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With each chapter, a new way to assist disabled

Former federation exec named to national body on special needs

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Jonah Zimiles — in Words, his bookstore in Maplewood — was recently appointed to the Jewish Federations of North America’s disability working group. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
Jonah Zimiles — in Words, his bookstore in Maplewood — was recently appointed to the Jewish Federations of North America’s disability working group. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

Bookstore owner Jonah Zimiles of Maplewood has been appointed to the disability working group of the Jewish Federations of North America.

For Zimiles, who opened Words Bookstore in Maplewood in 2009, the position combines his professional connections to the federation world with a very personal commitment to those with special needs — particularly autism.

Zimiles, trained as an attorney, was working as the national director of planned giving and endowments at United Jewish Communities, the national umbrella organization now known as Jewish Federations of North America, when his son Dan, now 14, was diagnosed with autism.

Zimiles left his job to manage Dan’s multiple therapies on a full-time basis for six years.

Over the years, he got involved with and joined the advisory board of the Friendship Circle and later MetroWest ABLE, the local network of Jewish agencies and community leaders advocating for those with disabilities. He and his wife, Ellen, also became active in the secular organization Autism Speaks.

As a member of the federations group, he’ll work with other lay leaders and professionals on how best to push innovation in special-needs funding and programming in local Jewish communities. The group is currently working on a website to provide support and services for young adults ages 18-26 with autism spectrum disorders.

The appointment closes a circle for Zimiles. “I never dreamed we would ever be a beneficiary in any way of the services of federation. I was on the fund-raising side, not the beneficiary side,” he said in his second floor office, offering a bird’s-eye view of the premises.

More than books

The store itself also reflects the ways Zimiles combines the professional and the personal.

With his son finally settled into school at The Children’s Institute in Verona (he and Ellen also have a daughter, Liz, 19, who is studying at Syracuse University), Zimiles decided to go back to business school. He planned to offer consulting services to not-for-profit organizations. And then the bookstore fell into his lap.

“My wife was walking in downtown Maplewood and saw that [Goldfinch Books] was going out of business,” he said. “We’ve lived in Maplewood more than 20 years, and she felt with a bookstore going out of business, and at the peak of a recession, she wanted to do something for the economy.”

The couple also envisioned opening a training program for people with autism. Words, opened in January 2009, is not only an independent bookseller but a training ground for people with autism and other disabilities.

In its first year, more than 10 young people with autism have worked there either as interns or as employees.

In April, for Autism Awareness month, the store held events every week. Topics included the latest research in autism, assistance for autism caregivers, and fiction and music for and about people with autism.

The store also sells note cards featuring the work of artists at the WAE Center, an alternative learning facility run by the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled.

Meanwhile, Zimiles has continued to generously support United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.

When the call came to join the disability working group, he didn’t ask how long he would serve, or even what the vision of the group was.

“I have great respect for the work they do nationally,” Zimiles said, “and the idea that I could somehow help — I jumped to participate. And I think it would be great to share the ideas we have here in MetroWest.”

Zimiles participated in the first telephone conference of the group shortly before meeting with NJJN April 29. He has — what else? — both personal and communal goals for his involvement with the group.

For the community, he said, “I think that we have an obligation to share with the other federations the lessons we’ve learned and the great programs we’re putting on here in MetroWest. And I also feel we can learn from what is being done by other federations around the country.”

His personal goals have to do with his bookstore. “As a person trying to design a model employment situation and a haven for families of people with autism, I’m very curious to learn what other people around the country are doing in this area so I can improve on what I’m doing.”

Although he is active with Autism Speaks, and is chairing an upcoming event, he places a premium on his work with the Jewish community.

“In the long run, I have confidence that our son, perhaps long after we’ve passed away, will be served by the kindness and generosity of the Jewish community,” said Zimiles, a member of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn. “And I’d like to do my part to keep that community as strong as possible, and make sure the services we are able to provide for people with disabilities and other people in MetroWest and overseas are of the highest quality possible.”

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