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!
Over the last few months, I had the pleasure of working to put together a Southern Jewish Heritage tour for a group of Prozdor high school students from the Boston area. Using our resources and contacts in the region, we were able to create an itinerary through Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham that introduced these students not only to the South, but also to the role that Jewish communities played in this region’s history, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement. Below is a story written by one of the trip participants, re-posted from Prozdor Heads South, a blog that the students collaboratively maintained during their trip.
Yesterday we visited Auburn, Alabama, and Beth Shalom – the only temple in east Alabama. We were greeted by Mike Friedman, who immediately offered us food, and lots of it. He then began to speak to us about the history of the temple, his life, and the Auburn Jewish community.
Mike repeatedly mentioned that his story was also the synagogue’s story. He is originally from New York, but throughout his life, he and his wife moved around a lot, eventually ending up in Alabama.
My favorite part of the visit was hearing about his leadership skills. The Auburn Jewish community consists of about 35 families. He was the one that got the synagogue started, but more importantly, he was the one who kept it going. He is not a “certified” rabbi, but he explained that in the sense of teaching a community, he is a rabbi.
Beth Shalom is a Reform temple, which runs services weekly. The fact that he has kept the synagogue going for years is inspirational. They hold high holiday services, Passover Seders, Purim parties, and much more.
This experience left me with a new sense of profound appreciation for the Jewish community I am surrounded by in Needham. I find that often it is easy to take advantage of the fact that we all have close knit and supportive Jewish communities back in Boston. Mike had the courage to get one going and recruit others to keep the sense of community alive.
Just before leaving, he said, and I quote, “Someone has got to lead.”
This resonated strongly with me. I often feel this way about different aspects of my life, especially USY. My chapter started out small, but we have grown into a strong and great chapter with great leaders. There is still room to grow, but the fact that we have come so far is amazing.
Personally, this was the highlight of my trip and I am grateful that Prozdor has given me this opportunity.
We are so glad that this group was able to receive true Southern hospitality from a variety of hosts along the way, and we hope they will value their experiences here for years to come. If your group is interested in creating a similar trip, you can find more information on the ISJL website.
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?