Posts in category "Profiles"

We all lead. We all follow.

By Holden and Stuart Karon
April 3, 2019

Holden Karon:

In my Torah portion, Aaron and his sons are getting ready to become priests.  Aaron and his sons stay in the Tent of Meeting that was used as a temBoy and male and female teen tutors stand at makeshift bimah with iPadple.  They should not leave the tent while they are getting ready to become priests.  Aaron and his sons stay in the tent for seven days.  

While Aaron and his sons are in the tent, they prayed.  They also apologized for things they had done wrong in the past.  Aaron and his sons only left the tent when they were ready to become priests. 

Priests are leaders.  Priests lead by comforting people.  They can also be leaders by helping people do mitzvot.  I can be a leader, too.  I can be a leader by helping other people.  I can also be a leader by being kind.  Now that I am a Bar-Mitzvah, I look forward to being a leader in the Jewish community.

 

Stuart Karon:

Gateways is a Hebrew school for kids who don’t learn in typical ways. My son, Holden, has been learning at Gateways since we moved to Boston six years ago. In preparation for his bar mitzvah, they sent home a pictorial version of his parsha (Tzav). It’s the first time I’ve seen an abbreviated, kid-friendly story provide more plot and detail than the original, unless you’re looking to brush up on the finer points of animal and grain sacrifices.

In the parsha, Aaron and his sons go into a tent for seven days to prepare to be Jewish leaders. Gateways has been Holden’s tent. They have kids for 90 minutes each Sunday. It took years but this past weekend, Holden finally worked up enough hours to equal one full week in the tent. Three young brothers standing in synagogue with Torah spread in front of them

In his d’var, Holden speaks of being a leader. He won’t run a country, a company or even a committee. He may never hold a job. So how can he be a leader? Jodi and I wouldn’t be here this morning if not for Holden. Holden likes coming to shul, and so Jodi and I have become Shabbat regulars.

The parsha doesn’t give much detail of what Aaron and his sons do in the tent. When we pick up Holden from Gateways, we don’t get a lot of detail about what they did. And like a typical teen, Holden doesn’t tell us much.

Holden is not a detail-oriented kid, but enough details have stuck to give him a general appreciation and enjoyment of Jewish ritual. For him, rituals may be more fun than serious. He lights up when the ark opens and he sees a Torah. He covers his eyes for the Shema and peeks through fingers with a grin as the rest of us recite the prayer.

Enthusiasm inspires others. Holden starts clapping before the pace of the song picks up and the cantor and rabbis encourage us all to clap. If he spies the table with the challah and wine rolling up the ramp, he leads the way to the bima before one of the rabbis calls kids up at the end of the service. We’ve been wondering if he’ll still be welcome to join the kids on the bima now that he’s officially an adult. I’m not sure anyone will be able to dissuade him.

Holden leads in subtle ways, too. We used to live in Vermont. Holden led us to Boston in search of better schools for him. He led Jodi to our synagogue’s inclusion committee. He leads me to the T, as in MBTA. Every time we drive through Newton Center, Holden says “trains” with his iPad, and points and looks eagerly toward Station Street. Luckily the T hasn’t imposed fare hikes for standing on the platform, at least not at our favorite stop where you can see trains come and go for nearly a mile. I may not be as excited by the trains as he is, but an hour under the Station Diner with no agenda offers a break from routine, not unlike being at our synagogue for Shabbat. We should all find such breaks in our busy weeks. If any of you are interested, Holden would be happy to share the platform and show you how exciting trainspotting can be.

Our fellow congregants have heard some of Holden’s iPad-based siddur, and they will hear more. Many people have contributed to his voice. The recordings come from volunteers who work with Holden at Gateways, sit with him at services and live with him. Holden and others like him may not find solutions to global warming or income inequality, but they inspire many people to help others.

We’re surrounded by efforts to include everyone in Jewish life. The ramp up to the bimah, the sound system and wireless hearing-assist devices, the kids’ books and fidget toys that work for adults, too. Our congregation has three rabbis with very different styles, and we have many teens and professionals who make Gateways happen.

