The smiles that lit up the faces of three eighth-grade graduates in May were right in sync with the name of the organization, OROT -- meaning "lights" in Hebrew -- that made it possible for them to graduate alongside their classmates.
OROT, which began in 1998, supports special-needs education in five local Jewish day schools. Students receive an individualized curriculum prepared jointly by the program's teachers and the schools, with both helping the students be part of the mainstream.
OROT is funded by private funders, tuition and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
"It is one of the many initiatives that Federation funds in order to ensure that Jewish education is available for every family's children," said Adam Kessler, director of Federation's Center for Jewish Life and Learning.
Aaron Eisenstat, the son of Beth Rosenbaum and Noel Eisenstat, graduated from the Robert Saligman Middle School of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School in Melrose Park. "I was very proud of myself and happy to be with everyone," he said. "I'm also very thankful to everyone who supported me."
Aaron attended kindergarten and first grade at the Forman Center, transferred to a private school for his elementary school years, and returned to Saligman for seventh and eighth grades.
"We wanted Aaron to have a Jewish day school experience where he could receive the learning support that he needed while receiving a mainstream education," said his mother. "We also wanted him to attend the same school as his twin brother.
"Graduation marked a new stage in his development," added Rosenbaum. "OROT met his educational and his social needs. We can see the growth he's made."
Ben Norry, the son of Gail and Elliot Norry, founders of OROT, also graduated from Saligman Middle school, and has "become increasingly comfortable and excited about Judaism," said his mother. "The first time he read Torah at school, everyone burst into applause. He can now perform academically at grade level, fit in socially in a way he could not have done in public schools, and be in school with his siblings. Jewish day school is part of our family.
"For years, we had wondered if he'd have a Bar Mitzvah or graduate from a Jewish day school," added Norry. "Here, he was completely participating, feeling really good about himself.
Lior Liebling, the son of Rabbi Mordechai Liebling and his late wife, Rabbi Devorah Bartenoff, and stepson of Lynne Iser, started kindergarten at Politz Hebrew Academy in Northeast Philadelphia, and "accomplished an education and social level that was somewhat surprising to all of us," said his father. "The OROT teachers and staff encouraged him, and didn't set limits on what he could do. We are all surprised and pleased by how well an English speaker with Down Syndrome has been able to lead prayers and read from the Torah."
"We have watched these graduates reach so many milestones, including their participation in outside Jewish life," said OROT's director, Beverly Bernstein.
The three graduates all became B'nai Mitzvah, and will go on to high school, but not at a Jewish one. OROT does not have a program at that level because it and the local Jewish high schools lack the funding.
However, Bernstein is optimistic about OROT's growing endowment fund and believes in the program's success: "People have come to understand that we produce."
Reflecting on the last eight years, she added: "These three families were so anxious for their kids to have a day-school education. All of them took a leap of faith and put their kids in an unproven program. We are grateful they trusted us with their children."