Defying disabilities

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How welcoming is your congregation to the disabled?

San Mateo’s Chabad smelled like the unusual combination of Elmer’s glue and butter on a rainy Monday afternoon. Safety scissors scraped against paper. Children giggled as they kneaded sugar cookie dough in preparation for an upcoming holiday.

Their workspace looked different than the typical Hebrew school class. A teacher you’d expect to stand front and center explaining the aleph-bet? Absent.

Instead, in the brightly lit room in an office complex just off the freeway, a handful of children sat at several different tables and worked one-on-one with teachers and teenage volunteers. Maya Engler, 14, cut, glued and collaged. Nona Miloslavsky, 14, squealed with delight as she dropped dollops of jelly onto circles of sweet, buttery dough.

Three years ago, neither of them would have had the opportunity to learn in a Jewish classroom.

The children who attend that Jewish school every Monday all have developmental disabilities, ranging from mild to severe, but pronounced enough so they would not blossom in a mainstream classroom. By giving them extra attention and a tailor-made approach to learning, they are on their way to building a Jewish identity.

“Every child should have a Jewish education, and every parent should have the nachas, or joy, of having their child in a Jewish education program,” said Julie Kraus, who teaches a class similar to Chabad’s at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame.

In the past few years, synagogues have taken more seriously the challenge that public schools have grappled with for decades: how to educate all children, including those with disabilities, and how to do so without isolating them from their “typical” peers.

A growing number of Bay Area synagogues — plus Friendship Circle and several other nonprofits — are directing more money, time and resources to create Jewish education and social programming that includes kids with a wide range of abilities.

In some places, such as Peninsula Temple Sholom and Chabad’s Hebrew School for Special Needs, that means special classrooms for children with disabilities. At others, like Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, it means training religious school teachers and teenage volunteers to work with children at all levels of learning.

Since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1975, U.S. law has required public schools to provide equal access to education for all children, providing accommodations and support for any disability — physical and developmental, mild and severe.

That law doesn’t apply to synagogues. But Jewish law does, said Rabbi James Brandt, director of the Center for Jewish Living and Learning, who leads an East Bay initiative to improve Jewish education for children with disabilities.

“Our Torah commands us not to put a stumbling block before the blind. It commands us to create a community where we are providing for the needs of all of our children,” he said. “When we read the V’Ahavtah, it doesn’t say ‘You should teach gifted children.’ It says, ‘Teach your children.'”

Maya Engler, a student in North Peninsula Chabad’s special needs class, held tightly to a pink crayon and accented a picture in a Jewish coloring book. Her rosy shading leaked outside of the lines.

When she finished, she excitedly stood up and proudly showed her work to Esty Marcus, her teacher. Marcus praised Maya’s work, and the dark-haired girl giddily walked back to the table to fill out a simple worksheet about Jewish values.

“Families told us they had nowhere to go — there was no Jewish education for kids who couldn’t be mainstreamed,” Marcus said, explaining why she opened the school three years ago.

All children learn differently, especially those with cognitive disabilities. Those children usually thrive in classrooms with more positive reinforcement for good behavior, more visual aids, more individually designed lessons and more small group or one-on-one instruction.

Marcus keeps all that in mind on Monday afternoons. She arranged for Chabad 20-somethings (interns, she calls them) and local teenagers to volunteer with her five students each week. She also hired a certified special education teacher (not Jewish) to provide additional expertise.

Peninsula Temple Sholom has a similar program focused more on preparing students for their b’nai mitzvah. The synagogue opened the twice-monthly Sunday school to anyone in the community for just $100.

Kraus, the teacher, instructs five students every other Sunday. All are boys, and a majority are autistic.

Like Marcus, Kraus arranged for teenagers in the synagogue’s confirmation class to volunteer with her special needs students. They teach students about Bible stories, holidays, prayers, Hebrew and Israeli dancing. Kraus routinely reviews the curriculum to make sure she is meeting the specific needs of her students. She’s also worked with the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco.

