An effort to alleviate “the pain and feelings of isolation of families dealing with special needs-children” and make central New Jersey’s Jewish community more inclusive will be launched with a parents’ conference and family day on Sunday, March 25, at the East Brunswick Jewish Center.
The event — sponsored by the Orthodox Union’s NJ Yachad and the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County — will mark the beginning of a partnership whose aim is to explore ways to make community institutions more welcoming to people with special needs. It will feature workshops, networking opportunities, and programs for special-needs children and their siblings.
“We’re committed to doing this, and it has the endorsement of all the rabbis — Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox — through the Rabbinic Association of Middlesex County,” said Lee Livingston, the immediate past president of the federation and an organizing committee member.
The entire community is “facing the same challenge,” he said. “We estimate there are 1,000 Jewish kids with special needs in this community and there’s nothing for them. There’s been a lot of talk and now we need action. We want to find out where the greatest needs are so we can appropriately address them.”
Committee member Phil Goldwasser of Highland Park understands those challenges only too well. His 11-year-old son Avi has autism; high-functioning, he attends an out-of-district public school.
“I’m going to meet people who have similar issues,” he said. “My personal goal is to establish some sort of community supplemental religious education program. I know a lot of people are looking for that.”
Goldwasser said he was particularly interested in the closing program of the conference — a “town hall meeting” between Yachad staff and community representatives to plan programming for the coming year. “If we find families with similar problems, we can make things happen at the grassroots level,” he said.
Rabbi Jay Weinstein of the Young Israel of East Brunswick, a former Yachad employee, made the connection between the federation and the organization.
“I saw firsthand the wonderful work Yachad does, and I believe there is a tremendous amount we can accomplish together,” he said. “Serving the special-needs population within our community is an important goal I think Jews of all backgrounds can collaborate on together.”
‘Must be partnership’
The program’s keynote speaker will be Yachad national director Dr. Jeff Lichtman. Other workshops and sessions will be led by Yachad staff members: clinical director Amanda Levy, summer program administrator Nechama Braun, NJ director Chani Herrmann, and Batya Jacob, director of the National Association of Jewish Schools Serving Special Children.
“We acknowledge the pain and feelings and isolation of families dealing with special needs children,” said Lichtman in a phone interview with ˆ. “We want them to know we are there for them, and this conference will serve as a launching pad to begin a chapter in that area.”
He noted that although Yachad is affiliated with the OU, it was looking to service all Jews throughout the state. Lichtman estimated that “conservatively” 15 percent of the Jewish community has some sort of special needs.
“We are very much a broad-based Jewish community organization, not just Orthodox,” said Lichtman. “In my mind, Yachad is one of the few places where all that denominational silliness gets left at the front door. We serve everybody — affiliated, unaffiliated, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform. In my experience, individuals with special needs want to embrace Judaism and are not particularly concerned about denomination.”
He called the united front of support by Middlesex-area rabbis “refreshing and lovely” and said he hopes such cooperation can be a springboard to maximize service.
“Most of the pain and isolation families feel seems to come from the community, but my sense is that most of it is not malicious; it’s not mean or ill-intentioned,” said Lichtman. “It’s ignorance — and that’s slowly but surely changing. These families have to partner with the community to make it change. They can’t do it themselves. Federation can’t do it itself, and we can’t do it ourselves. No community can do it alone. It must be a partnership.”
He said embracing inclusiveness benefits any community.
“We need to do it because it’s in our interest collectively, not just for their sake,” said Lichtman “Our experience has been that communities as a whole gain far more when they include special-needs individuals…. When schools and synagogues are more respectful of those with special needs, we become a stronger community.”
And while cost is a concern to some, the bigger challenge is realizing that “all humans, all Jews, have something to contribute, and we as a community have an obligation to include everybody.
“If you have the right attitude there will always be a way to figure out how to do it.”