Parents of disabled adults seek local Jewish group home

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Louie Shiff is 23 years old, works part-time in a hotel and is enrolled in computer studies classes at the College of Marin.

He wants to continue living independently of his parents, who live in Los Altos Hills, and he wants to live in a Jewish home.

Louie Shiff has Down syndrome. And so far, California has no Jewish group homes where adults with moderate learning and developmental disabilities can live independently.

Gloria and Dr. Theodore Shiff have joined two coalitions of South Bay parents who are trying to change that.

Six years ago Hatikvah, a social group for developmentally disabled Jewish adults and their parents, was formed. Response in the South Bay was immediate — and strong.

Personal and philosophical differences have since split the group into two independent organizations: One is a revived version of the original Hatikvah; the other is SHILO (Shared Housing for Independent Living Opportunities). Both are nonprofits, and their big projects are about to begin.

Although they work separately, both groups have the same ambitions. They want to develop residential, social, vocational and family aid for developmentally disabled Jewish adults.

But first and foremost, both hope to establish California's first Jewish group home for these adults.

SHILO is still shopping for a house. Hatikvah already has a house in the South Bay but needs funding to furnish and organize the home and hire a staff before it can welcome residents.

"We're looking to develop independent living opportunities, to develop [disabled Jewish adults'] lives and help them get out of their parents' houses," said SHILO president Abraham Berman.

Though facilities for the developmentally disabled are scattered over the country, the Jewish home nearest to the Bay Area is in Washington state, explains Hatikvah president Sally Wieder.

Young adults, especially by age 25 or 30, usually feel a strong need to be on their own. But the quality of life at some group homes is depressingly low. And at others, Jewish residents are harassed by individuals wanting to convert them to other religions, Berman said.

"The houses I've seen are very sparse," said SHILO member Lyle Kluger, whose son still lives at the family's home in Los Gatos.

For SHILO member Ellen Turbow of Palo Alto, whose son has hearing problems as well as emotional and neurological difficulties, a Jewish group home would mend holes in the existing safety net.

Most disabled adults who participate in programs run by SHILO and Hatikvah can hold jobs and generally care for themselves, she explained. But these adults don't fit into most residential programs, which are often designed for severely disabled individuals or for those whose emotional disturbances result from drug abuse or dysfunctional family situations.

Hatikvah and SHILO participants "are kids who fall through the cracks," Turbow said. "They're high-functioning kids who need support to lead a normalized life. Most live at home, with no social life and no peer group."

"There's a definite void in the area of Jewish young people with disabilities," said Gloria Shiff, Louie's mother.

Richard Fermin helped found SHILO and now serves as Hatikvah's vice president. His son was born brain-damaged.

Fermin wants his son to meet emotional, caring people who cherish Jewish values, despite there being a "more emotional draw and glitz to some religions" than to Judaism.

Both coalitions have their own success stories. One of the young adults now works as a cashier. Another works at an airport. Yet another works with computer software. A deaf man is a mechanical wizard.

"Tell him to fix a TV, the guy is like a genius," Berman said.

Most of the young men and women "have a good nature," Berman said. "They're very receptive, they're very compatible. But they fear that people cannot understand them. We want to open up the community to them and emphasize Jewish identity."

For information about SHILO, call (415) 856-8495, or (408) 264-6579. For information about Hatikvah, write to Hatikvah Inc., 20175 Knollwood Drive, Saratoga, CA, 95070.