Yuval, Jamie and Rani meet President Rivilin of Israel
The primary purpose of Friends of Access Israel and how it helps people with disabilities and their families
Our primary goals
- Promote awareness of accessibility issues and of the inclusion of people with disabilities in North America and globally.
- Bring knowledge, methodology, and technologies using the award-winning Access Israel model, to North America.
- Raise funds to promote accessibility and inclusion issues in Israel and elsewhere encourage and tourism to Israel and other global bucket list items for people with disabilities.
- Collaborate with Access Israel on various other programs to accelerate accessibility for all.
As an example – we (non-Covid times), take pride in our awareness and sensitivity training as we see the fruits of the event instantaneously. One of the FAISR’s awareness-raising activities is the Feast of the Senses, an experiential dinner that allows the participants to experience a meal through the eyes of people with disabilities. The meal simulates visual, hearing, and physical disabilities and creates a unique experience that changes the perception and understanding one had about people with disabilities. At the feast, participants go through an emotional and educational experience. They are served 3 courses; the first course is eaten while their eyes are covered, the second course while their hands are covered with special gloves and the third while their ears are covered to simulate the loss of the senses. During the meal, an open dialog is held with people with the specific disability which the participants experience.
Access Israel and Friends of Access Israel have run these programs in the Israeli Parliament, In the UN Headquarters, for corporations, universities, day schools and in individual homes. We are continuously building a global foundation to educate students, corporations, houses of worship etc. on the importance of inclusion and accessibility. We consciously taking this ‘marathon’, one mile at a time.
The biggest challenges facing Friends of Access Israel
Every state and every country views disability and accessibility rights and requirements in vastly different ways. Sadly, we still see countries that outright dismiss people with disabilities. Our ultimate goal is to have a set of global rules in place to set a minimum of requirements for all countries on accessibility.
I was introduced to James (Jamie) Lassner by a mutual friend, Howard Blas. It did not take long to realize that we had a lot in common and that Jamie is really a super nice person with a kind heart. I knew that it was the beginning of what I believe will be a lifelong friendship and as we spoke more with each other, on Zoom, of course, I learned more about him. And, I also knew that I wanted to share his story with the Melange audience.
You will understand why after you read this Question and Answer piece with Jamie. ~ Fred Maahs, Jr.
Jamie, where were you born and where did you spend most of your childhood?
My only sibling Andy and I were born in Bogotá Colombia. I was born in 1964 and my bro was born in 1966. My father was working for a US based company and we returned to USA in January 1970. I grew up on the Upper East Side of New York and was blessed with the biggest backyard – New York City’s Central Park.
Where did you go to college and what degree did you obtain?
I attended Baruch College of the City University of New York (CUNY). I graduated with a B.A. in Finance and minor in Psychology.
What was your first job out of college?
My first job out of college was as transport manager for a commodities trading firm in Manhattan. I left that company to become President of a Dutch based commodities firm in NYC.
What led you to become an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)?
My parents and grandparents were extremely altruistic people. Always teaching us by example. The synagogue we belonged to was the closest Mount Sinai Hospital. Many of our congregants were doctors. I had the urge to become a doctor, but I was never really fond of being a student, homework, etc. Accordingly, when I found out that there was an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) course being offered to me and it was ‘only 6 months’ – I jumped at the opportunity. The first volunteer corps I joined was the Central Park Medical Unit. The ambulance responded to calls within Central Park and covered all concerts and events. Soon after, I became one of the original members of an ambulance corps that covers the upper east side of NYC. I have been an EMT for over 35 years – all volunteer.
On Black Tuesday, I arrived at my commodity trading office located just a few blocks south of the World Trade Center. At about 8:45 AM, I was completing a conference call when there was a bang and then the lights flickered. We went to the back of our offices and saw fire on the top part of one of the Twin Towers. We watched as flames billowed from the windows, not understanding what had happened. We heard on the news that a small commuter plane had struck the World Trade Center. Looking at the large hole it looked a lot bigger than a commuter plane.
