The Friedberg JCC, in Oceanside, celebrated retired Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, of Long Beach, and his support for those with developmental disabilities, on Sept. 13, hosting a screening of the short film, “A Voice for the Voiceless.”
The film documents the 89-year-old Weisenberg’s life, his career in government and his relationship with his son Ricky, 65, who was born with cerebral palsy and suffered abuse at the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. Ever since, Weisenberg has made it his mission to advocate for children and adults with disabilities and their caregivers.
“There should be more love in this world, and acceptance for people with disabilities,” Weisenberg’s daughter, Vicki Laufer, said. “People seem to just overlook them as if they’re not human. They don’t give people with special needs a chance, and they have so much love to give.”
The film moves between Weisenberg’s hometown of Long Beach and the floor of the Assembly in Albany, where he served under five governors. While working in Albany, Weisenberg dedicated much of his energy to improving conditions for professionals who care for the developmentally disabled. Over the years he helped secure some $90 million for children with disabilities and their caregivers.
Chalkley Calderwood, a filmmaker from Brooklyn, directed, filmed and edited the documentary.
“I learned so many things about Harvey beyond what I read in his book,” Calderwood said, referring to “For the Love of a Child: My Life, My City and My Mission,” which Weisenberg wrote in 2018. “I think the most important thing I took away is just how beloved he is in his area, and how true it is that he has advocated for people with special needs and their caregivers for his entire career.”
The proceeds from the event will be used to relaunch the Friedberg JCC’s café, which has been closed since early in the pandemic. The facility will be used as a vocational training kitchen, and employ those with developmental disabilities. The proceeds will also be used to purchase new equipment and to renovate the café, bringing back a welcome amenity to JCC members.
The center’s executive director, Ronny Kleinman, recalled meeting Weisenberg. “I started my career at the JCC in Long Beach, and Harvey came into our old, dark auditorium, turned to my CEO at the time and said, ‘I’m getting you money — get this fixed,’” Kleinman recounted. “I’m not sure that everybody knows how many hats Harvey has worn, and truly how much Harvey has done for our community, from talking to politicians and communities and foundations. That’s who he is.”
The JCC has a program called the Special Advocacy Coalition, which gives adults with disabilities monthly opportunities to connect with and make positive changes in their community. The coalition’s founder and president, Ashley Gazes, created it six years ago, after being bullied in high school because of her learning disability. There she met Weisenberg, and learned about Ricky.
“Harvey Weisenberg is one of my biggest mentors and supporters,” Gazes said. “I first met him in high school, and Harvey’s message that day was about self-advocacy and how important it is to lead by example. I took that message to heart, and have been making my voice heard ever since. The reason I think vocational training is so important, and why I want to see Harvey’s café become a reality, is because I believe that people with disabilities should have the same opportunities as everyone else.”
Marcy Hallerman, senior program director at the Friedberg JCC, also has a passion for inclusive programming, and giving everyone the opportunity to learn, grow and be productive members of the community.
“When I first started here, many of the people with disabilities that we started with were children who were a part of our after-school programs and our summer camps, and now they’re part of a larger JCC community,” Hallerman said. “Many of these individuals have a desire to work and to be paid for the work they do. However, this is not something that happened organically for them. There has long been a stigma in the workforce about hiring people with disabilities. The statistics are disheartening.”
In 2021, only 39.4 percent of New Yorkers with cognitive disabilities participated in the labor force, compared with 80.2 percent of New Yorkers with no disabilities.
“Our vision for this new effort was to create a program where individuals with disabilities will not only learn about food preparation and safety, but will also be taught retail scouting,” Hallerman said. “They will be offered cooking classes and job training workshops, and the curriculum will allow them to prepare meals and to intern at the JCC café in Oceanside.”
Weisenberg said he hoped that people could walk away from the film motivated to use their voices to speak out for what they believe in, spread positivity, and support those who help improve society.
“We have to get together and try to get the right people to do the right thing,” Weisenberg said. “You have to participate. You have a voice, use it.”