Holden may need more help and guidance than a typical person, but we all rely on others. None of us would do too well if we had to produce all our own food, build our own shelter and fabricate all our own clothes using only materials and tools we find or make. Some of us write useful software using tools others wrote to do so. Some of us provide medical, spiritual and legal care, while at times needing a little, too. Some of us cut hair, drive trains and prepare our temple’s hall for the lovely kiddush we enjoy after services. We help and we need help.

Aaron and his sons went to the tent so that they could help others participate in Jewish life. Aaron and his sons wouldn’t have had much to do or to eat if no one had brought sacrifices to the altar.

On his bar mitzvah day, Holden is manning the altar. Consider bringing a goat or sheep as an offering. He’d be thrilled. He’d keep it as a pet instead of sending it up in smoke, but that should be preferable at a Conservative congregation. If a ram or goat from your flock is too much, a friendly “hello” or smile will do.

Including everyone in Jewish life and other aspects of our daily ritual can mean having conversations that don’t come naturally to us. It takes a little effort, but we can all find ways to talk to people like Holden, who can’t speak, and to those who may be independent and typical, but don’t have people with whom to speak. Say “hello”, smile and ask a question that’s outside the routine.

With Holden, keep it simple. Ask if he’s seen any good trains lately. Tell him you saw a big plane fly overhead as you came to shul or that a fire truck passed by your house recently. You’re sure to get a smile, and you’ll have made him and whoever is with him, usually Jodi or me, feel a little more welcome. Then try it with someone else. Let Holden lead us all to make community gatherings a little more friendly.

Category: Profiles

 

Jamie's Bat Mitzvah: A Different Voice

By Gateways: Access to Jewish Education
October 2, 2013

 Rabbi Keith Stern: What does being a bat mitzvah mean to you?

Jamie: It means that I know a lot about being Jewish. 

Rabbi: What have you done to get ready for your bat mitzvah? 

Jamie: I practiced saying prayers, learned about my Torah portion, went to Gateways, met with the Rabbi, and did a mitzvah project.  

While this may sound like a typical exchange between a rabbi and his pre-bat mitzvah congregant, it is in fact so much more. Jamie Davidge, 13, has cerebral palsy and this conversation consisted of her rabbi asking her questions out loud and Jamie selecting her answers from her augmentative communication device (a computer that speaks for her) that she uses to communicate. 

Jamie’s becoming a bat mitzvah marks the culmination of a journey for the Davidge family, who had to pursue a long and winding path to get to this day. Families of typical Jewish children either enroll them in their congregation’s religious school or send them to day school to receive a Jewish education. They hire a tutor and meet with their clergy to prepare for b’nei mitzvah using the blueprint laid out by their congregation. This system works for most families. But for families with children with more severe needs, the idea of being able to prepare their children for a meaningful ceremony oftentimes seems unrealistic or unattainable. 

Jamie is just one example of how the Greater Boston Jewish community has made an effort to embrace all its community members. In her conversation with her rabbi, Jamie mentioned Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, the local central agency for making Jewish education accessible to all Jewish students. Her journey began when her parents learned about Gateways’ Sunday Program which is a self-contained religious school for children who need a more intimate learning environment and are unable to thrive in the synagogue religious school setting. There, Jamie attended classes and was assisted by a one-on-one aide. As she grew to pre-bat mitzvah age, she joined the B’nei Mitzvah Program on Wednesday evenings, where she was part of a small class and worked one-on-one with a Gateways tutor. 

Gateways provided Jamie and her family with a structured program where she received individualized support and differentiated instruction. She was also lucky that Gateways received funding from the Boston Jewish Community Women’s Fund, enabling her teachers to create a Special Path to Bat Mitzvah, a girl-centric curriculum focused on highlighting strong Jewish women (including women with disabilities) and the contributions they have made. “Jamie was really the impetus that prompted us to apply for the grant,” says Nancy Mager, Director of Gateways’ Jewish Education Programs. “Having her in our program challenged us to identify the unique needs of girls with special needs. We wanted to make accessible to our girls the best of what is out there for typical bat mitzvah aged girls.” 

Although Jamie did not participate in Temple Beth Avodah in Newton’s religious school, she and her family remained connected with the congregation through the process. She submitted a profile to the temple newsletter (like all b’nei mitzvah in the congregation are expected to do), sharing news about her bat mitzvah. 

