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!
I was working on an activity for the Texas Jewish Immigrant Experience Traveling Trunk when I came across a gem on the internet.
I needed information on early Jewish-owned retail businesses to add real life facts to some cards for a board game called Peddler’s Travels, a journey where players learn the trials and tribulations of a Jewish immigrant peddler at the turn of the 20th century.
“Starting in Millican, Texas, the German-born brothers followed the progress of the Houston & Texas Central Railroad, opening new dry goods stores in each town as the tracks moved northward. In 1872, they opened a branch in Dallas, with Alex Sanger coming to manage it. Brother Philip Sanger soon came to help Alex with the business; the two opened a wholesale operation, which supplied small town stores and peddlers throughout the area. In 1879, traveling journalist Charles Wessolowsky called the Sanger Brothers store “an establishment of grandeur, taste, and elegance equal to any in the South,” and likened it to the leading stores in New York City. By 1890, the business employed 250 people and later moved into an 8-story building at Main & Lamar streets.”
Perfect! The Sanger store would serve as a helpful hand for a fictitious peddler trying to earn enough money to open their own store, the end goal to win Peddler’s Travels. But is the name something that Texas students would recognize? Is it still around?
I turned to Google only to find a wonderful treasure trove of data on not just the Sanger stores, but department stores, many Jewish, all over the country. The Department Store Museum is a fantastic site dedicated to the history of these retail stores. On the Sanger/Harris page it lists each of the stores, what was sold in its departments and even provides images of each location.
Ok, it’s a cool site. But why blog post worthy? What amazed me the most were the comments. As a new blogger myself, I was envious of the dozens of responses to these post. People happy to recount childhood memories of the large Christmas display, shopping with their parents or being trusted with their first charge card at Sanger’s. Recollections of when they used to work at the shops as a teenager, or younger people who have been gifted fur coats with Sanger/Harris in the labels curious about it’s history and worth. People bragging about the couch they bought 30 years ago that’s still in great shape! They really don’t make them like they used to.
People have an amazing nostalgic connection to these massive stores and the services they provided. I encourage you to hop on over to the site to look for your favorite store and connect with other former shoppers.
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!