February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Established by Jewish Federations of North America and the Consortium of Jewish Special Educators, its aim is to recognize and increase awareness of the needs, strengths, opportunities, and challenges of people with disabilities in our Jewish communities.”
The following are among the organizations marking the month with special activities.
The Friendship Circle, an initiative of Chabad of Western Monmouth County that helps special-needs children and their families, has been functioning for more than 12 years, said its director, Chanale Wolosow.
Chabad of WMC is affiliated with the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, the yeshiva of Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn.
Launched in October 2001 by Tova Chazanow and Meryl-Lee Abraham in memory of Ari Kraut, Meryl-Lee’s brother, Friendship Circle recruits teen volunteers to provide special-needs youngsters and their families with support.
Wolosow said Friendship Circle currently has about 120 participants, and nearly 140 volunteers (including about a dozen adults). Activities include home visits by the teens and such events as workshops, lectures, programs, dancing, games and sports, and discussions of Jewish customs around the world.
“We celebrate all the major Jewish holidays with appropriate festivities,” Wolosow said. “In addition, important Jewish traditions are covered, such as tzedaka, honoring one’s parents, and behaving honorably. These are all values that can and should be brought into the everyday lives of our special-needs friends.”
Friendship Circle’s Loaves of Love program began in November. “In response to parents’ requests, we are trying to transition some of the older Friendship Circle youngsters into a work situation,” said Wolosow. “We’ve set up a makeshift bakery where we make simple things like hallah and cookies, and we’ve enlisted some of the participants as workers. This requires them to learn about punctuality, responsibility, and the performance of certain skills like braiding, packaging, sealing with a twist tie, and more.”
Temple Shaari Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Manalapan, will hold an event in conjunction with Jewish Disability Awareness Month — almost. Scheduled for Saturday, March 1, the special Shabbat service will be the last of three Kollel Family Services held throughout the past four months.
Rabbi Melinda Panken said temple members affectionately call this special needs-friendly observance the “no-shushing” service. “The idea is to allow all attendees to be who they are — without the constraints associated with more mainstream services,” she said.
To make the service as accessible as possible, Panken said, there are no books. Instead, images are projected on a screen. From a resource table, youngsters, and adults too, are invited to borrow objects that express their thoughts and feelings. “The children march with stuffed toy Torahs, there is a thank-you board where people can express their gratitude, and the children are given shofars to blow, signifying the call to prayer.”
The Hebrew word kollel is often translated as “gathering,” as in a gathering of scholars, Panken told NJJN in a phone interview. “But we use it to mean community, and that’s what we are trying to foster — a sense of belonging to the temple community for families that, because of their circumstances, might feel left out or singled out.”
In addition to the Kollel services, Panken said, Shaari Emeth averages about four special-needs b’nei mitzva services each year. Rochelle Baum of Morganville, whose son Kyle had his bar mitzva last June 9, was effusive about the help the family received from the rabbi, Cantor Wayne Siet, and temple administrator Karen Silverman.
“We weren’t certain if Kyle would ever have a bar mitzva,” Baum told NJJN. “He is on the autism spectrum and has serious problems with cognition and control. His language skills are so weak that he can only make simple requests for food or a blanket.”
Three years ago, however, when their older son Ian was becoming a bar mitzva, the Baums wanted the whole family to attend, including Kyle and his neurotypical twin sister, Sarah.
When that went well, following detailed preparations, the Baums asked that Kyle be allowed to have a bar mitzva along with Sarah. The first step was to find a date other than a traditional Saturday morning when Kyle and Sarah would have had to share the bima with another child. June 9 was a Rosh Hodesh Sunday.
“No matter what we asked, the answer was yes,” said Baum. “Could the sanctuary be opened numerous times in the weeks before the service so that Kyle and his teacher from Garden Academy in Maplewood could sit there, and he could become familiar with the surroundings? Yes. Could we take one line of Sarah’s Torah portion and have Ian read it phonetically one word at a time so that Kyle could echo him? Yes. Could we have two non-Jews, Kyle’s teacher and her supervisor, on the bima throughout the service to steady him if he showed signs of stress? Yes.
“I cannot imagine being in a better temple for a family like ours,” Baum said. “They did everything they could to make us feel like a whole Jewish family.”
Hand in Hand, organized by Chabad of the Shore of Monmouth County — affiliated with Chabad House-Lubavitch at Rutgers University — has been operating for about seven years. According to Rabbi Laibel Schapiro, “Its twofold purpose is to involve special-needs children in a full range of Jewish and social experiences while providing an exciting growth opportunity for its teenage volunteers.”
“The experience is rewarding for all,” according to the Hand in Hand website. “The special-needs children get to have what every child needs: friends, role models and love. The volunteers enjoy the priceless experience of contributing to someone’s life in a fun and playful way.”
In a phone interview, Schapiro told NJJN, “We’re doing this because it resonates with our deeply held religious belief that everyone’s soul deserves to be nurtured.”
When teen volunteers pay in-home visits, they go in pairs, both for safety and to ease the workload, said Schapiro. “Acting as big sisters or big brothers, they provide much-needed friendship to youngsters who might otherwise feel isolated and alone.”
When Hand in Hand offers communal events, like the Purim Party being planned for Sunday, March 16, this year, Schapiro said entire families are able to connect and relax in a Jewish environment without the sense they are being judged by a mainstream audience.
Schapiro stressed the value of the program to the volunteers as well. Karen F. Lang of Ocean Township said her older daughter, Arielle, entered Washington University in St. Louis as a neuroscience and psychology major, a choice “largely inspired” by her work with an autistic child through Hand in Hand.
Lang said her younger daughter, Emily, plans to pursue a career in engineering at Cornell University beginning this fall. “Through her work with Hand in Hand, as well as a high school psychology class field visit to a school for children with special needs, she has developed an interest in biomedical engineering. She hopes to improve communication devices for children who have impaired or absent speech.”
Overall, Lang said, “Hand in Hand has given my daughters an invaluable opportunity to participate in the lives of children in need of friendship. Through their relationships with their special friends, my girls gained self-esteem, sensitivity, and understanding of others.”
The Special Education Academy of Deal, which is located in Eatontown, has been working with challenged students for 12 years and has “helped hundreds transition into mainstream schools,” said director of development Sari Setton.
Quoting from the institution’s mission statement, Setton said, “SEAD assists children with special needs by providing each child with a personalized education tailored to his or her unique learning challenges.”
Noting that the pre-K through eighth-grade school has just 25 students at present, Setton said, “Unlike many other schools, we don’t pride ourselves on how many students we take in, but on how many can move on” as they gain in understanding and social adaptation.
Because of the special nature of its student body, Setton said, SEAD, which is organized in keeping with Orthodox philosophy and methodology, doesn’t place kids by age groups. Instead, the youngsters advance through the grades in keeping with their developmental abilities.
“We believe in the potential of every child,” she added, suggesting that the SEAD approach is the best way to maximize this potential.