I responded to a citywide call for emergency personnel to help. I was told by the volunteer ambulance dispatcher to head to City Hall that was about 8 blocks north of my office – just North East of the Towers. I ran up Broadway. But, before I had time to think, I witnessed what seemed like a scene straight out of a movie. I saw and heard a plane on full throttle dip its wing and pummel into the second tower. This is a scene that we have all witnessed over and over on TV. Despite viewing it so many times it is hard for me to register it as the reality it was.
In the Wall Street area, there were thousands of papers in the air. Pieces of buildings were falling. Watching this debris, it was heart wrenching to recognize that some of the debris were people jumping to their deaths.
As I reached Century 21, a store just across the street from the World Trade Center, there was one of our volunteer ambulances. I stopped and started to assist in treating patients.
Suddenly, a blood-curdling scream to run was heard from a firefighter as the first tower started to collapse. I looked up briefly and saw the famed antenna tipping over. We ran a block when the cloud of ashes and debris caught up with us. By the grace of God, we were able to break through a glass door and enter a building to shield us from large falling pieces. In that building, huddled on the ground, I found myself with about 40 other people from all walks of life and a new view on life.
I was now proudly working with a Hispanic undercover larceny officer, an African American DHL courier, and an injured Catholic firefighter, to help the people inside with us and just outside this building. We were from all walks of life, all different trades, and assorted religions, yet we were all simple human beings fighting to survive and help others survive. We kept each other focused on running for our lives.
We then saw that the flying and scattered metal, paper, concrete, and other debris outside the building was going to be an obstacle course for us. We had a severely injured firefighter and several asthmatic people who needed to be walked to the hospital. As we started making our way out of the building, we heard rumbling again and then we were bombarded with the second tower. We luckily found a parking lot into which we literally dove. It was then that I injured my right leg (later found out I had torn several knee ligaments). After waiting for about an hour, splinting myself, we finally made our way out. We made it to the local hospital with our patients and then I finally headed toward City Hall to try to find some of my fellow volunteer ambulance members. I found an ambulance and was taken to Beth Israel Hospital where I had my eyes washed out as I was covered in ash. I got a better splint and continued my service, as this was a catastrophic event that needed responders.
In the days following Black Tuesday our crew was stationed on the west side of ground zero at the entrance to the World Financial Center. We had the opportunity to work with and meet members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s search and rescue teams. We were working with men and women and their specially trained dogs from all over the USA.
We were all Americans looking for and hoping to help fellow Americans and people from other nations. Unfortunately, as time went on, we realized that we were looking to recover the remains of fellow human beings and we did what we had to with much respect and dignity.
I recall seeing 3 McDonald’s refrigerator trucks and was impressed that they were sending down food to the other rescue workers. To my chagrin, I was told that they were empty and were being used as a temporary morgue.
On October 11, well after the swelling subsided, I had reconstructive knee surgery and on November 11, I was diagnosed with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
At what point and how did you become involved with Friends of Access Israel? What was the deciding factor to take on the role of Executive Director?
After rehab for my knee (I have had 3 knee surgeries on each knee since) and more importantly therapy for PTSD (which I still have – but managed) – over a period of time I realized that making money at commodities was wonderful but it was not fulfilling my inner desire to make the world better. Obviously, I was not in a position to fight the terror that attacked the world on 9/11, but I was in position to double or triple up my good deeds to counter the evil. I was granted an opportunity by a renowned educator, cherished friend and valued mentor, Rabbi Alan Berkowitz, to work as the Director of Student Life at a school he was the Principal at in Brooklyn. He gave me the opportunity to involve the next generation of children with programs, events and speakers who were bettering the world each in their own way. While it was an opportunity to teach, I learned much from my students.
About 3 years ago, my friend of over 50 years, Alan T Brown had a phone conversation with Michal Ramon, the CEO of Access Israel, who invited him to come to Israel. Alan had not been in Israel in 30+ years and was concerned about accessibility as he is a person with paraplegia. Michal made it clear that Israel is accessible.
