Special Needs

surpassing expectations

Jennifer Levine was 17 years old as she watched her sister celebrate the milestone of becoming a bat mitzvah. She recalls feeling envious of her 13-yearold sibling and even now, over 20 years later, she remembers experiencing a sense of loss. She recognized that there was a place for her sister because she was “mainstream” —she learned in the same way as most other kids. But Levine, now the education director at Temple Emanu-El of Closter, NJ, had dyslexia—and so her Jewish identity had a vastly different evolution.

At her core, Levine is a social activist. Her top priority is to ensure that no child is denied a meaningful Jewish education because of his/her learning needs—and she is not afraid to challenge the system. She doesn’t assume that her 310-student religious school has to look like every other school, nor does she make assumptions about the types of learners who could or could not be included.

“I used to say, ‘I was dyslexic as a child,’” says Jennifer. “Now I say ‘I am dyslexic.’ I’m realizing that the dyslexic brain has these incredible gifts which relate to multisensory education, which so closely relates to my passion for the arts. It’s an interesting thing that’s happening personally and professionally. It’s helping me grow a program that is sensitive to all three of those things.”

The Learning Disabilities Association of America reports that 15% of the population has a learning disability. One in 110 individuals—and one in 70 boys—is diagnosed with autism. Approximately 988,000 children in the US are Jewish. It is safe to assume that the Jewish population mirrors the general population; minimally, 150,000 school-aged Jewish children grapple with some form of a disability.

Yet as secular American educational institutions are making leaps and bounds in their efforts to accommodate students of diverse learning capabilities, our Jewish educational settings lag behind. Faculty lack specialized training, background knowledge, and the tools to best serve students with special needs. Under the pressure to provide high-quality education to mainstream students, the needs of the many trump the needs of the few. Families are turned away again and again from a Jewish education they so desperately want and their children deserve. This far too common occurrence is unacceptable and avoidable.

Levine recalls attending Workmen’s Circle, an American Jewish fraternal organization committed to social justice, Jewish community, and Ashkenazi culture—and a creative alternative to Hebrew school. In a low-pressure setting (actually, a church), Levine participated in storytelling and holiday celebrations, and for her seventh-grade commencement ceremony she memorized and recited “The Last Butterfly.” This experience was the first to connect her interest in art with her budding curiosity in Judaism. It took many years for those two passions to cross paths again, but now, 25 years later, this is her mission for religious school.

When Levine was hired by Temple Emanu-El two and a half years ago, she came with a vision: to help students connect with the spirit of Judaism. “We are always trying to find a modality to awaken that spirit,” Levine says—and she is not afraid to experiment. She immediately requested two things: one, a room to get messy. This room became a laboratory where she worked with teens, testing out different creative programs and inviting other classes to participate. Two, a consultation with Matan, an organization that supports Jewish communities, professionals, and institutions in educating children with special learning needs. This consultation helped concretize what she already knew from personal experience: Jewish education can and must be accessible to all types of learners.

Jennifer’s religious school, The Kesem Connection, looks nothing like the religious school of your childhood. With Matan’s help in revamping curriculum, creating materials, and providing professional development, classrooms that were previously lined with desks and chairs now have stations throughout the room. Children rotate in small groups, and teens are an integral part of the program’s success. Students use their hands, bodies, and minds in a multi-modal (utilizing all of the senses) approach and are not asked to sit for long periods of time. The younger kids exercise in Hebrew between classes and tell their parents, “I was having so much fun I didn’t know I was learning anything.” Children are happier and better behaved, teachers feel more productive, and parents don’t have to fight with their kids when it’s time for religious school. According to Andi Flug Wolfer, president of the Board of Education at Temple Emanu-El, “Jennifer’s creativity and vision have allowed us to successfully teach the future of our synagogue, our children.”

It is said that change in the Jewish community will only occur once a critical mass has been reached. Those committed to the Jewish future—and in particular to a Judaism infused with new and creative ideas that promote social justice—must look at current-day statistics on children with special needs and understand that the critical mass has indeed been achieved. How many people like Levine has the Jewish community lost because we were unable to see their incredible gifts, their potential to lead, and their unique way of looking at the world? What Jewish issues could they have tackled if given the chance? With the proper support, determination and belief, individuals with special needs will surpass your expectations. The real question is, can we surpass theirs?

Learn more about Temple Emanu-El at www.templeemanuel.com/Public/RELIGIOUSSCHOOL.

Dori Frumin Kirshner, executive director of Matan, holds a master’s degree in Jewish education. She is a former day school and Hebrew school teacher and Federation professional.

Meredith Englander Polsky, special needs coordinator and co-founder of Matan, holds master’s degrees in special education and social work. For her work with Matan, she was in the first cohort of the Joshua Venture Group Fellowship.

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