“Rabbi Keith Stern was an incredible, supportive partner in the process,” recalls Mager. “In our initial meeting [about Jamie’s bat mitzvah], he made it clear that it was important to the synagogue that Jamie felt at home and was celebrated for who she is and what she knows. Her disability was always secondary.” 

“Jamie has been a member of Temple Beth Avodah since she was a baby,” says Rabbi Stern.  “As she has grown up, I have been endlessly amazed by her tenacity and the dedication of her parents. Her excitement over her Bat Mitzvah was positively electric! She showed this with an extraordinary smile and, after every completed prayer, a “Yesher Koach!” straight from her sound board.” 

Understanding and respecting that Jamie’s ceremony would look different than a typical service, Rabbi Stern and the temple staff worked with Gateways’ staff and Jamie’s family to create a ceremony that would enable Jamie to participate meaningfully. This meant restructuring the typical service to include everything she had learned, but in a shorter length of time so Jamie wouldn’t become fatigued; relocating from the large sanctuary to a space that was less intimidating; and using Gateways materials to aid in creating a meaningful dvar Torah.  

“Since Jamie cannot say the prayers herself, instead of using the preset voice of her device, we recorded her sister Anna reciting them,” explains Rebecca Redner, Jamie’s teacher at Gateways. “We recorded Anna at the Davidge’s home with Jamie sitting and listening and grinning the whole time. After each prayer was recorded, Jamie insisted on trying it out. She was delighted with our decision to use her sister’s voice.” 

When asked how she felt when she first learned that she was going to have a bat mitzvah, Jamie said “Confused”. When asked later, she answered “Excited and nervous”.  When her rabbi asked her how she thought she would do on the day of her bat mitzvah, she said “Great!” 

Redner is not surprised. “I always knew how intelligent Jamie was. She was really the one to push us [Gateways] to create a ceremony that showcased her knowledge and passion,” says Redner. “This is a girl who clearly loves praying and being Jewish, and I am so proud that we could help her learn to her greatest potential and enable her to share it with the community.”   

“I am truly awed by Jamie and the effort she expends to express herself,” says Rabbi Stern. “Her siblings and her parents are remarkable people who deserve halos if Jews ever start giving them out. And I am deeply thankful and proud that Jamie knows that she is a part of a congregational family – a place where she was, and will always be, welcomed.” 

Category: Profiles

Tagged under: bat mitzvah, b'nei mitzvah, Davidge, Rebecca Redner, Dynavox

 

Rachel's Bat Mitzvah Journey

By Gateways and Frank Murphy
June 4, 2012

On May 5th, the Gateways community came together to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of a very special student: Rachel Murphy. Rachel is a cheerful girl whose enormous love of music causes her to light up at the first note of a familiar tune.  Rachel has brain damage from a stroke after heart surgery when she was a 2-year-old. She can’t speak, she can’t walk and she has uncontrolled seizures.  Yet, since first enrolling Rachel in 2005, her parents have driven 2 hours round trip to bring her to Gateways’ Sunday Program each week so that she could receive a Jewish education. And in spite of her limitations, and with the support of a Gateways special educator, Rachel has learned. On the day of Rachel’s Bat Mitzvah, her dad, Frank, addressed the large gathering of family and friends at their home synagogue, Temple Beth Torah in Holliston, and these were his words:

Rachel with dad Frank and mom Elisa

Elisa and I wanted to take a moment to say a very big and very heartfelt thank you to all of you for joining us on this very special day. In the next few minutes we’ll try to express in words how moving and how powerful it is just to be here on this very unique day.

As many of you know, especially if you were with us during those early days in the cardiac ICU in Children’s 13 years ago, we never really knew for sure if we would be standing here today.  In the time that’s passed, she’s grown up quickly.  The pictures on the walls of her room have changed from butterflies to…Justin Bieber. Oy vey!! In those 13 years as we’ve faced struggles and obstacles head on, Elisa and I have often been asked: How do you do it?

The answer is simple: it can be found in this room. Look to your left, look to your right. This community of family, friends, care givers, volunteers, school and religious educators have all played some role in helping us not just to survive some medical crisis, but to overcome life’s obstacles, and to grow and thrive in a way that ultimately brings us here today. You’ve all done some sort of good deed in our lives and we thank you for that. There’s a word for that- doing good deeds- it’s called mitzvah and it’s a perfect theme for today.

