German Tech Company Hires Asperger’s Syndrome Workers

For many the 1988 movie Rain Man was their first introduction to autism. Twenty-five years later and not only is autism a household term, but most people know someone who has been diagnosed to be on the autism spectrum. Today, fans of the primetime TV show Parenthood have watched the young Max Braverman (played by Max Burkholder) grow up before us in our living rooms with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism.

The character in Rain Man was an oversimplified example of someone with autism, but many of his attributes were accurate. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman’s character has unusual skills that are exploited by his brother to count cards in Las Vegas casinos. While the brothers’ activities were unethical, the movie demonstrated that individuals with autism have unique abilities that neurotypical people do not.

Rain Main Autism Asperger's
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; MGM Home Entertainment; United Artists

Those abilities are being put to good use by a German technology company called Auticon, which exclusively employs people with autism. The company’s owner, Dirk Mueller-Remus, founded the Auticon when his own son was diagnosed with Asperger’s. He says, “Our guys have a lot of skills in concentration and analytical/logical thinking. And we are sure the IT (information technology) industry will have benefits.”

According to Auticon’s website, the company uses the logical and analytical strengths of their consultants in software testing and quality assurance. The special abilities of their consultants with Asperger’s are advantageous in the quality control of software. Auticon lays out a vision that is both entrepreneurial as well as social. On the business side, Auticon seeks to deliver pinpoint quality in the IT sector, but it is also highly focused on being socially conscience and increasing the quality of life of those with autism through job satisfaction.

The idea that those with Asperger’s have special abilities that make them better qualified in certain jobs like those at Auticon is no shock to Mike Levine, 35, of Royal Oak. Self-diagnosed with Asperger’s in February 2003 (and later confirmed by physicians), Levine explained that “a lot of ‘Aspies’ take a real liking to the Internet and technology and they’re good at it because of their ability to really focus. If they take a job in that field, they will likely succeed because of their special aptitude.”

When Levine first heard of Auticon’s program to hire those with Asperger’s he was surprised. “My first reaction is that it’s usually the other way around. ‘Aspies’ are usually seen as a deterrent and can’t get their foot in the door at companies. The fact that Auticon specifically desires people with Asperger’s to be software testers and managers is great. And it makes sense.”

Avi Kapen

Those with autism often have trouble fitting into the working world, but under Mueller-Remus’s leadership, the Berlin-based company has created the right working environment for people with autism and a culture that draws upon their strengths. That environment is essential says Avi Kapen, 39, of West Bloomfield, Michigan who was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 18-years-old by Dr. Ami Klin, a world renown autism and Asperger syndrome expert. Kapen works as a circulation page at the West Bloomfield Public Library and says that due to having Asperger’s, his job suits him well. “I think in some ways my Asperger’s helps me with my job. They didn’t know I have Asperger’s when they hired me, but they see how my ability to remember facts and numbers makes me successful.”

Levine agrees. About to celebrate his fifth year on the job as the office administrative assistant at Country Place Condo Association in Northville, Michigan, Levine maintains that he’s well suited for the job as a result of the combination of it being the right working environment for him and a structured, routine-focused position. That recipe has proven successful for Auticon as well and they’re not the only company looking to a workforce of autistic people in order to grow. Auticon’s Belgian partner has also shown that jobs for autistic people in the area of software testing and quality assurance lead to corporate growth and financial success.

Mike Levine

Auticon argues that many with Asperger’s have a knack for finding patterns and flaws in gigantic calculations making them well suited for software testing. For Kapen, remembering obscure numbers and facts has been a part of his life since he was a child. He only has to hear a date – like a friend’s birthday – once and it will never escape his memory. His special talent is recalling little known sports statistics and trivia about politicians. Some might find those characteristics odd and only focus on the peculiar social skills, but increasingly people are recognizing the positives of those gifts and looking to take advantage of them.

In Germany, roughly 15 percent of people with autism are employed in the private sector due to their trouble with social interactions, a symptom of Asperger’s. The program at Auticon, however, uses job coaches to help its employees with customer relations. Participants in the study state the training allows them to feel valued as employees.

