A group of older teens and young adults decorated small terra cotta pots at the Mount Freedom Jewish Center on a recent cold Sunday evening.
“Are you proud of me?” asked Hannah, 16, holding her pot.
“Look at mine,” said Rebecca, who is 19.
Later, as they planted pepper seeds in the pots, Robyn, 21, piped up, “I don’t like seeds.”
The three were at the synagogue in Randolph to take part in a group that has been gathering once each month on a Sunday evening since August for some socialization, interaction, and a bit of Jewish immersion. Participants range in age from 16 to 40. Most fall on the autism spectrum or have Down’s Syndrome or another developmental disability.
The program, called Project Shalem, was conceived by the synagogue’s Rabbi Menashe East and congregation member Fran London, a special education teacher at Roxbury High School.
They were looking for a way to make the synagogue more inclusive but wanted the program to be more engaging than many “adult day care” programs. East looked to the philosophy of the WAE Center, an alternative learning environment in West Orange for people with disabilities affiliated with the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled of MetroWest. Its basic philosophy is that people with disabilities deserve the same kinds of opportunities for growth as everyone else. Of the Mount Freedom program, East said, “This is not just day care. It offers stimulation and engagement for its participants.”
London coordinates Project Shalem, which is run on an entirely volunteer basis. Her two children — Torrey, a student at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, and Gabee, a college student majoring in special education — volunteer their time along with several parents of participants.
It is one of the few programs in Morris County offered on Sundays for people with disabilities. (Chabad of Randolph provides a program for younger participants — under the age of 15 — on Sundays as well.)
From time to time, Project Shalem sponsors joint activities with other Mount Freedom Jewish Center groups. The entire congregation was invited to join Project Shalem’s Hanukka party, for example, and the synagogue’s youth group occasionally joins in Project Shalem activities.
London devises activities for the project culled from her 20 years of experience as a special education teacher and her time as a Girl Scout troop leader and also gets ideas from acquaintances who work in special education. She has used Chabad’s Friendship Circle — which pairs teens with special-needs youngsters — as a model, and, she said, is planning a visit to the WAE Center so she can further bring its philosophy to her group.
Project Shalem also receives support from Rebecca Wanatick, coordinator of MetroWest ABLE, a network of local agencies and community leaders convened by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, which advocates for individuals with disabilities and their families.
Although one of its goals is to bring Jewish themes to participants, the project is nonsectarian. By introducing Jewish themes and holidays, said London, organizers felt they could expand the understanding of all participants. “Yes, our non-Jewish participants do come for the socialization but still go out learning something about Jewish heritage, and maybe when they hear it or see it in a newspaper, they can possibly connect,” said London. The Jewish content is strictly cultural, she said; there is no worship of any kind during the program.
‘Good type of tired’
For London, Project Shalem is a labor of love.
“I plan the program for three weeks. And when we’re done, I go home and I’m tired,” she said. “But it’s a good type of tired. I feel like I’ve made a difference in these kids’ lives.”
This month’s meeting, held Jan. 23, attracted six participants. It focused on Tu B’Shevat —the Jewish New Year of the Trees, which had taken place just days before.
At the program, Hannah talked about her pink heart earrings, but Avi, 21, was focusing on his pot and asked to chat later.
The group finished decorating and moved to a different table to draw images for a T-shirt project, ate fruit kebabs they prepared in the kitchen, and sang songs about trees accompanied by East on the guitar.
Laura Lampel, 26, of Roxbury Landing works as a cashier and attends the WAE Center in West Orange during the week. She loves taking part in Project Shalem, according to her mother, Marilyn Lampel, who volunteered to help at the Jan. 23 gathering.
“It’s a place where she knows she can be part of something, where she has friends. It’s something to look forward to,” she said.
At the end of the evening, as music played, some in the group were holding hands and dancing together, while others were jumping up and down to the beat.
“I will miss you,” said Robyn, as she departed with a caregiver.