Fest organizers aim to welcome disabled

Charles L. Levinson has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, but he definitely plans to participate in the festivities at "Israel in the Park" on Sunday.

"`Handicapped-friendly' is the way of the present and the future," Levinson said. "This includes having signers and restrooms."

Israel Independence Day coordinators have worked harder than ever to ensure that deaf and other disabled members of the Jewish community are included in plans for the celebration in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

More than 12,000 people are expected to attend the festival in Sharon Meadows. The grounds will be transformed into the shape of Israel for the day and feature 10 of the Jewish state's most popular cities.

Lani Raider, "Israel at 50" coordinator, said a disability-information table and a general information table will be located near the Tel Aviv area entrance.

Wheelchair access is possible because the grounds are relatively flat and portable toilets for the disabled and wheelchair-users will be provided, she added. Three or four interpreters for the deaf will be on hand for main stage music events, Israeli folk dance and belly dance instruction and in other areas around the meadow.

"The deaf and disabled community should be able to celebrate Israel's 50th anniversary," Raider said. "It should become standard that they're able to get involved in the Jewish community."

Abby Kovalsky, Disabilities Project coordinator for San Francisco's Jewish Family and Children's Services, will be stationed at the disabilities-information table with volunteers. Besides helping out with the festival, she'll hand out resource information about services and programs for people with disabilities.

"The disabled Jewish population has been historically left out of the Jewish community at large," she said. "We are trying to encourage that community to be inclusive for everyone who belongs to that community. To do that, events need to be accessible."

She said that in the past, very little notice was given to the disabled leading up to the festivities. This year, that's changed.

"This year, Lani Raider, the Israel at 50 coordinator, made sure that the [wheelchair] access symbol and the sign language symbol appeared on all printed material," she said, referring to calendars, advertising, posters and postcards created to highlight the festival.

For Levinson, being able to attend the festival and other Jewish events is crucial. "I have a strong affinity for the survival of Israel," he said. "I was a member of the United Synagogue Youth. I remember the Six-Day War in 1967 and stuffing a lot of envelopes."

E.J. Cohen, one of the festival's interpreters for the deaf, specializes in signing in Judaic settings such as bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and Jewish music performances.

"I'm not fluent in Hebrew so I don't do it cold turkey," she said. "For a bar mitzvah I get the speech and the haftarah portion and study the English translation and commentaries. I check my work with rabbis and then I check with deaf people to make sure it's right."

Concerts, she said, are somewhat different. Usually, there are two interpreters working the larger performances. Her interpreting often depends on whether or not she gets the lyrics prior to the performance. It helps that Cohen also is a musician — she plays guitar, banjo and sings.

Cohen has worked with many of the musicians performing at the Israel in the Park festival, including children's singer and songwriter Craig Taubman, rock band RebbeSoul and the five a cappella singers that make up the group Vocolot.

"The musicians know to send me material ahead of time. There's a lot of research involved. The earlier they send the material, the better," she said.

Cohen said that many of the deaf Jews in the Bay Area feel left out of the community and that there are no regularly scheduled services for them.

"We've opened up the doors for the Russian Jewish community and provided Russian interpreters for Purim," she said. "What about opening up the door for deaf Jews? They're a cultural minority. They have a culture and a language."