A few months later, Alan was in Israel and texting, emailing, calling, and sending pictures of his trip and the places he was visiting.
He then called while I had students in my office said,” We have to start an organization in the USA, and you are going to be the Executive Director”.
That summer, I met Yuval Wagner, the founder of Access Israel and in the first minute I realized this is a man that I want to work with. With his angelic smile and focus on good – he was a person whose positive presence I desired in my life. I met the rest of the Access Israel Family and simply fell in love with all of them, what they were doing and their grand vision of ‘leaving no one behind’.
The following Summer, during a moving ceremony celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Access Israel at the home Reuven Rivlin, President of the State of Israel, the President turned to Friends of Access Israel (FAISR) representative with a message of encouragement “Our friends from abroad, from the United States – Welcome! We appreciate very much what you are doing because this is a humanitarian need for everyone to respect human beings as a human being, not only as an Israeli or American, British, or Russian. We appreciate your collaboration and partnership”.
Why was it important for you to be a voice for people with disabilities?
I was blessed to grow up in a home with parents that taught by deed. They worked in stealth mode to be advocates for those in need in our community and beyond. My Dad, a career United States Marine, instilled the idea that he ‘never left a marine behind’. It was the lessons of my parents that set the foundation for me to attempt to fill part of their shoes.
Are there changes that still need to happen? Why?
There is a lot that must change. The global view of the largest minority in the world must be a united one…. once we are close to that unity, accomplishing goals will be easier
How is the US different from other countries when it comes to accessibility and activities for people with disabilities? Should anything be different?
In the USA, the laws are in place. Following them should not be a matter of ‘law and order’ but rather an eagerness of organization, architectural firms, builders etc. to make the world more inclusive and accessible as a standard.
Why is it important for the world – the way we interact, the way companies conduct their business and hire people, the products that businesses offer, the way we design cities and the buildings in them, transportation, the composition of leadership roles, the composition of Boards of Directors – you name it, to be more inclusive, to adopt a true concept of “Inclusion”?
In a nutshell, as we grow older and live longer the minority of people with disabilities is going to increase and the need for accessibility and awareness will be even more vital. We have an opportunity to set the bar high so that in the future will enhance the world for all.
With the recent announcement of the Abraham Accords last August, how can Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States work together to share information and Best Practices for accessibility, inclusion, and equity for people with disabilities? Who should be at the table in those discussions?
Peace is always very much welcome. In Hebrew, the word for peace, shalom is rooted in the word Shalem which has many meanings including full, complete, inclusive. A complete peace between entities is multi-level. The historic Abraham Accords brings with it the vital opportunity to share information so that all people are included and have full accessibility. The goal being that all can live self-determined lives enabling them to work, travel, study, and consume with dignity, equality, and maximum independence.
From the outset the people who should sit at the table to discuss this vital multi-national and multi-faceted information and best practices for accessibility, inclusion, and equality for people with disabilities should be recognized, respected leaders and informed people who represent and will get things done. In order for true shalom, peace to thrive, it must be shalem, inclusive.
Who is your role model? Your inspiration?
I am a firm believer in God. I believe He has placed all on this earth for a reason and has set guidelines for us especially on being there for our ‘fellow sisters and brethren’s keeper’. In striving to do good for others, it enhances His world with good.
Psychologically, as a person with PTSD doing good keeps me focused on it and away from the evils that exist in the world.
My parents, wife, and children remind me every day: with one good action – many more can come.
Anything else you would like the readers to know about you or Friends of Access Israel?
We are a non-denominational, non-for-profit organization, eager to work with other organizations, embassies, schools etc. to enhance the reach of our goals to globally improve accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities and the elderly via advocacy, education, and inclusion. With each improvement, we empower them to live self-determined lives enabling them to work, travel, study, and consume with dignity, equality, and maximum independence.
Pictured below is Friends of Access Israel’s accessible trip to Mount Kilimanjaro
To find out more about the organization Friends of Access Israel (FAISR)
Contact: James A. Lassner – Executive Director