Today’s reflective post comes from Education Fellow Lex Rofes.
The end of summer can be a whirlwind for ISJL Education Fellows, as many of us spend the majority of our time traveling throughout the Southern region, getting to know Southern Jewish communities and preparing for the upcoming year of religious school. It is an incredibly exciting experience, and it has really energized us, in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays, and still, now – throughout the remaining autumn Jewish holidays. Wonderful as energy is, though, at times reflection is what we crave.
Thus, while in Houston with two other Education Fellows, we decided to take a couple minutes away from the excitement to engage in a little bit of meditation and self-reflection. Now, we could have done this just about anywhere – no specific venue is required to be introspective, nor are there any necessary supplies. But we had heard about a fascinating place called the Rothko Chapel, a multi-faith center for contemplation and prayer, and we decided it might be worth checking out.
We were not disappointed.
The Rothko Chapel is truly one-of-a-kind. As we walked into the lobby, the first thing we did was sign in to the Chapel’s guest book. Looking at earlier visitors, we saw people from all around the country. We proudly added our names, and our home base of Jackson, Mississippi, to this vast and varied list of places, and we headed towards the prayer space.
At its entrance, there were a number of books, humbly resting side by side. Some might not think much of this, but it certainly caused me to stop and think. Next to one another were traditional holy texts from Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and others. They were carefully placed side by side, with none taking precedence over the others. Implicit to me was the idea that none of them was “more correct” or “truer” than the others. This table made me stop in awe, because on it lay eight or nine texts that are, together, the basis for thousands and thousands of years of tradition, all over the world. There they were, quiet and ancient, for all to explore, analyze, study, or question.
What struck me about these books even more was that they were very well-worn. Where the covers might once have been shiny, they were now a little bit duller. Some of the pages were a little yellowed, and maybe even torn a little bit. I thought about this not because it makes the texts any less beautiful. On the contrary, I think it adds a great deal to them. There is something unbelievably tragic about a brand new book, impeccably shiny, being placed on a shelf only to go unused for years and years. These, however, through daily exploration by visitors from around the country and the world, have given new wisdom and growth to countless people. They have earned their scratches.
Next, we went into the chapel itself. There were only a couple of others inside as we entered, but we spread out to a few different corners of the octagonal room. There were benches in the center, mats for those who wanted to sit on the floor, and, most interestingly, fourteen black paintings on the walls. The paintings set the tone for a space that felt incredibly spiritual. I sat there for a while, my mind wandering from the texts in the lobby to how I might best do teshuvah (repentance) over the High Holidays, and eventually, to nothing. I sat there and thought about nothing for the first time in almost forever.
After awhile, the other Fellows and I got up to go. We rose at precisely the same moment, without speaking or gesturing, despite the fact that we had been facing in different directions and did not know exactly where the others were.
Visiting this chapel was an unbelievable experience. Through the texts, I saw quite literally what it looks like when Judaism exists peacefully, side by side, with other world religions. It reminded me of the delicate balancing act we engage in as we attempt to maintain a level of Jewish distinctiveness while simultaneously playing a role in the betterment of the world more generally. As we walked out of the building, I returned to my work for the ISJL, an organization adeptly and simultaneously carrying out both of those missions.
L’shanah tovah, y’all.
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!