One of Auticon’s new software testers, Philip von der Linden, has found the program to be a life changing experience, saying, “That is what makes life valuable. To be needed. And if what you can do is appreciated and if what seems to be a weakness is turned into an asset.”

While those with autism have been challenged to integrate into the professional world in the past, companies like Auticon are not only giving them new opportunities, but are also demonstrating that those with special talent are integral employees. The future quality of software coming out of Berlin will be superior and we’ll all have Auticon’s autism program to thank. Hopefully American tech companies will soon follow suit.

Cross-posted to the Detroit Jewish News

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Being Honest About Ritual Circumcision

I don’t get squeamish watching a bris take place. And I’ve seen my fair share. However, I have been getting squeamish lately over the many news items concerning the legality and morality of ritual circumcision, a required Jewish life-cycle event for thousands of years.

When discussing brit milah (Jewish ritual circumcision), I believe it is important to be open and honest. I firmly believe that this mitzvah (commandment) is of paramount importance to the Jewish people and that we must ensure that it is done safely throughout the world to ensure that it continues for generations to come.

iStockPhoto

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a report revealing that a total of 11 newborn males were infected by the herpes simplex virus in New York City between November 2000 and December 2011. Of these 11 cases, the parents of 6 of the newborns acknowledged that the mohel (ritual circumcisor) had performed metzitza b’peh during the bris.  Metzitza b’peh is when the mohel places his mouth directly on the newly circumcised penis and sucks blood away from the wound. The vast majority of physicians have ruled that this aspect of the brit milah ritual must be forbidden for the obvious health risks involved.

Many people presume that only the most ultra-Orthodox communities still include metzitza b’peh in the bris ceremony. However, this month I heard of a bris that took place at Keter Torah Synagogue, a local Sephardic congregation in West Bloomfield, Michigan in which the mohel in fact performed metzitza b’peh. It is imperative that Jewish physicians and other Jewish professionals in the health care industry as well as rabbis insist that metzitza b’peh is no longer practiced. The health risks are evident and with Jewish ritual circumcision under attack, it is unwise to allow an unhealthy and dangerous aspect of the ritual to persist.

Just one year ago, there was a ballot measure to ban circumcision in San Francisco. That measure would have outlawed circumcision on males younger than 18, except in cases of medical necessity. No religious exemptions would be permitted according to this measure. While that measure was shot down, a German court this week banned the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons. This ban on ritual circumcision applies to the Cologne region of Germany. According to MSNBC:

The court in the western city of Cologne handed down the decision on Tuesday in the case of a doctor who was prosecuted for circumcising a four-year-old Muslim boy. The doctor circumcised the boy in November 2010 and gave him four stitches, the Guardian reported. When the boy started bleeding two days later, his parents took him to Cologne’s University hospital, where officials called police. The doctor was ultimately acquitted on the grounds that he had not broken a law. The court ruled that involuntary religious circumcision should be made illegal because it could inflict serious bodily harm on people who had not consented to it. The ruling said boys who consciously decided to be circumcised could have the operation. No age restriction was given, or any more specific details.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany called the ruling an “unprecedented and dramatic intrusion” of the right to religious freedom and an “outrageous and insensitive” act.

Several Conservative Jewish groups including Masorti Olami, Masorti Europe and the Rabbinical Assembly of Europe have joined with the Central Council of Jews in Germany in condemning the decision of the district Court in Cologne. In a joint statement, they explained:

The circumcision of 8 day old male babies remains an important and meaningful rite in the lives of Jews all over the world. No other country has outlawed circumcision and this new legal decision impinges upon the religious freedom of Germany’s citizens be they Jewish or Muslim and the rights of other parents who wish to circumcise their sons.

A brit milah, as the circumcision ceremony is called in Hebrew, is one of the first mitzvot (or commandments) that God asks of Abraham. Just as Abraham observed the commandment, so too have his Jewish descendants over 1000s of years. While the Masorti movement consistently balances the needs of modernity against the needs of halacha or Jewish Law, there is no overwhelming proof that the circumcision of newborn boys causes any “irreversible damage against the body” as stated in the German court’s decision. On the contrary, medical research has shown that circumcision can reduce the risk of HIV infection, penile cancer and other urinary tract diseases.

