By Education Fellow Elaine Barenblat
I have loved teaching since I was very young, but I did not get my first real experience teaching students with cognitive and physical disabilities until after high school, when I worked as a City Year corp member. From that moment on, there was no looking back. My college education and much of my work experience focused mostly around special education, and I consider it my specialty. So, when I decided to join the ISJL Education Department, I knew I would have fewer opportunities to use my formal training in special education, but I hoped to use my skills to educate other teachers, and to bring an eye for inclusion and modification to my lessons and programs.
My recent trip to Houston’s Beth Yeshurun gave me the chance to use my formal training and to see how special education can work in the world of Jewish supplementary schools. This year, Beth Yeshurun is hosting a group called Kesher, organized and administered by The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, that offers an inclusive Jewish education environment for students with a variety of special needs. They work with congregational religious schools so that children can learn with other Jewish students and have access to resources like playgrounds, computer labs, community rooms and group study opportunities. Ideally, students enrolled in the Kesher program spend as much time as possible with their same-age peers.
As an Education Fellow, I bring new and innovative programs to communities. Usually, I deliver all-school programs or work with large groups rather than individual classes, so that the lessons reach as many students as possible. My visit to Houston was no exception, and Sheryl Eskowitz, the Education Director at Beth Yeshurun, made a point to invite the Kesher students since she knew my background and passion lies with that demographic. I found my first experience with Jews in the special education field to be thrilling and eye-opening—it became more evident to me how much of a need there was for formal Jewish special education. The population is ready and waiting, now all we need are trained and willing teachers.
Kesher’s inclusion model—now embraced by a large and growing number of public schools—is certainly not a new one, but providing basic and meaningful Jewish education to those with disabilities is still sometimes seen as a radical movement. Very few day schools provide classes or resources for those with developmental differences, and most Sunday schools are not able to provide the resources and teachers needed for a part-time venture into such an involved undertaking. It is refreshing, then, to see a group of children, each of whom exhibits different learning abilities, work together as a Sunday school family for a few hours. While at first glance, we might see students with special needs benefiting most obviously from interactions with their same-age peers, we should remember that the Kesher students are not the only ones having a memorable learning experience.
Thanks again to Sheryl Eskowitz, Beth Yeshurun and the Kesher Sunday School classes for letting me participate in such a great program!
One of the foundational ideas behind the ISJL is that mid-size and large congregations should build connections to smaller Jewish communities, especially in small towns where the Jewish population is in decline. That’s why we were so glad to see this set of pictures from the Religious School of Congregation Beth-El in Fort Worth, Texas, on their recent daytrip to nearby Corsicana.
We received the photographs from Hollace Weiner, archivist at Beth-El, historian of Fort Worth and Texas Jewry, and close friend of the ISJL History Department. Describing the field trip in the Beth-El newsletter, she writes, “19 teenagers and six adults from the Religious School visited the colorful town, which is a century removed and 55 miles south of Dallas on Interstate-45.”
The group’s tour guide was Babette Samuels, one of four remaining Corsicana Jews. Babette, originally from Port Arthur, Texas, is also a friend of the ISJL, having shared a delightful oral history with us in July 2010.
The students and chaperones viewed the beautiful “Byzantine-style” synagogue of Corsicana’s Temple Beth-El, which, as Hollace writes, “was built in 1900, restored in the 1980s, and deeded to the city to use as a cultural and community center. An architectural gem, the white clapboard synagogue has two onion-domed towers and three Tiffany stained-glass windows. It is the last synagogue in the Southwest with such lofty Moorish-revival domes.”
In addition to her extensive knowledge of Corsicana’s Jewish history, Babette is also very involved with the upkeep of the Corsicana Hebrew Cemetery, which was the next stop on the group’s field trip. Following the visit, the religious school made a donation to the Corsicana Hebrew Cemetery Association.
Thanks to Hollace Weiner and the Beth-El religious school for sharing this story with us. It is great to see Jewish teens learning about small-town Jewish life!
By ISJL Education Fellow, Sam Kahan
During the annual ISJL Education Conference, Education Fellows traditionally present some sort of “schtick” during meals. This year the Fellows pondered the question: “if you were a Jewish superhero, who would you be?”
As the daughter of an excellent Jewish mother, I know that feeding those you love is both a Jewish value and, at times, a superhuman accomplishment. Having inherited my mother’s drive for preparing and sharing meals, I had to incorporate food into my wished-for superpower.
My passion for feeding others manifests itself in many ways. For one, I love to cook for friends when they stop by my house. It is in my blood, or so my mother tells me. But my desire to share sustenance with others is not limited to friends and family, rather, it extends to the community at large.
A few years ago, a friend and I were involved with an organization that set up a temporary food pantry on the corner of a busy Baltimore intersection during Thanksgiving. There we were: armed with hundreds of thanksgiving meals, donated clothing, blankets and other items essential for surviving a brutally cold winter on the Baltimore streets. As I served a tremendous number of homeless people who stopped by to receive aid, I found myself thinking. I thought of what a mitzvah it was that this group of people took time out of their Thanksgiving, a day reserved for family and friends, to make sure that the larger community was taken care of.
I reflect back on this moment and recognize the teachings of Judaism that not only encourage, but command us to care for those who are hungry. The aspiration to feed friends, family, and community echoes Jewish values and is a Jewish superpower we should all work to develop. Matzah Mama will make her next appearance at Rodef Sholom Temple in Hampton, Virginia, during a Passover program about creating family traditions, be sure to watch out for her!
If you were a Jewish superhero, who would you be?