Rachel reaching for TorahThat’s because today isn’t about putting Rachel on display just to have her push buttons on a screen. Today is about resilience, about accepting life’s limitations and making the best of them anyway, about broadening the view and the value of a Bat Mitzvah.

Think about these words: help, learn, grow. Those are great ways to describe today and the importance of helping and of doing good—doing mitzvot.

But please remember that helping and teaching isn’t just a one-directional activity with Rachel. While each of us has been part of her education, she has, in turn, taught many life lessons. Life skills, they call them at school. Here are three examples:

1.  Be present in the moment. Stop and think, how difficult was it to shut off your phone today? Doing that helps us be present, to be in this special moment before God. Have you ever known Rachel to worry about tomorrow, or next week, or be sad about some event in the past? No. She completely lives in the moment. No filter, no hidden agenda.

When you say hello, she gives you a hug, a real one. They’re great. That ability to always be present and to live in the moment is very powerful. It’s a great lesson.

2.  Next, be flexible and adapt. There have been many adaptations behind the scenes to put this event together today. Her Hebrew School team from Gateways in Newton. Arlene, Nancy, Rebecca, Yarden, this team has worked with us for years to adapt Jewish education and make it accessible to children with all types of disabilities. As the non-Jewish parent in the house, I’ve been able to join Rachel on her educational journey so that I also understand the holidays, the torah and the culture. They’ve helped us adapt as a family so we can pray and celebrate together.

Another adaptation they’ve helped with today is on her Dyanvox device. They’ve helped build programs on it that make the Torah accessible for Rachel. When she sees an image from her prayer book on screen, of a kid covering their eyes, she knows that’s the symbol for the Shema, one of the holiest of prayers. So today is not just pushing buttons, she’s independently calling us to prayer, and leading the congregation.

Click here to learn more about how Gateways helped make Rachel's Bat Mitzvah inclusive and accessible.

3.  The last lesson is to be inclusive: The ultimate symbol of inclusion today is the tallis itself. It has hundreds of fringes, or tzitzit, around the edge. Each one serves as a reminder of God’s many commandments. In our society, when faced with tragedy and disability, kids like my kid can become much like the tzitzit on a tallis, fringes around the edges of our society. By being here today, singing with us, praying with us, each of you has played some inclusive role in our life. So that, in the same way as the tallis itself has fringes and fabric woven together, by celebrating with us today, though we come from different backgrounds and have different abilities, we’re all woven together in celebration.

So on Rachel’s behalf, thank you for coming here today, for doing good deeds and mitzvot, for being part of this inclusive moment, and for helping us most to grow. Hopefully along the way we’ve helped you in return.


Materials that supported Rachel's learning and helped make her Bat Matzvah inclusive and accessible:

Prayers in Picture Symbols »

Prayers with visual supports were created to help make prayers simple, accessible, and understandable for students with a variety of disabilities. In these files, each Hebrew phrase is illustrated by a simple picture symbol (we use Mayer-Johnson Boardmaker symbols). Students with disabilities can follow along with each prayer and learn to understand its meaning using symbol prayers.
  
These files were imported onto Rachel's Dynavox device, and synced with audio files of someone singing the corresponding blessing or prayer. Over the years, Rachel learned to recognize the images that represent the various blessings and prayers, and was able to lead others in prayer by pressing the images, activating the voice output. »»»

https://jgateways.org/cms_content/upload/resources/bnei mitzvah/Rachel's Program.pdf

Bat Mitzvah Service Vocabulary Reference Sheet »

This Bat Mitzvah vocabulary sheet features short and clear explanations of some Bat Mitzvah basics: mitzvah, kippah/yamulka, tallit, bimah, ark, and many more. Rachel comes from an interfaith family, and this sheet was distributed with the program book on the day of her Bat Mitzvah to help everyone in the audience feel comfortable and participate. »»»

Rachel's bat mitzvah service program

Bat Mitzvah Service Program Guide »

Producing a clear and simple service guide like this one, and including it in the program at a child's bar or bat mitzvah, can make the service inclusive of everyone in attendance. Whether intended for the other children in the congregation or for non-Jewish members of an interfaith family, this guide can help everyone follow along and participate in the service. This guide includes a visual representation of the order of the service, and explanation of each part of the service, and an explanation of the Torah's clothes and ornaments. »»»

