A woman of valor

Getting to know Beth Steinberg, a winner of the 2017 Bonei Zion Prize.

Beth Steinberg (left) with Miriam Avraham, with whom she co-founded Shutaf Inclusion Programs (photo credit: YITZ WOOLF)
Beth Steinberg (left) with Miriam Avraham, with whom she co-founded Shutaf Inclusion Programs
(photo credit: YITZ WOOLF)
If Israel did not already have someone like Beth Steinberg living and working here, we would probably have to recruit someone just like her. She is one of seven immigrants from English-speaking countries selected to receive this year’s Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize, which recognizes and honors Anglos who have made a major contribution to the State of Israel.
Steinberg more than deserves the prize. As director and co-founder of Shutaf Inclusion Programs and artistic director and co-founder of Theater in the Rough, she has made not one contribution but two.
Arriving in Israel a scant 11 years ago, Steinberg describes herself as “an almost lifetime New Yorker.”
Daughter of a Conservative rabbi, she grew up in Long Island, moved to Brooklyn when she married in the late 1980s, and lived there for 20 years.
“I was the final member of my immediate family to make aliya,” she says. “My entire immediate family all live here. It was my father’s dream as a Conservative rabbi. He talked about two things: Israel and God. And we all listened. My brother came first, then a sister, and then my parents moved, then my younger sister, and then me.”
Like virtually all new immigrants, Steinberg had to confront the usual question of what to do now in this new place. She had studied fine arts in college and then stayed at home to homeschool her children. As they grew, she became what she describes as a “serial entrepreneur,” running a catering company with a friend, then engaging in direct sales in a food-based business, and finally running a theater program for homeschooled children in her area.
A conversation with three other women soon after her arrival here quickly set her on her current path in life. Steinberg explains, “I have three kids. My youngest has disabilities. That spring I sat with three other women I knew, all of us having children with disabilities.
I said to them, ‘What do you do with your kids in the summertime?’ to which Miriam Avraham, my co-founder at Shutaf, said, ‘Oh, it’s a catastrophe.’ And I said, ‘Oh.’ And that was how Shutaf started.”
Founded in 2007, Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem offers year-round activities for children, teens and young people, ages six to 23, both with and without disabilities. More than 500 families have benefited from 10 years of Shutaf programs. These include after-school activities, youth leadership programs, a variety of inclusion workshops and family gatherings.
But Shutaf’s centerpiece and major focus has been the running of day camps, three times a year, for mixed groups of children with and without disabilities, during Hanukka, Passover and summer vacations.
More than 2,000 children have been served by these day camps since August 2007.
Having grown up and later worked in Jewish summer camp environments, Steinberg wanted an enjoyable day camp experience for her son with disabilities.
“We refer to people with disabilities using only what’s called ‘person-first language,’ she mentions incidentally.
“We’ll only say ‘children with disabilities,’ as opposed to ‘disabled children.’” The program’s beginnings were modest. “We started with 10 kids. Some of them had disabilities, some did not. It was a real mix. The kids had two weeks of camp. My kid came home on the bus dirty, tired and happy – the way a kid should come home from day camp. And then we ran a program for Hanukka that year, and we doubled in size. And then, by the following Passover, we ran a pre-Passover camp and tripled in size. By the following summer we ran a three-week program for around 40 kids, and we started bringing in teens already by Passover time, and we really knew we were on to something. We knew that we were developing a project way beyond what we had originally imagined. From there, everything grew.”
The benefits of such a project for children with disabilities are obvious, but what about children without disabilities? “If we really want to be inclusive, we must look past diagnoses,” Steinberg explains. “There are many layers of what ‘inclusion’ means at Shutaf. First and foremost, we are here to serve kids and their needs, not their diagnoses.
We have children coming into our program with no disabilities – what I like to call an ‘ordinary kid.’ Ordinary kids have bad days, too. And on a bad day, your staff will look at this kid and ask, ‘Does that kid have a disability?’ It’s like the veil is down, and suddenly there is no difference really between anybody.
We’re all human beings with our frailties.
“A typical kid comes into the program. Think of an Israeli kid. He goes to school with maybe 35 or 40 in their elementary school class. How much attention do they get all during their school year? Not enough, or not the kind of attention they need to get. So there’s many different ways of seeing why an ordinary kid comes to the program and has a good time. They come because they get more attention. We have four staff for maybe 12 or 13 kids, who’ll get more attention than they’ll ever get in schools. They might come to us because they know the program is really fun. They might like the activities.”
For the past three years Shutaf has run its summer camp at a women’s high school for the arts in French Hill for 135 kids, with around 60 staff. It continues to search for a more or less permanent venue for its other programs year-round.
Steinberg is quick to point out that although the Bonei Zion Prize is officially being awarded to her, she is accepting it on behalf of her co-founder and director, Miriam Avraham. Still a relatively small operation, Shutaf is running on a budget expected to total “a little bit under NIS 2 million” this year, 3% coming from government sources and the rest from private donors both here in Israel and abroad.
Steinberg’s other contribution to Israel for which she is being honored this year is Theater in the Rough, which she founded in 2010 to provide affordable, engaging and high-quality theatrical productions to local audiences. These involve performances of Shakespeare plays every August in Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Gardens, an urban green space behind the King David Hotel. Actors and audience members move together through the gardens as the play unfolds. Eight or nine shows are produced each year for an average total audience of 2,500 people.
Since its founding in 2010, Theater in the Rough has produced Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. The company expects to perform The Taming of the Shrew this coming August.
Beth Steinberg, along with the six other awardees, will be presented with the Bonei Zion Prize in Jerusalem on June 26 at the Knesset. Metro congratulates her and wishes her continued success.
For further information about past and present Theater in the Rough productions: www.theaterintherough.co.il; to learn more about Shutaf Inclusion Programs and its activities: www.campshutaf.org