York,” she said. “Now we have 10 participants, and they come to our Teaneck office four days a week, 9 to 4, via NJ Transit or Access Links or private transportation.

“From here they each go to several different jobs during the week, from 10 to 2, accompanied by a state-trained job coach – a paid professional or a social-work or psychology student. Employees really respond to us because of the job coaches, and a lot of feedback goes on.”

In addition to Teaneck General Store and Bayit Interiors, Yachad clients work for Kosher Experience’s lunch programs at three local day schools, Privet Flowers in Teaneck, Shalom Yeladim early-childhood centers, DubeZone gym program at the Lubavitch preschool in Tenafly, and Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston. One client, who has a master’s degree in biology, helps in Kushner’s science labs.

Another client washes wigs at Teaneck’s Lillian Lee Salon for distribution through Lillian Lee’s Do Wonders charity. Goodwill, The Jewish Link, and the Fair Lawn gown gemach also hire Yachad clients.

Every week, some of the clients travel across the bridge to organize books in the libraries at Yeshiva University and its boys’ high school, and in the office of SAR High School in Riverdale.

“We’re also starting to work with the Cheer Program, which helps the elderly homebound with errands such as grocery shopping and laundry,” Ms. Judas said. “They got a grant, so they can pay our clients. Sometimes individuals and organizations hire us to stuff envelopes and make hostess gifts, centerpieces, and candy bags in exchange for a donation to Yachad.”

The skills clients learn at the Yachad office before and after work hours are just as important as the vocational training, she said. “We give them training on traveling on public transportation, proper hygiene, how to communicate with their boss and co-workers, how to dress appropriately for the job, how to do a job interview and write a résumé.”

Sinai’s Chavie Hagler agrees that workplace skills are essential for future success. “If they master something, they can market themselves more easily,” she said. “For example, they could tell a potential employer, ‘I can work in your kitchen because I’m a pro at vegetable prep.’

“As these individuals get older, they need to have meaning and structure in their lives. They feel tremendous pride that they go to work every day like their parents and siblings,” she said.

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