Category: Profiles

Tagged under: bat mitzvah, b'nei mitzvah, girls, rachel murphy, non-verbal, visual supports, dynavox, synagogue skills, dvar

 

Helena's Triumph: A Special Needs Bat Mitzvah Story

By Deborah Fineblum Raub, for Gateways
June 1, 2012

Helena Schreibman is comfortable at Congregation Mishkan Tefila. After all, each week she takes her Gateways: Access to Jewish Education B’nei Mitzvah classes here, coming in all the way from her home in Winthrop.  Each week she’s worked with her tutor learning to read Hebrew and prayers and each week she’s practiced with her fellow students the fine points of a service such as the blessings and Torah procession.

Helena with Rabbi and her Bat MitzvahBut the 9th grader never thought she’d be having her bat mitzvah here. Her mother’s unexpected passing in April 2009 and a series of conflicts had pushed Helena’s bat mitzvah off again and again at the family’s home congregation, Temple Tifereth Israel in Winthrop. But this time when her dad, Nat, made a date, May 9, 2012, it stuck.

And the event was the product of incredible teamwork. “It really does take a village to raise a child, and this day is proof,” remarked Arlene Remz from the bimah. Remz heads up Gateways, which provides students with special needs like Helena a Jewish education tailored specifically for them.  “The Gateways community has been with you in tough times and has now come to celebrate your bat mitzvah with you,” Remz said.

And celebrate they did. The chapel was filled with Gateways students and their parents, beaming at Helena.  As she led into the opening words of Ma Tovu, Helena looked up with a huge grin when everyone chimed in, the Gateways kids singing the loudest of all.

“Helena, today is a day you and your family and friends have looked forward to for many years,” said Mishkan Tefila Rabbi Leonard Gordon. “I know how much this moment means to you and all you did to make it happen. Helena, your mother, Michelle, would have wanted us to invoke her blessing on this occasion. This ritual marks the fulfillment of one of her hopes ... As the rabbi at Congregation Mishkan Tefila and a friend of Gateways, I am especially delighted to join with your tonight and share our joy in hosting this service. May this be the first of many such moments we share.”

Nancy Mager, who directs Gateways’ Jewish Education Programs and has worked with Helena over the past several years, was the next to speak. “You have such a positive attitude, you make friends wherever you go,” she said, adding that Helena is determined to continue her Jewish Education next year in both the Sunday program and Gateways’ Mitzvah Mensches youth group, where she’s already an active participant.

But on this day, like generations of b’nei mitzvot before her, Helena ducked the candies being thrown her way and the Gateways kids, like generations before them, wasted little time collecting them.

As the congregation moved to the social hall for the celebration, the “village” Remz had referred to was in full flower.  The buffet dinner had been organized by the Mishkan Telfila Sisterhood, the cake was a gift from Helena’s tutor, Michelle Gary, and Schreibman cousin and photographer David Fox manned the camera, while the colorful centerpieces had been crafted at the Mishkan Tefila’s Religious School’s recent Mitzvah Day.

“Everyone did something to make it special for the family and it all came together,” said Laurie Gershkowitz who, along with Sharon Diamond and Diane Jaye, organized the dinner and party. Helena and classmate at her Bat Mitzvah

But none of the behind-the-scenes grown-up planning seemed to matter at the moment. As her Gateways friends lifted Helena high on her chair, she threw back her head and laughed, without an ounce of fear.  

“When I saw her reading and singing up there, I was incredibly proud of her,” said Helena’s teacher at Winthrop High School, Chris Donnelly, who’d made the trek out to witness his student experience her special day. “I was really, really impressed.”

In fact, besides Helena’s father and grandmother, no one beamed brighter than her teachers and her tutor.

“When other kids get up and say the blessings at their bar or bat mitzvah, it’s pretty easy for them,” said tutor Michelle Gary. “But Helena must have practiced the brachas before and after the Torah reading thousands of times over the last couple years. Never once did she get frustrated or give up. And you know what? She did them perfectly. It’s just that most people who heard her could not have known how much went into it. If they did, they would have seen it for what it really was. It really was a triumph.”

