Becoming a B'nai Mitzvot may be a commonplace ritual to many, but for children with special needs, this coming-of-age ceremony may not be as easily attained.
Today, that is changing. One goal of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Jewish Life and Learning is to reach out, connect with, and educate as many Jewish families as possible.
A few years ago, several educational directors from area synagogues met to find a way for the community to answer the call for children with special needs to receive a quality, meaningful Jewish education. Within the programs of area synagogue schools, there wasn't a place for kids with moderate to severe special needs to receive a comparable quality education to that of their peers.
As a result, a successful pilot project was created three years ago, according to Roberta Matz, director of the Bux-Mont region and outreach coordinator for the center. "There have been three B'nai Mitzvah as a result, and it has sparked a sense of hope and relief among Jewish parents."
"We are educating these children and giving them the same opportunities as kids in the mainstream," observed Andrea Hershman, director of the Kehillah of Bux-Mont: a Jewish Federation Community Collaborative (formerly YAHAD), who worked with Debbie Gettes, a special-needs consultant from the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Central Education, to develop the program.
"Parents now feel that their child can be part of the larger Jewish community," continued Hershman, emphasizing that a Jewish Life Skills Curriculum was written specifically for these children with special needs.
Originally held at Temple Sinai in Dresher and Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell on Sunday mornings, today the class is held solely at the latter location. Geared toward ages 6 to 12, the curriculum encompasses holidays and Shabbat, history, blessings, the Hebrew alphabet and language, and some preparation for Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The class also integrates music, art and cooking with an ultimate goal of mainstreaming the child.
Craig and Kathy Saft, members of Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill, enrolled their son, David, in the class two years ago, when he was 6. "Our greatest wish is that someday David will have a Bar Mitzvah, and that it will be meaningful to him," said Craig Saft. "We feel hopeful that this class is paving the way for that."
Kathy Saft explained that David has high-functioning autism. "He has language, and is very social. He loves going to the class and looks forward to it every week. He also loves the children and the teachers. It has prepared him for holidays such as Chanukah and Passover, and he has learned the Hebrew alphabet."
David now understands some Hebrew words, said his father. For example, when he sees another classmate's dad, he'll say: 'That is her abba.' "
One significant change in David's behavior, according to his mom, is that "he no longer blows out the Chanukah candles because he thought they were birthday candles."
The Safts have two older children, 15-year-old twins, Gary and Alli, who would often become frustrated with their little brother over the candles.
"They are really proud of him," said Kathy Saft. "The more he is exposed to Judaism, the more he seems to get it."
To learn more about the program, call Andrea Hershman at 215-646-4500, Ext. 109.