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Article on Celebration Company - Dec. 2009

Meaningful work lights up Hanukkah

Dec. 10, 2009, 5:00PM

Just in case you missed reading the Houston Chronicle today (12/11/2009): The middle page of the “Houston Belief” insert section includes a great article and pictures about “The Celebration Company” — Click here to access the direct link.

Reena Cahana and her friends' beaming faces will compete with the glow of lighted menorahs this year as Hanukkah begins at sundown today.

Through participation in The Celebration Company, these special-needs adults helped make the Hanukkah candles they will use in their menorahs.

The Celebration Company is an employment program funded by Jewish Family Service's Alexander Institute for Jewish Families With Special Needs. Cahana and 11 others with disabilities including autism, mental illness and mental retardation work in the five-days-a-week program, where they also learn life skills such as doing laundry and basic cooking. For some, it is their first job experience.

Begun in August of this year under the leadership of project director Marni Litvack, the group assembles holiday packages, which they then sell to the Jewish community. The idea is for these adults to have gainful employment each weekday and earn wages as well. Proceeds help fund the program.

Volunteers Paulette Bregman, left, and Shelly Bleiweiss, center, help Carri Cowen make candles out of colorful beeswax.

Volunteers Paulette Bregman, left, and Shelly Bleiweiss, center, help Carri Cowen make candles out of colorful beeswax.

For Hanukkah, their task was to make candles, sold in boxes of 45, the prescribed amount for all eight nights of the holiday. Each candle was cut and hand-rolled from large sheets of colorful beeswax.

Full time Celebration Company volunteer Joy Kaplan, who has a master's degree in special education, acts as a consultant and helps design their projects.

“The whole purpose is to build their self-esteem as a producer and a contributor,” Kaplan said. “They all have a contribution to make. This employment lets them see the results of their actions, and that doesn't happen for them all the time. It helps them see themselves in a new light.”
As well as in the light of the Hanukkah candles they created.

“They are special because I made them,” participant Elaine Goldgar said of the candles as she worked on her task on a day leading up to the holiday.

Worker Josh Rosenthal was carefully cutting flat sheets of beeswax on a template to the exact size needed. Then his group friends Goldgar and Shira Dellano laid down a wick and rolled the beeswax into a candle. The final step was to gently close both ends of the new candle. Volunteers guided them through each step, posted on a large poster board to help workers remember.

“I like helping, and this gets me out of the house,” Rosenthal said. “I don't like sitting at home.”

Aside from the boxes of candles, the group assembled two other Hanukkah packages. The smaller gift box contains dry Hanukkah cookie ingredie nts along with a recipe, a large dreidel filled with gelt (chocolate coins) and the candles in a decorated box; the deluxe package contains all that plus a glass dish with three colorful glass dreidel legs.

Another dedicated volunteer, Richard Kammerman, a Jewish Family Service board member, picks up 10 participants each morning in a van and delivers them to program headquarters at 4019 S. Braeswood.

“This is a structured employment and life-skills program, and thanks to the generosity of Joan and Stanford Alexander, our community has become more inclusive,” Kammerman said. “I have done a lot of volunteering work, and it is one of the most rewarding activities I have ever been involved in.”

Their goal for this holiday was to create 10,000 candles, or 250 boxes' worth, and also to help assemble dry cookie ingredients, build gift boxes and pack them. The project began immediately after their Rosh Hashana gift package project, taking months to complete.
Participants were excited at the thought of lighting the same candles that have kept them so busy with work for these past several months. This year the holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights, will be sure to live up to its name.

Holiday Gift Packages

For information on the Celebration Company's holiday gift packages, visit this website.

Come Forward for Special Needs

This was published in the JHV by VICKI SAMUELS on 25.JAN.2007

After attending an informative meeting for Club Haver at the Jewish Community Center on Sunday, Jan. 21, I am compelled to address the members of our community who have a child or adult child with special needs. Why? Because our community advocates have no way of knowing how many families are needing appropriate educational and social services – even uniquely Jewish – for their loved ones.

Because in recent years I have discovered that some parents are in denial of their children’s special needs – either out of unnecessary embarrassment or simply because they don’t know how or who to ask for help – I will tell you my connection to the special needs conundrum.

My husband and I are the blessed grandparents of 4-year-old Isabel and 18-month-old Joseph, both of whom have autism, who will be moving with our son and daughter-in-law to Houston this fall. In addition, Alyssa, our 12-year-old granddaughter and an Emery/Weiner student, is a Friendship Circle volunteer, who delightedly goes to the home of a special needs family every Sunday to play with their daughter.

Our service agencies are listening to families who have come forward. Jewish Family Service created a Special Needs Task Force, chaired by Sandy Block. It will launch a comprehensive online resource guide within the next few weeks (at for families with special needs. Secondly, JFS is assessing the needs of our community, not only for today, but for future adult generations. Among these needs are education, socialization, social services and housing. However, Jewish Family Service has knowledge only of the families they currently are serving. They need to hear from the silent ones.

Mark Katzenellenbogen is chair of the Special Needs subcommittee of the JCC Children’s Family and Camp Committee. He and his wife, Fran, active in the special needs community, organized Sunday’s meeting, which included Tu B’Shevat activities for the children. In keeping with the holiday theme, the couple hopes to plant the seed for future discussion and action.

Attending the meeting were organization representatives, parents and their children and teen volunteers from The Friendship Circle, The Emery/Weiner Tikkun Olam club and Maccabi girls soccer. Briefing parents on their services were Diane Brezner, special education consultant for the Bureau for Jewish Education; Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, Chabad’s Friendship Circle; Melanie Musser, Jewish Children’s Regional Services and Special Friends Club; Sergio Rosenhek, TOPSoccer, JCC program for youth with disabilities; and Dr. Allan Panzer, owner of Aim High Academy.

As parents took turns introducing themselves, they shared personal stories of frustration in finding services for their children. JFS is poised to respond, to apply for grants, yet ironically handicapped without the knowledge of the number of families in the Jewish community who need assistance.

If you are a member of a family with a loved one with special needs – even if you think you do not need help – contact Sandy Block at 713/667-9336 or email her here.

Katzenellenbogen may be reached here

A forum has been established at

Also of note is Capitol Day 2007 on Wednesday, Feb. 14, in Austin. With the theme, “The Heart of the Matter,” the Arc of Houston is providing bus transportation for adults to advocate for their children who need special services. The Arc is a nonprofit organization which advocates for the inclusion of people with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities. Call 713/957-1600 for bus information.