Category: Profiles

Tagged under: bat mitzvah, b'nei mitzvah, congregation mishkan tefila

 

Team Binny

By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for Gateways
August 30, 2011

At Striar Hebrew Academy of Sharon (SHAS), the head of school is starting these early days of the new term as he always does, standing out front and greeting students as they arrive by foot, car or bike.

And every day, without fail, one car pulls up, and one bespectacled third-grader emerges with a resounding and heartfelt Boker Tov delivered with ear-to-ear smiles.

"Every morning, he teaches me how to relate to others, with a sweetness and openness and ever-present good humor," said Dr. Richard Wagner, head of school. "He sets the tone. It's contagious."

Binny holding his SiddurIt's a mighty load for an eight-year-old boy, but Binny Ellenbogen unwittingly delivers big time.

And here, no one thinks twice about the fact that Binny is a child with Down syndrome.  For sure, he is in the minority as a child with special needs, but he is in the majority as a child attending SHAS for a solid and immersive Jewish day school education and experience.

Of the 110 students at SHAS, Binny is one of about a dozen receiving support services from Gateways to address special learning needs. These are provided through individualized instruction and therapies both in and out of the classroom, but all within a supported inclusion program.

A learning specialist modifies and customizes his curricula but preserves and maintains its goals and objectives. An instructional aide helps him to understand classroom lessons on his own terms, and he receives occupational, speech and language therapies during the course of the week, all while being fully included with classmates and in tune with the rhythms of the school day.

"He is a full participant in the school community along with his peers," said Sue Schweber, Founder of the Day School Program at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, which partners with SHAS and 12 other Jewish day schools in the greater Boston area to ensure a Jewish education for students with special learning needs.

"Every child learns and takes in information differently and Binny is no different in that respect. As with all students in Gateways, Binny's services and program are based on his individual learning style and needs."

On a recent weekday morning, Schweber sat with the team of teachers, aides and therapists who interact with Binny throughout the school week.  The regular meeting is an opportunity to plan, integrate approaches, share observations and compare notes.

Team Binny: Binny with his parents, head of school, and all of the therapists and teachers who support him at SHAS"None of us are working in a vacuum," said Dina Saks, Binny's classroom teacher. "We all build on each other and learn from each other.  Our objective is to make sure we are unified and that it all works for Binny."

And it does.  Professionals who are part of Binny's team underscored his progress.  He has a wide circle of friends inside and outside of school, and enters the rough and tumble as gladly as the rest of them.

"I've seen a dramatic difference in him over time," said Marcie Lipsey, an occupational therapist who works with him for 90 minutes per week to develop hand dexterity and strength and visual and perception skills, among others.  All of these are skills he takes back to the classroom, as well as to social settings and home.

"This is clearly the right environment for him and the right integrated support network for him. I don't believe that this would happen if he was outside of the Gateways model."

His Jewish character and knowledge are developing and deepening as well, said educators and his parents, as Jewish exposures from school, home, synagogue and elsewhere converge.

"Our shul community and our home are reflections of each other," said Debbie Ellenbogen, Binny's mother and herself a Jewish day school educator. "Being in a school environment that is Jewish-focused is completely reinforcing for him.  That's the kind of environment I want all my kids to be in, and he shouldn't be an exception because he has a disability.

"It is important to me that he makes progress at his own pace in areas that are important for him.  There will always be a gap.  But the school he is in appreciates and nurtures his individuality, talents and interests."

Binny running with Israeli flagsHe loves stories attached to Jewish holidays, takes family trips to Israel, can use basic Hebrew words, reflects on the memory of relatives by a Yahrtzeit candle, and leaps to open the Torah ark at services.

"Gateways allows Binny to be educated in a Jewish school and with a Jewish education, and this has defined who he is," Lipsey said.

The Gateways model is all about access to Jewish education, and ensuring that parents have options for day school, pre-school and supplementary environments for a child with special needs. Educators and parents alike say there is a moral imperative that this be the case.

"It's all well and good to say to our kids that we have to treat each other nicely and with dignity and respect," said Dr. Wagner, the head of school.  "But that is just talk and blather until we put these values and virtues into action.

"SHAS and Gateways are partners in making this happen.  We want the same things.  Gateways brings to the table specializations that are simply essential to students with special needs who are entitled to a Jewish education.

"If it wasn't for them, then the success and inspiration and joy that is Binny just wouldn't be happening."

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Category: Profiles