Har Zion Temple’s Madregot program provides individualized learning at the Jane Fishman Grinberg Religious School.
Rabbi Nogah Marshall makes no bones about one of the primary reasons she started at Har Zion Temple in 2002: She was attracted by one of the synagogue’s educational programs.
Madregot, the special needs program of the Jane Fishman Grinberg Religious School, caters to students from kindergarten to 12th grade — and is one of the only programs of its kind offered at a synagogue.
“It’s a program that meets the needs of all children with special needs — learning differences, physical differences — we meet the needs of every single child,” Marshall said.
Each year, the synagogue puts on two fundraisers to help cover the costs of the program, including teachers and aides to assist the students. That’s why, on Jan. 10, the well-known a capella group Six13 will be performing at the synagogue.
Madregot, which started in 2000, also includes a program for Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation.
This year, there are 12 students enrolled in the program. Families meet with Marshall, who serves as educational director of the religious school, and the coordinator of the program to create an educational experience that is right for each student.
Those in Madregot, which means “steps” in Hebrew, also take classes with students not in the program.
“Not only is it great for them, but it’s great for the students because they get exposure to being around people different from them,” Marshall said. “It teaches our students to treat everyone equally.”
According to Marshall, some students need wraparounds and aids, which the program provides so they have everything they need for a full Jewish education.
Students with special needs whose families do not belong to Har Zion may also enroll in the program. Everyone is welcome, and tuition is the same for both members and non-members.
The aides who assist Madregot students also work in the classroom with other students in the religious school, which eliminates the notion of the Madregot students feeling separated.
“The nice thing is, each of the wraparounds and teaching assistants don’t just work with that one student but really work with the entire class,” Marshall explained. “It doesn’t make the students feel awkward or uncomfortable.”
For Marshall, working with the special needs community is personal and has become a “big part” of her life.
Her younger brother, Eyal, a quadriplegic who relies on a respirator, was the catalyst for her work with the special needs community.
“[It’s] been a passion of mine to make sure children with any type of special needs receive the best Jewish education they can and be treated the same,” she said simply.
Before starting at Har Zion, Marshall worked for a synagogue in Florida. While there, with the help of the local branch of Jewish Family and Children’s Service, she started an adult program for those who hadn’t had a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
There was not a program like that before, she said, and when she was looking to move, one of her requirements was that her next stop employ a similar initiative.
Classes are structured so that each student has the opportunity to learn in a way that is most comfortable for them, Marshall said. When they can start taking elective courses, it becomes more customizable.
If a student is better at hands-on experiences, he or she can take an art class; if they are better at debates and discussions, there are classes in that format, too.
“Each student learns differently,” she said. “Some may be digital learners, audio learners, need one-on-one — every case is different. The beauty of that program is, there’s tons of classes to choose from that meet the style of learning that each child chooses.
“Any of our Madregot students can take any class they want. Nothing is closed to them.”
Classes meet twice a week, though most Madregot students come once a week.
For Madregot students who do not belong to Har Zion, Marshall will work with the family and their synagogue and their educational director to prepare the student for classes and find out what will work best. Madregot provides tutors based on the student’s needs and helps the student become part of the regular educational program.
Additionally, the educators in the Madregot program also help create a Bar/Bat Mitzvah program for the students as well.
The benefit concert featuring Six13 is one of the biggest fundraisers for the program. It is the first time there will be an a capella group for the event and the funds raised will benefit the entire Madregot program, Marshall said. That covers teachers, the cost of running the school and any additional costs the students would have to pay.
Last year, there was an Israeli art show; in previous years, they created calendars for the synagogue that people could buy.
“Every year we try to do something a little different,” Marshall said.
The concert is a “kick-off,” she added. They also hold a craft fair each year, typically in March, as a second, smaller fundraiser.
As she’s watched the program grow during her time at Har Zion, Marshall said she most enjoys the fact that they are able to provide “a community for these individuals and they feel good about themselves. We have a place for them.”
“It’s a great feeling to see them grow as Jews and have this opportunity,” she said, “and when they get to their Bar or Bat Mitzvah or confirmation and they’re proud of themselves — it’s a great feeling.”