Gesher members participate in a Bingo game over Zoom on Sunday, May 3.

For Robbie Lustiger, a resident of Gesher Disability Resource’s Keshet House in Scottsdale, the concept of a pandemic can be difficult to understand.

“He constantly insists he doesn’t have ‘the prickly ball’ and he didn’t eat it, and so why can’t he just go out?” said his mother, Rachel Lustiger.

The ‘prickly ball’ refers to the commonly seen microscopic photo of the coronavirus — a gray sphere covered in small red protrusions.

“The concept sometimes of an emotion or sickness doesn’t get through and having that abstract actual image” can be helpful for starting a conversation, said Amy Hummell, executive director of Gesher Disability Resources.

“The coronavirus quarantine has impacted Jews with disabilities in a number of different difficult ways,” Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, director of Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion, told JNS.org. “First, many people with disabilities have coexisting medical conditions, which put them at high risk for the virus. People living in group homes, residential schools or community residences aren’t able to see their family and friends. Many school-age children and teens have lost access to special education and school-based therapies and parents are struggling to home school as best they’re able. It’s an incredibly hard time.”

In Arizona, both Gesher and Friendship Circle of Greater Phoenix, which pairs teens with kids and families with special needs, are moving programs online to help members stay connected.

“I think the most interesting thing is how different it is for each person,” Hummell said. “Some people want to have a call every day. Some people get it and they’re staying safe. I think there are a couple day programs still open, and a few people are going to those and just staying away from others.”

The amount of virtual interaction that people with disabilities are doing now is a big shift for the community. That difference was evident to Hummell during Gesher’s virtual b’nai mitzvah classes, when she noticed a big difference between one 13-year-old student and his peers, who are in their 20s and 30s: He had been doing a huge number of online programs.

“For a very long time, parents have not wanted a lot of internet interaction for their children who have special needs,” Hummell said. “However, with all the things that are available now, it’s almost like everything’s done a 180. And I think it was shifting already, but because of staying home it really shifted. So maybe it was a 90-degree shift, and now it’s been a whole 180.”

The transition to virtual events don’t work well for everyone, however.

Using new technologies was “definitely a learning curve,” said Leah Levertov, program director at the Friendship Circle of Greater Phoenix. “Some were adaptable really quickly, and obviously some of our buddies can’t do Zoom calls so well, so they’ll watch it on the Facebook Live. Some will actually drive by their buddy’s houses instead of doing the Zoom call, they’ll just do a drive-by to say hello.”

Nevertheless, using Zoom has at least one benefit for members who participate: There are fewer distractions, and buddies and volunteers are taking advantage of the quality time they can spend together.

“Sometimes we were distracted by the program, by the content, by the surroundings, by the things that were around it,” Levertov said. “Zooming in on the computer, you have to be focused, and if you want to engage in a conversation, you have to be looking at that screen and nothing else.”

In spite of the challenges right now, Levertov said, online programs are a lifesaver for people with disabilities.

“With the Zoom calls and all the FaceTime calls and everything that we’ve been doing, I’ve actually seen more involvement from some of the kids who were involved but didn’t necessarily attend every single meeting, every single social event that we put out,” Levertov said. “Now on the internet I feel like everybody is capitalizing on every opportunity that we’re putting out to join in and to be a part of it.“

The Friendship Circle moved its annual fashion show and weekly Sunday Circle program, and teen volunteers and buddies with special needs are continuing to be paired up and to connect with each other by phone.

At the Virtual Celebration of Friendship & Fashion Show on Sunday, May 3, “it was so incredible to be able to see the joy and the happiness and the excitement that our buddies saw and felt through a computer screen,” Levertov said. “Somehow you’re still able to get feelings from people on a Zoom call, and that is something amazing.”

Gesher’s programs have also moved online, including b’nai mitzvah classes, the annual Model Seder, Simchat Shabbat, Bingo games and the new Gesher Zoom Room, where members can hang out and catch up.

In a bingo game on Sunday, May 3, the group played six games in one hour, in addition to going around the group twice to have people tell stories about what they’ve been doing.

“In the beginning of the call everyone’s waving hi to each other, at the end of the call everyone’s waving to each other,” Hummell said. “You see 20 little screens all with hands waving.”

Online programs are particularly important, Hummell said, for residents of Gesher’s two group homes, whose residents don’t have access to their regular day programs while sheltering in place.

“That’s been kind of hard,” Hummell said. “Because the individuals can’t go to their day programs anymore, they’re in their homes 24/7 now … That’s all the more reason that it’s important to have some of these other programming options during the day.” JN

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