By Jan L. Apple
A class held on Sunday mornings at the religious school of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester is filling a long unmet need in the community.
Aptly named Kolot B'Simcha ("Voices of Happiness"), it was created for Jewish residents of the Chester County region whose special needs are such that they could not be mainstreamed into a synagogue classroom. For most of the students, it's the first time they have ever entered a synagogue or been exposed to any type of formal Jewish education. The hourlong class, held during religious-school hours, fosters interaction with the 185 children from kindergarten through grade seven enrolled there.
Kesher Israel is a Conservative congregation, yet the class is open to Jewish students of all affiliations.
"The feedback from families, students and the entire synagogue community has been overwhelmingly positive," said Rabbi Cynthia Kravitz, Kesher Israel's education director. "We are so grateful that we have been able to offer this program."
Kravitz explains that the idea to serve these individuals was born over a decade ago through an initiative of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education and Gratz College "to bring Jewish special needs to the attention of Federation and the community."
Last year, the seeds of that initiative came to fruition. As a result of a shared vision of Kravitz and Rabbi Sue Greenberg — longtime Kesher Israel member and retired elementary/special-education teacher who now teaches the class — the synagogue secured a grant from the Federation Endowments Corporation to launch the program.
The class began in January 2006 with five students, ranging in age from 12 to 44. Greenberg, a parent of two children with special needs, said that the Kesher Israel community has always been a welcoming one. Yet she understood the feelings of isolation that exist in certain segments of the Jewish population.
With such positive reaction from students and families alike, additional funding through June has been secured with a community partnership grant of the Chester County Board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
"The board is committed to continuing this program," said Shelley Rappaport, director of the Chester County and Delaware County regions.
Greenberg, along with assistant teacher Susan Grumer, teaches basic prayers and Jewish holidays, including Shabbat. "We always begin with the Shema, followed by a story, music and a craft activity, which encourages students to be active participants.
"One of our goals is to increase enrollment," she continued. "Initially, some of the parents were skeptical. Everyone is thrilled with the class. The students are wonderful; they react and respond, and feel that they are part of something. Being able to teach this class is a great joy."
Joy has also reverberated throughout the school. "Last March, the children paraded for the students in their Purim costumes," said Kravitz. "We also found a way for the special-needs class to participate in our model Passover seder. Although some of the students are not able to speak, they all shook tambourines and led the other children in 'Dayeinu.' "
Kravitz recalled the expressions on their faces as they tapped in time to the music: "It's really a beautiful thing to witness. It makes you feel like you have done something of deep value, a major mitzvah. The tearful phone calls we receive from families thanking us are the true testimonial.
"We have only scratched the surface," she added. "There are many families with special needs in our community. The challenge of everyday practical living consumes them. Our goal is to offer support to the students and their families. We want them to know that we are all one Jewish family."
For more information or an application, call 610-696-9022.