The over 1.7 Million people in the 900 congregations and organizations in 45 countries represented by the Masorti (Conservative) Worldwide Movement call upon the Government of Germany to quickly work to reverse this grievous course of curtailing religious freedoms and dictating fundamental actions of faith communities.

Source: etsy.com

It is my belief that a war is being waged on ritual circumcision. In order for it to be preserved for future generations there must be compromise. We must be honest that it is an odd religious ritual in the 21st century, but it is a core part of both the Jewish and Muslim religions. In order to try to curtail some of the controversy surrounding brit milah, I propose the following:

1) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must have a signed certificate that they went through a course of training in which health and safety guidelines were learned.

2) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must sign an agreement that metzitza b’peh will not be performed under any circumstances as it endangers the livelihood of the infant boy.

It must also be acknowledged that ritual circumcision is a medical procedure and it is unique in that it is most often performed in a living room or synagogue. I would love it if there were some certification program in which mohalim had to be re-certified every ten years to ensure compliance. Brit milah is often learned through an apprenticeship and there’s nothing to ensure that an elderly mohel is still physically able to perform the ritual adequately.

Finally, we must acknowledge that the idea of friends and family gathered in a living room watching a newborn baby undergo a medical procedure is not for everyone. Conceding that brit milah should be performed in a hospital would only encourage parents to have the circumcision performed before the required eighth day and that is not advisable. Rather, mohalim should give the option of performing the brit milah in a more private setting and then the religious ceremony can take place for the larger assembly. While this would alter the traditional nature of the brit milah ceremony, it would also guarantee that there’s an understanding that the ritual is also a medical procedure that deserves both privacy and a safe and sanitary environment.

By continuing to pretend that there’s nothing odd about a newborn baby boy having a surgical procedure in a living room in front of dozens who eagerly wait for the bagel and lox spread to open is a mistake. We must acknowledge that this is a unique religious ritual in the 21st century. We must admit that there is some pain for the infant, but that it is not long lasting (an anesthetic should be encouraged but not required). We must ensure that there is some uniform compliance on the part of the practitioner (mohel) for the sake of the health and safety of the baby. And we must insist on a complete ban on metzitza b’peh with no exceptions.

With these guidelines in place, we will be better positioned to counter any legislation — whether in San Francisco or in Germany — that could put Jewish ritual circumcision in jeopardy.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Evan Kaufmann – Jewish Hockey Player for Germany

Originally published at JTA.org

More than 65 years ago, Evan Kaufmann’s great-grandparents were murdered in the Auschwitz death camp. Now he is taking the ice for the German national hockey team.

Following a successful hockey career at the University of Minnesota, Kaufmann tried out for several professional clubs in the United States before being advised by his agent that his best option was to play for a team in the German Ice Hockey League, or the DEL. His late grandfather’s German roots enabled Kaufmann to receive German citizenship quickly, and he and his wife, Danielle, relocated to Dusseldorf in 2008.

This weekend, the 27-year-old forward will represent the German national team in the Minsk Cup, a four-nation tournament. He also plans to compete with the national team in May’s world championships, and hopes to have a chance to make the German Olympic squad that will compete in the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia.

During his first years playing for the DEG Metro Stars, Kaufmann kept his Judaism to himself and didn’t tell his teammates that he was the grandson of a survivor or that his great-grandparents perished in the Holocaust.

“At first I was pretty uncomfortable expressing that I was Jewish and speaking about my family’s background, but that was true even in America,” Kaufmann told JTA. “It’s not something in the hockey world that is really talked about. It’s not something I was comfortable sharing with most people. But I’ve found that the younger generation here in Germany is open to differences, and from my experience they’ve all been interested in knowing more about being Jewish, including the holidays and traditions.”

Kaufmann and his wife are expecting their first child, a son, in June and will be relocating from Dusseldorf to Nuremberg, where Kaufmann recently signed a three-year contract with the local team, one of 14 in the German hockey league. [The Nuremberg team’s arena is located on the same grounds as the Nazi Party’s rally grounds]

How did his parents react when he decided to play professional hockey in Germany?

