Zoe Brooks and Nicholas Witznitzer are not your typical Hebrew schoolers. They are doing well in language comprehension, but they might have a little trouble learning prayers or studying texts — but that should come as no surprise; after all, Zoe is a golden retriever and Nicholas a German shepherd.
The canines attend a special resource room class that meets on Tuesday afternoons and Sunday mornings at Congregation Adath Israel in Lawrenceville. Students in the class are an “interesting mix,” said synagogue resource service coordinator Sharon Frant Brooks. They range from gifted students to special-needs children with such disabilities as autism, ADD/ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome, Fragile X, and Familial Dysautonomia or who have emotional and behavioral deficits.
“There’s no stigma to coming in here,” said Brooks, who also happens to be Zoe’s “mom.”
Zoe and Nicholas are part of the DALET (Dog Assistant Literacy Education Teacher) team, recruited to help members of the class in, among other areas, reading and learning prayers. Some of the students, said Brooks, are more comfortable interacting with dogs than with people. “There’s a great deal of research to show that kids who aren’t reading well are afraid to read in front of the class or teachers,” she explained. “But they’re not afraid to read to dogs. They’ll sit with the dogs and read to them, so we created a vehicle here customized for each child.”
Brooks, a trained occupational therapist with extensive experience in Jewish education and working with the disabled, decided seven years ago to start bringing Zoe — the service dog for her husband, who is quadriplegic — to the class. Fellow teacher Elaine Witznitzer also enrolled Nicholas, who was trained, but didn’t quite make the cut as a Seeing Eye dog.
The DALET dogs now have had an entire curriculum built around them, including “bark mitzvah” tzedaka projects and studying “muttrash,” canine-centric biblical stories, through which the youngsters learn “a little Hebrew, a little midrash, Torah, and mitzvas,” said Brooks.
Brooks and her students even created a cookbook, Kosher Canine Cuisine: Cooking With Zoe, which is sold in the congregational gift shop and serves to teach the children about kashrut.
Another of the students’ canine comrades is the hero of several large handmade books that contain photos and real-life adventures of Riley Rapkin, a lovable large white poodle owned by friends of Brooks. Written in English and some Hebrew, the books are used to teach reading skills. “All the kids know how to say ‘poodle’ in Hebrew,” laughed Brooks.
On a more serious note, Zoe and Nicholas play such a critical role for some of the special-needs youngsters, said Brooks, that they cannot go up on the bima during their b’nei mitzva service without them.
“We’ve had kids with profound disabilities like selective autism who would not say a word, or kids with ADD who could not sit still for a minute,” said Brooks. But developing a relationship with the DALET dogs has worked wonders. “It gives them motivation to learn, to read,” she said.
The class’s latest project, “Kelev to Kelev,” or Dog to Dog, has the youngsters raising money for the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind. The project kicked off Feb. 13 at the synagogue’s Israel Festival, where a small group of students worked with the DALET dogs and IGDC executive director Michael Leventhal of Doylestown, Pa., to imitate training techniques used for guide dogs for the visually impaired.
Youngsters had made tzedaka boxes and posters for the fund-raising project with the goal of raising $500, about the cost of sponsoring a puppy training as a guide dog in Israel
“We feel it was a great learning program,” said Brooks. “Our kids learned the Hebrew commands and their meanings through flashcards. Zoe and Nicholas were taught the basic Hebrew guide dog commands. Then the students had to learn the hand signals associated with them and teach the dogs the Hebrew signs.”
On March 15, during a visit by NJJN to the school, youngsters took turns putting Zoe and Nicholas through their paces commanding them — in Hebrew — to sit, shake hands, and stay, then rewarding them with a doggie treat. Other youngsters were making posters to encourage donations that they would display at the synagogue’s Purim carnival five days later.
“It’s exciting; it’s like an activity, like a game but it’s fun,” student Cameron Nadel, 11, of Columbus told NJJN. “You give a command and they actually listen to you. I know Hebrew a little better and now I know what to tell my dog, Bruno, at home. He’s learning Hebrew too.”
Shelly Burstyn, 15, of Lawrenceville bowed toward Zoe as she recited the Amida to her. At Brooks’ prompting, Shelly then recited the Hamotzi before giving Zoe a treat.
Director of congregational learning Hedda Morton said the dogs are just one reason Adath Israel’s resource center is sought out by parents of special-needs youngsters.
“We have a treasure here,” she said. “It’s really a cumulative effort by our staff. That is the hallmark of an exceptional teacher, to make education accessible to everybody.”