Special Needs, Special Teachers for Jewish Education

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A seminar brings together teaching professionals determined to provide quality Jewish education to special needs students for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

Just as no two snowflakes or grains of sand are exactly alike, the same applies when it comes to children with special needs.
Or as Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, director of whole inclusion at Jewish Learning Venture in Melrose Park puts it, “no one size fits all.”
That was the key message she and Rabbi Michelle Greenfield of Mishkan Sholom in Roxborough delivered Monday and Tuesday at the JLV’s training seminar, “B’nai Mitzvah Training: Making Accomodations and Modifications.”
In what is believed to be the first such training program of its kind, Kaplan-Mayer, a Jewish educator for 20 years, and Greenfield brainstormed and presented ideas to 25 educators who came from the area and from as far away as Boston and New York. The bottom line: There is no cookie-cutter formula here. What may work for one child may not be effective with the next, even if their disabilities are similar.
The main thing they emphasized is that no matter what the issue that prevents them from being “typical,” each Jewish child deserves to celebrate that same special moment. Only through patience and trial and error is it possible to determine the best way to proceed.
“The reality is, 18.6 percent of the population has some form of physical development or learning disability,” said attendee Shelley Richman Cohen, of The Jewish Inclusion Project in New York. “Some of those people should be in your congregation, in your day school, in your camp. If you’re a Jewish institution that doesn’t have that, we should all be asking ‘Where are these people?’ and doing things like Gabby Kaplan is doing. The child with a disability who wants to be Bar or Bat Mitzvah is as much a Jew as a Talmudic scholar or a Harvard professor. So why shouldn’t that child have the same opportunity?”
The hard part is finding a way to make it work. The disabilities in a special needs child can range from the visible, like blindness, Down Syndrome, physical limitations with movement and/or speech, to those much harder to detect: extreme shyness in front of crowds, dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
In some cases, participants learned, a special needs child may have been able to keep it hidden from his schoolmates, but secretly dreads having it recognized. That’s assuming that the affected child knows he’s different, which is not always the case.
This is particularly true in communities where there’s a certain stigma attached. “It’s still very taboo in the Russian community about having a child with special needs,” admitted Anton Revich of Uniqkid, a non-profit organization in Brooklyn, whose special needs 14-year-old brother, Daniel, was recently Bar Mitzvahed. “The majority of Russian parents are very much in denial of it. They want to keep it very hush-hush. But the Russian community is very prideful of being Jewish. So we feel bringing this program out there will make them realize a child with special needs can still have this ceremony.”
That’s the essential point Kaplan-Mayer and Greenfield wanted to convey during the program, which is the culmination of a yearlong effort. “We had the idea over a year ago and really started working on it the last three to six months — synagogues are becoming more inclusive and want to provide support for kids with special needs,” explained Kaplan-Mayer, who is the author of the cookbook, The Kitchen Classroom, which she wrote specifically for children with special needs. “But we’ve learned they and the families don’t always know how to do it around Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. We spent time together thinking about what we wanted to include. Michelle and I have worked together five years. We run the family program for special needs at Mishkan Shalom. We knew that by putting this out to the world we’d getting people with different backgrounds and experience.”
In Kaplan-Mayer’s case, running the sessions and getting input from all these experts really hits close to home. “My son, George, is 12,” she explained. “When he was 3, he was diagnosed with autism. That’s really what motivated me to think about Jewish education and children with special needs. Autism is a spectrum disorder. It really affects communication and social interaction.”
On January 18, though, George will be Bar Mitzvahed. In preparation for the big day, Kaplan-Mayer has created a picture book to walk him through the entire day. It starts with him eating a nice breakfast, then getting all dressed up before heading to synagogue. It shows him on the bimah, where his Torah portion and D’Var Torah will be played on an iPad, after which he goes on to a celebration with friends and family. Between now and then, she will go over that book repeatedly, hoping that will ease his anxiety and make him more comfortable by the time the day finally arrives.
But there’s no guarantee it will play out that way. With special needs children, there never is, so adjustments have to be made on the fly. Then again, other kids will use the occasion as an opportunity to stand out.
“We work with kids who have pretty significant challenges,” said Greenfield, a 2012 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College after attending Brandeis. “But one student, his D’Var Torah was about treatment about people with disabilities. His mitzvah project was a petition to end the use of the ‘R’ word — retarded. He was very engaged in this. He wanted to use his pulpit to talk about equality and his needs. He was really interested in being a self-advocate.”
But for every special needs child like that, there’s another who would rather completely shun the spotlight. “Some people might do a Mincha or Havdalah service, because it won’t be as intense for the child as a morning service with 200 people,” said Kaplan-Mayer. “That’s actually a good accommodation.”
“And then they might have a small party or a fancy dinner at home,” added Greenfield. “Because for some kids, a party with a DJ won’t work for them, even though that’s our vision of what a big Bar Mitzvah is like.”
Sharing insights like that is what attracted so many to attend the seminar, particularly those from out of town. “I run a Bar Mitzvah program for kids with special needs and couldn’t pass up an opportunity” to be in “a roomful of educators who are all focused on Bar and Bat Mitzvahs for students with disabilities,” said Nancy Mager, whose Boston-based agency, Gateways, deals exclusively with children of special needs.
“This is an opportunity to network and learn from colleagues who do just what we do.” l
jmarks@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729

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