“They were a little unsure initially just because of everything that happened [in Germany], but they knew it was my lifelong goal to be a professional hockey player and I committed so much time to it,” Kaufman said.

“It’s an issue not just for them but for a lot of American Jews in general. Germany is so different today than it was back then. I wish more people could come over here today so they wouldn’t have to carry that stereotype forever.”

Being chosen to play for the national team carried with it mixed emotions for Kaufmann.

“A lot of the time I was thinking whether my grandpa would be happy about this or sad or mad,” he said. “The more I thought about it, I know he had plans to come back to Germany before he died. He wasn’t able to, but that helped me get over those initial fears. I feel more pride with the association of feeling German than I ever thought I’d have.”

Observing Judaism has been a challenge for the young Kaufmanns as well.

“The first year we were in Dusseldorf, we went to a small Orthodox synagogue. We had a tough experience,” he recalled. “We were taking photos from the outside and we were questioned and had to show our passports because there was an incident there a few years prior. That spoiled it for us.”

The couple makes a point of trying to keep the Jewish traditions alive. They share holiday dinners together and observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the Passover seder. They had met at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, Minn., the Conservative synagogue where their families are members.

“They took notice of each other in our sanctuary when they were at High Holiday services a few years ago and started to date,” Rabbi Harold Kravitz recalls. “They married in our sanctuary a few years later.”

Since becoming more open about his Judaism and his family’s ties to the Holocaust, Kaufmann’s teammates have become more curious.

“They want to know what everything means for me compared to them, but ultimately they know who I am as a person,” he said. “Our friendships were established without religion, so it doesn’t change anything. I was always hesitant to talk about it, but now that I’m being more public about it, I’ve become more comfortable with the history. I think it’s a good story to express.”

While his teammates tell him that anti-Semitism still exists in certain regions in Germany, Kaufmann hasn’t experienced any firsthand.

“I don’t think it’s any different than in America or any other country,” he said. “There’s always going to be people who have their own beliefs. Personally, I’ve only had good experiences in Germany.”

Kaufmann knows that he has his detractors in the Jewish community who find it troubling that someone who lost members of his family in the Holocaust could be playing for the German national team.

“Initially there was a part of me that thought that way,” Kaufmann said. But, he added, “I’ve always been taught to give people a second chance.”

He adds, “Everything that happened was so long ago and in a country that was so different. Obviously I never want to forget what happened, and that’s why I tell my story. But to hold that against a whole country of people who had nothing to do with it would not be right.”

Kaufmann has considered that he could be competing against the United States in May at the world championships, but he’s not concerned.

“I’m focused on helping this team and playing my role within the squad to help us win hockey games, and I don’t think it matters who the opponent is,” he said.

In addition to fulfilling his dream of playing on the Olympic team in two years, Kaufmann also expressed his desire to get his son skating when he’s 3 years old, a year earlier than his own first time on the ice.

Update: The German National Team lost both of its games in this weekend’s tournament, but Evan Kaufmann was named player of the game in one of the losses. 

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Auschwitz Survivor’s Jewish Grandson Evan Kaufmann Plays For Germany’s National Hockey Team

One year ago today I waited in line to enter the Reichstag. The moment wasn’t lost on me. Almost seventy years prior, the Nazi government made every effort to wipe my people off the face of this earth. And there I was, with a dozen other American rabbis, about to walk into the historic Berlin building that is the seat of the current German government as Chancellor Angela Merkel was addressing Parliament. I smiled as I handed my passport to the German officer and placed my watch and wallet into the bin before walking through the metal detector. What an interesting world we live in.

Several people asked me how I was able to travel to Berlin and spend money in the same country in which the Holocaust was conceived and planned. I’m sure those same people are asking how American-born hockey player Evan Kaufmann can represent the German national team this weekend. Several of Evan Kaufmann’s relatives perished in the Nazi Holocaust. His grandfather Kurt survived Auschwitz before fleeing to the United States.

