Special connection

Jewish education strives to be inclusive, but when it comes to children with special needs, the Jewish experience can feel short-changed.

That was the case for Amy Tessler and her husband, Stephen, who have been members of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham for eight years. Currently, she says, the only Jewish education her 8-year-old son, Scott, receives is while attending religious services with the family.

“He likes to participate in Rock and Roll Shabbat, with the music and the singing,” says Tessler. But when it comes to other synagogue education, she feels her son has been excluded.

That’s why the Tessler family is excited about a new class at Beth Abraham that will cater to Scott’s special needs. His mother believes that class will “instill in Scott a connection with the temple and a sense of Jewish identity.”

With those needs in mind, the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay distributed $10,000 in grants this winter to six East Bay day schools, religious schools and synagogue programs to further Jewish education or support existing services for children with special needs.

In addition to Beth Abraham, recipients include Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Temple Isaiah and Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek and Oakland Hebrew Day School.

Rabbi Glenn Karonsky thinks the grants are addressing needs that have gone unmet for too long.

“Over the last several years we’ve consciously tried to raise awareness of the need to serve the entire Jewish schooling population,” says the executive director of the Center for Jewish Living and Learning, the educational department of the East Bay federation. “Our statistics show that nearly 20 per cent of our students have some sort of learning need, so when we don’t provide programming and services that attend to these needs, we are not doing the job that is core to our mission.”

Lynda Kravitz, director of psychological services and special needs education for the federation, served on the committee that distributed the grants. As a clinical psychologist she is familiar with the spectrum of neurodevelopmental difficulties, ranging from attention deficit disorder, to autism, mental retardation and Tourette syndrome. She worked with the grant applicants to develop programs that could accommodate the different learning styles in the classroom and was delighted with the innovative programming the schools came up with.

“Our goal is to enable schools and congregations to include special needs children so they can have Jewish educational experiences,” such as b’nai mitzvah, that may have been denied to them in the past, Kravitz said.

Jennifer Levine, director of religious education at Beth Abraham, acknowledges that in the past the congregation has lost potential members because programs for special needs students weren’t available.

“We also have members who have one child enrolled in the beit sefer [religious school] and another who is not enrolled because we haven’t had the accommodation,” she said.

The synagogue will start its program in the fall with a class for children with special needs, held at the same time as the religious school. The teacher, specifically hired for the new class, will consult with staff on ways to tailor their curriculum for mainstreamed students who face potential challenges and be available for families to discuss their needs and goals. Looking at the bigger picture, Levine hopes that the learning specialist will bring a “heightened awareness of special needs students in our community to our community.”

Jeanne Korn’s 12 year-old daughter Sara will enroll in Beth Abraham’s new program. Sara is currently attending the temple’s Hebrew school and “is able to participate, at a certain level, at great effort to Jennifer and the teachers to keep her engaged and included,” Korn said.

Adding that the challenges for her daughter and the educators are becoming greater as the work gets more sophisticated, she said she appreciates the efforts to help Sara and other students take their place in the Jewish community.

“There is a vast number of Jewish kids who can’t participate at Hebrew school and whose families don’t affiliate with a temple because there’s not enough welcome. This is a huge step in creating that welcome in our community. We’re very grateful.”

Deb Fink, director of education at Netivot Shalom, felt so committed to making Jewish education accessible to everyone that she instigated the Inclusion Project last fall, before she found out if the school would receive any grant money. “We took a chance,” she admitted, but the synagogue wanted “to make this school a place where all the kids can learn.”

Fink plans to create a standing committee within Netivot Shalom to look at a variety of special needs issues, including adult education programs and physical access on the property. She hired Stephanie Levin, as the inclusion coordinator, to work individually with students and guide teachers in intervention and ways to mainstream their involvement. Levin is also augmenting the special education materials and staff training manual for teachers.

Levin, whose background is in special education training, explains that a variety of factors affect the way kids learn. Some students have lifelong learning challenges while others might experience “short-term special needs,” temporary learning difficulties due to a divorce, a new sibling or relocation. Her methodology takes into account this shifting range of capabilities and learning styles.

Heading into the second semester of the Inclusion Project, Fink says it’s become apparent “that the best practices for special needs situations are really the best practices for all classrooms.” These practices include classroom-support systems and partnerships with parents. The student body as a whole has benefited from a learning climate with more class structure, different teaching modalities, a variety of activity options and clearer expectations for all the students.

“The students are also learning what it means to be accepting of differences,” says Levin. She praises her students for their efforts to “come together as a group and to make a serious effort to be inclusive and to be kind.”

Fink is thankful for the financial support from the federation and the emotional support from the congregation. “This is the right thing to be doing. A very beshert kind of thing.”