Special-needs children get a boost from Peninsula initiative

Last summer, one month into Rabbi Dennis Eisner’s tenure at Peninsula Temple Beth El, a couple approached him about their son, who had a disability.

They told him about the struggles and disappointments — and occasional successes — they experienced trying to have their son educated at the synagogue and involved in the Jewish community.

“Sadly, I had to say, ‘I don’t know what I can do about this; I don’t know how to help you,'” Eisner recalled. “I felt really bad. It’s not what you like to say as a rabbi.”

He would have a very different answer today.

That’s because Eisner is one of numerous rabbis, educators and lay leaders who’ve come together to create the North Peninsula Special Needs Initiative.

The wide-reaching initiative seeks to provide more resources and educational support to families with special-needs children, and more awareness about disabilities to the general Jewish community.

“This is about including everyone in congregational life,” Eisner said.

Leaders from five North Peninsula congregations and five Jewish organizations have met regularly for nearly a year to draft a blueprint for the initiative.

The project includes more training for congregational and day school teachers to help them work with children with disabilities and the children’s classroom aides. It also includes plans to hire learning aides and to incorporate assistive technology for students who have problems with writing, spelling or speech.

The initiative grew out of a conversation between North Peninsula religious and lay leaders who have long met to discuss the region’s needs. A year ago, someone mentioned improving how they worked with special-needs children.

“It was like all these light bulbs went off at the same time,” Eisner said of the enthusiasm for the idea.

The initiative kicks off Nov. 21 and 22 with a Special Needs Awareness Shabbat at the participating congregations. Rabbis’ sermons will focus on inclusivity, and several children and adults with special needs will participate in the services.

The Shabbat kickoff points to the most basic — and one of the most important — elements of the initiative: To raise awareness among laypeople, clergy and educators about how to be inclusive, informed and tolerant of everyone, no matter their abilities.

“Synagogues have tried to accommodate special-needs kids, but because there hasn’t been a communitywide approach, there hasn’t been a communitywide solution,” said Beth Schecter, director of the Mid/North Peninsula region of Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

So far, the collaborators have been offered a challenge grant of $120,000 from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. They have much more fundraising to do; the initiative will cost an estimated $1.3 million over three years, Schecter said.

Esty Marcus, who directs Chabad of the North Peninsula’s preschool and special needs Hebrew school, is excited to be part of a broad collaboration.

Marcus is especially eager that the initiative could fund classroom aides for students who need extra assistance. Providing that service to a student can cost upwards of $25,000 a year — something few families, or Chabad, can afford.

“Unless a family had funding for an aide, we were really up a creek,” Marcus said. The special needs initiative will give her preschool more options to serve families.

Parents too are thrilled by the comprehensive and collaborative nature of the initiative.

Lisa Bernstein, a Beth El congregant, has 8-year-old twin boys, one of whom has a rare neuromuscular condition called arthrogrypofis multiplex congelia. (Many of his muscles never developed, so he “has a funny little walk.”)

“I’ve always tried to keep him as mainstreamed as possible,” she said.

As the new initiative develops, so, too, will Bernstein’s ability to integrate her son into all elements of Jewish communal life.

“Judaism has always said we take care of our people,” she said. “Everyone deserves a fair chance to participate.”

“It’s one of the most unique collaborations I’ve ever seen in the Jewish community,” Eisner said. “This is not about denomination, membership numbers, or dollars, and it’s not about yours, mine and ours. It’s about us. This is a klal Yisrael moment.”

Shabbat services address inclusiveness

The North Peninsula Special Needs Initiative has 10 participating organizations. They are:

Bureau of Jewish Education, S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, Peninsula Jewish Community Center, Temple Beth Jacob, Peninsula Temple Sholom, Peninsula Sinai Congregation, Peninsula Temple Beth El, Chabad of the North Peninsula and Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School.

The initiative will kick off with Special Needs Awareness Shabbat services at the following locations:

• Peninsula Temple Beth El, 1700 Alameda de las Pulgas, San Mateo, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 21

• Peninsula Temple Sholom, 1655 Sebastian Drive, Burlingame, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 21

• Chabad of the North Peninsula, 1670 Amphlett Blvd. No. 125, San Mateo, 6 p.m. Nov. 21 and 10 a.m. Nov. 22

• Peninsula Sinai Congreg-ation, 499 Boothbay Ave., Foster City, 9:30 a.m. Nov. 22

• Temple Beth Jacob, 1550 Alameda de las Pulgas, Redwood City., 10 a.m. Nov. 22.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.