Educators say having teenagers work with special needs students has a valuable byproduct — increased tolerance and knowledge of people with varied abilities.

As Maya finished coloring her picture, she tugged on the arm of Shelby Fisher, a 12-year-old from Foster City who signed up to volunteer after her mother encouraged her to do community service prior to her bat mitzvah.

Before Shelby came to class, Maya spoke only when spoken to. But something clicked between her and Shelby, and now Maya often initiates conversation with her new friend. They are inseparable on Monday afternoons. And Shelby said she’ll continue to volunteer even after her bat mitzvah.

Prior to the Chabad and Peninsula Temple Sholom special needs programs, Marcus knew of a few programs that met monthly and were intended to be for both parent and child. But it wasn’t enough for most families.

“The parent doesn’t want to be an aide. They want to drop off their children like everybody else,” she said.

Sandy Davidowitz of Millbrae sends her 12-year-old son Harrison, who is autistic, to both programs. Thrilled would be an understatement to describe her gratitude for the two agencies’ efforts.

“We were devastated that until recently he couldn’t have a Jewish community that was entirely his, that he felt a part of,” she said.

Now her son has a burgeoning Jewish identity to match that of his 9-year-old sister Rosy, who attends Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City. Harrison learns in a much more modified form, his mom said, and is exposed to things she might not think to talk about as a family.

The programs’ social and academic support have made it possible for Davidowitz to plan Harrison’s bar mitzvah, on Nov. 16.

“The temple now has much more awareness of what Harrison’s limitations are since they’ve gotten to know him,” she said. “And the comfort is mutual — Harrison is feeling like the temple’s a second home for him.”

Howard Sapper of Sonoma can attest to the wonder of watching a child defy the odds from the bimah. His daughter, Eva, had a stroke at birth, and doctors told the Sappers she might never walk or talk.

Today, the 13-year-old is a high-functioning student at a school for children with disabilities, and last year she celebrated her bat mitzvah at Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma, which Sapper described as one of the “more emotional moments of 2006.”

Eva’s bat mitzvah was like most. She led the congregation in numerous prayers, read from the Torah, and delivered a short speech. The studying, though, was different. Since Eva can’t read much English or Hebrew, she memorized all the prayers, which she learned aurally with help from tutors, her parents and the rabbi. The effort was worth it, Sapper said.

“Through having a Jewish education, she’s come away with this amazing sense of confidence,” he said.

Sapper said he has never felt left out of Jewish circles because he wouldn’t allow himself, or Eva, to feel that way.

“Eva is a blessing in any situation we’re in, and that’s how we present her. If we act like, ‘Oy, what a burden,’ people are less open to what needs to be done” to make necessary accommodations, he said.

“Parents have to trust in HaShem that they can go out and put their kids in different situations, and people will be flexible. As Jews, who are supposed to be at the forefront of progressive thinking, it’s our responsibility to find ways to be inclusive with our kids.”

But a classroom-only Jewish education is an incomplete one.

With that idea in mind, a Chabad in Michigan started an organization called Friendship Circle, which now has chapters in San Francisco and Palo Alto. It addresses what religious school sometimes cannot: Socialization.

Friendship Circle was born out of the idea that no Jewish child should feel isolated or out of the Jewish loop because of a disability. The organization pairs a teenage volunteer with a younger special needs child for regular play dates.

Many of the children Friendship Circle serves spend the school day with other special needs children, so they don’t always get time to socialize with so-called “normal” peers.

Friendship Circle gives them a mentor and friend, someone who can help them learn good behaviors and social skills. The organization can also send adult volunteers on-site to help facilitate playtime.

Such was the case for Asher Dossetter of San Francisco. Once a week, the eager, smiley 8-year-old greets his friend Stanley after school. Two Chabad volunteers recently accompanied the boys to an upstairs playroom and helped them play games, like Kosherland (think Candyland for Jewish children) and a Jewish-themed Memory.

