Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Joel Schwartz: Our inspiration

Written by: Dave Goodman

About 27 months ago I had the privilege of leading one of the most significant Taglit-Birthright Israel CIE buses of my life with my good friend Jodi Katzeff.  Before we started to get the participants organized with logistics and information in the fall of 2008, we were informed that one participant, Joel Schwartz (25), would be joining us with a shadow staff member, Emanuel Flatt (22) from a unique initiative within Reena Foundation, supported by UJA Federation of Toronto and it's Canada Israel Experience division.

Joel lived with Asperger syndrome and was greatly encouraged by his parents, Julie & Larry, and younger brother Jonathan, who was attending McGill, to join our group of 39 other young Jewish adults from across Canada.  I don't think I knew that this trip would change my life, but I learned very quickly that this would be one of my most profound experiences.  The experience itself is currently becoming an inspirational story for our community.  A symbol of inclusiveness and support for those who live with developmental disorders.

This is becoming Joel Schwartz's great legacy, and it is also, our inspiration...

Michelle Cohen & Joel Schwartz
From the beginning of the trip, our young professionals bus quickly accepted Joel into the fold.  Although I had gathered some insights before the trip about how things would play out, I came to understand that people with Autism are very self aware of their capabilities and how they are accepted into society on a social level.  I think part of what made this group so special and mature, was that they accepted Joel for who he was from the start. 
The major challenge was our ability to enable Joel with the mindset that he could get through the 10 days.  In Joel's mind, putting himself in social situations with other Canadian Jews for ten straight days, the physical challenges of intense hikes, heat and long hours...well I guess you could say that aside from managing the group, Jodi, Emanuel, our incredible trip medic Adam Miller and our tour guide Yossi, had our hands full.  But it was worth every second of attention Joel required.

Joel after conquering the Jillabun hike on Day 2
Caleigh Rykiss and Adam Miller (Trip Medic/Guard)
But Joel was a teddy bear!  He had an outgoing personality and was a sponge for information.  His timely wit and his 'gentle giant' presence made him the most loveable guy on our bus.  Challenging trip elements that seemed like mountains were overcome on a daily basis.  Although it was a roller coaster for Joel, he and we pushed him to experience everything the amazing C.I.E. itinerary offered.  We knew from that point on, that Joel was recognizing his true self-worth in his young life.

You could see it unfold before your very eyes, and everyone who embraced Joel throughout the Birthright Israel experience knew that they had a small piece of making this time of his life that much more significant and meaningful.  For one of the few times in Joel's life, he was truly accepted by his peers for who he was; a kind, caring, funny and beautiful young man.

I remember many times during the trip, watching his love for Israel and his love for life being shaped by his Jewish peers.  I can only hope it enhanced the experience for everyone else, as much as they enhanced the experience of Israel for Joel.

Tragically, we lost Joel just 2+ short months later in early March 2009.  The community lost Joel, but I can safely say that our December C.I.E. bus, lost a dear friend.
The Birthright Israel trip that is heavily supported by UJA Federation, UIA Canada and Taglit Birthright Israel,  changed this young man and his 50 new friends from the trip, Israeli & Canadian participants alike.  It changed the way others see young Jewish adults with developmental challenges.  It strengthened the Jewish community and characterized our people hood.

Since Joel's passing, I have only learned to embrace other young Jews who seem 'different', with the same respect and appreciation I would have for anyone who wants to experience a more meaningful Jewish life through our events and initiatives in the community.  For it is people like Joel who make our community a vibrant and interesting place to want to support and spend time.

Although Joel and his experience in Israel is only but a microcosm of the incredible work that is being facilitated by organizations within UJA Federation such as Reena Foundation; my new volunteer partners that have created The Joel Schwartz Memorial Hockey Tournament now use Joel's story as our inspiration.
In the spring of 2010, Jonathan Schwartz, Joel's younger brother came to me with a vision to commemorate his older brother in an effort to help other young Jewish adults have the same experience in Israel that transformed Joel.  Jonathan's ability to drive change was evident in his extensive and effective volunteer work of Hoops 4 Israel 2010.  Devising a model that could find the right leaders to form a leadership committee and make this initiative a reality was welcomed with enthusiasm and dedication by Jon, Jesse Abrams, Zack Belzberg, Corrie Pollock, Asher Kirshenbaum, our project chairs.
Jon Schwartz, Co-Founder & Volunteer Chair

Jesse Abrams, Co-Founder & Volunteer Chair
Zack Belzberg, Co-Founder & Volunteer Chair
Corrie Pollock, Co-Founder
Asher Kirshenbaum, Volunteer Chair
Jason Finestone, Volunteer Chair
Ari Diamond, Volunteer Chair
It has been amazing to witness the momentum that this initiative has picked up in the past few months after several chair meetings and now 3 full committee meetings with several dedicated young adults who have all banded together to actualize this grassroots initiative.  Incredible awareness for Reena Foundation and the Birthright Israel Shadow Program, along with necessary funds that will enable the shadow staff member to accompany the C.I.E. bus to Israel for 10-days will be realized.  

The inaugural Joel Schwartz Memorial Hockey Tournament will take place at Chesswood Arena for a full day of hockey and other entertainments on Sunday, March 13th, 2011.

Although this is the first of several other personal updates I will bring to the table regarding The JSMHT, please address any inquiries or offer support to: info@jsmhtournament.com, or visit our event site, or facebook page. 


  1. A truly amazing cause spearheaded by an incredible group of young people! These organizations and the people involved exemplify the strong sense of community, identity, and passion for helping others, which is a fundamental characteristic of our core Jewish values. This is and will be the type of initiative that sustains us as a people and which will ultimately help our people to move forward together, survive, and flourish.

    Lots of Mazel.

  2. Elaine Feldman SchwartzDecember 12, 2010 at 8:38 PM

    Joel Schwartz was my nephew and I would personally like to thank you for the beautiful words you wrote, which captured the amazing young man that Joel was. People who allowed Joel into their circle were only enriched by his loving spirit, his humour, his intelligence and his gentleness. He truly enjoyed his time in Israel exploring new places, interacting with new people his own age and overcoming many challenges along the way. I wish Jonathan and the entire committee much success and mazel on the upcoming hockey tournament.

    With much love. Elaine Feldman Schwartz