Evan Kauffman – DEG Metro Stars (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Kaufmann moved to Germany in 2008, but word is just getting out about this Jewish hockey player whose great-grandparents perished in the Holocaust playing for DEG Metro Stars of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. The 28-year-old forward hopes to bring Germany a victory in the Belarus Cup in Minsk this weekend when he plays for the German national team. Kaufmann, who is married to Danielle (the couple is expecting their first child in June), received German citizenship in order to play for the national team and is among the top scorers in the German ice hockey league. Kaufmann admits that his teammates are very curious about him being Jewish and often ask him questions. Kaufmann told the UK’s Daily Mail, “I didn’t have to think hard about it. It is a great honour but it will also be a very emotional moment for me when I hear the national anthem played.”

Evan Kaufmann’s bio on the DEG Metro Stars website explains:

Evan Kaufmann joined the team in the summer of 2008. He was the great unknown to the team of DEG Metro Stars. A college player with had no experience in professional hockey made​​, received a German passport has in a very short time captured the hearts of the audience. His technical finesse and his speed made ​​him a major player in the third line of attack in Dusseldorf. So it was no surprise that his contract was extended for a few months ahead of schedule for two more years. It should be worth it. In the 2010-11 season Kauffman became the second-leading scorer behind Patrick Reimer. Together with Tyler Beechey and James Connor, he made a splendid swirling storm formation, which has established itself as the second offensive series and was instrumental in moving into the playoff semi-final. Kaufmann, whose grandfather came from Germany, began his career in the American Junior League for the River City Lancers. After a very strong year Kaufmann moved to the University of Minnesota to study and play Hockey. After his four years at the University of Minnesota, he devoted himself entirely to hockey.

While Evan Kaufmann isn’t the first Jewish individual to compete for Germany in the post-Holocaust era (a Jewish man swam for Germany in the 1952 Olympics and a Jewish woman swam for Germany in the 2004 Olympics), he is the most notable. It is certainly an interesting story that seven decades after his great-grandparents and other relatives were murdered by the Nazis, Kaufmann is proud to represent Germany on the ice. This is just one more way in which the Jewish community will come to view Germany differently. Never forgetting the massive tragedy of the Holocaust, we understand that this is a new Germany… A Germany we can cheer for proudly in this weekend’s Belarus Cup. Good luck to Evan Kaufmann and his DEG Metro Stars.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Light of German Jewry

This has been a whirlwind week for me in Berlin, where I’ve spent long days touring with other young Conservative rabbis. We have learned first hand about how Germans have confronted their past and are looking to their future. We have seen the German Jewish community rebuilding itself with a sense of pride and renewal.

This Shabbat, in the Torah portion Tetzaveh, we learn about the ner tamid (the eternal light). We can compare the ner tamid — a main focal point in the Temple — with the German Jewish community. Considering the horrific history the Jewish people in this part of the world endured during the last century, it is crucial to remember that this Jewish community’s light was never fully extinguished — it is eternal.

In the past few days, I have visited a concentration camp and several Holocaust memorials. That is precisely what one would expect our group of rabbis to experience here in Berlin. But that is only the first part of the story. We also visited a liberal rabbinical school (Abraham Geiger College), progressive synagogues (like the Masorti congregation where my colleague Gesa Ederberg serves as rabbi), Jewish centers, a Masorti nursery school, kosher restaurants, and Jewish museums. We learned how German school children are confronting their nation’s history during the Shoah.

Our group of rabbis spent an entire morning in the German Foreign Ministry being briefed on international relations by a high level, career diplomat. We were hosted at a luncheon on the top floor of the Reichstag, looking out over Berlin. We had a glatt kosher dinner with our Protestant colleagues, exchanging theological viewpoints and perceptions about memory over shnitzel and goulash. I have worn my kippah in the streets of Berlin over the past week without incident. I have heard Hebrew spoken throughout the city, both by Israelis and non-Israelis. When I took off my coat at a museum, the German guard smiled and said “Todah Rabbah” (Hebrew for “thank you”) and “shalom.”

This is a changing country. I was unaware of the renaissance taking place here in the German Jewish community. Democracy, tolerance, justice and understanding are all shared values here in Berlin. The light of our Jewish brothers and sisters here is not only still kindled, but it is burning bright.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller