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!