“Asher very much wants to be connected to peers, but he doesn’t have the typical social skills most 8-year-olds have,” said Susan Dossetter his mom.

Asher has big brown eyes, a wide forehead and pale skin. He’s friendly and outgoing. His mom said he’s great with adults but fumbles with children his own age. They do not respond well to his awkwardness. He stopped going to swimming lessons because he felt ostracized from his peers.

“With tears streaming down face, he would cry, ‘Nobody likes me,'” said Dossetter, her face sad. “That makes him withdraw even more … It’s really unsettling to see cruelty of other children.”

Though Friendship Circle usually matches a teen with a child, Asher’s mom requested that the organization find a young boy Asher’s age so he could practice interacting with a peer. Her wish was granted, and Asher was paired with 9-year-old Stanley.

Asher has bloomed since then, his mom said. For the first time, he talks about “his friends,” which he never did before.

“Friendship Circle is really three circles — it gives teens the opportunity to do mitzvoth; it gives parents an opportunity to have a short respite; and it gives [children with disabilities] social and spiritual opportunities appropriate for them,” said Sapper, who serves on the board of the San Francisco chapter.

Friendship Circle also periodically organizes parties, so that the volunteers, special needs children and their parents can meet one another in a comfortable and social setting. Then, one Sunday a month, Friendship Circle provides respite for parents, by offering afternoon activities for kids and volunteers.

“There’s a desperate need for this,” Dossetter said. She hopes Asher’s social skills improve and that he develops a positive attitude about Jewish youth activities. Her main focus, though, “is having him develop a true friend.”

Congregation Emanu-El was one of the first to make accommodations for children with disabilities, said Flora Kupferman, who has worked as the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education’s special education consultant and the special resource teacher at Emanu-El for nearly 20 years.

“When I first started, congregations would say, ‘We don’t have these kids so we don’t need to do anything about it,'” she said.

Parents, in response, told Kupferman they wouldn’t send their children to religious school if appropriate resources weren’t available. “So of course congregations couldn’t see that they had members with disabilities,” she said.

She’s happy to report it’s a very different picture today.

Last October, the Center for Jewish Living and Learning of the Greater East Bay held a conference aimed at helping congregational teachers better serve children with special needs. The center and the BJE both held a series of workshops throughout the school year for about 50 congregational teachers.

Workshop topics have focused on working with classroom aides, children with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome and the parents of children with special needs. Teaching Hebrew to children with learning disabilities also topped the list.

Emanu-El continues offering extra support and tutoring for students with disabilities so they can be included in the synagogue’s regular classrooms. Kupferman works individually with some students. She trains teenagers to be student aides and she consults with teachers for how best to work with their special needs students.

In Los Altos Hills, Congregation Beth Am now holds monthly Shabbat services especially for children with disabilities and their families. It’s a casual, no-shush environment, and is conducted at the same time as the regular Shabbat service.

Robyn Siegal, Beth Am education director, enlisted confirmation students to work with the younger special needs students. She’s also planning a Day of Special Needs for the Sunday school. Through role-playing or simulation (a blindfold, for example), she hopes to give students a better understanding of life with a disability.

Educators and parents who spoke with j. said they would like to see more collaboration between synagogues so resources are not unnecessarily duplicated. One congregation might specialize in teaching preschool-aged children with disabilities, while another could work with those of b’nai mitzvah age, and another with high-schoolers. Teachers could also build a network, collaborating when a student “graduates” from one congregation and moves to another.

Brandt, with the Center for Jewish Living and Learning, said the Bay Area has potential to develop a strong network of support for children and families.

But “we need money,” he said. “Our community must develop the capacity to really respond to our students.”

Nonetheless, he’s encouraged by progress thus far.

“The fact that we are talking about this openly and addressing it as problem communally is helping families who have children with special needs feel heard, acknowledged and hopefully further empowered,” Brandt added.

“When we serve and teach students effectively, we transform not only the students, but also the community.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.