Temple Emanu-El in Westfield has opened registration for a program geared especially for special needs students. Events geared for children ages three-seven have already begun; classes for children six-13 will begin in the fall.
The congregation — like others in the area — has offered education for children with disabilities for some time, but this will be the first program dedicated specifically to those whose religious educational needs cannot be met in the mainstream. It will be open to all, whether the parents are members of the Reform temple or not. The cost will be the same for everyone.
The program is called Ma’ayan, using the Hebrew word for a spring of water.
Funding is being provided by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, as part of its effort to broaden outreach and forge closer connections in the community, and also from the Holly E. Wetscher Ma’ayan Education Fund, set up by her family earlier this year. Wetscher, a Westfield resident who died in 2009, had cerebral palsy herself. She was a rehabilitation counselor and special needs coordinator, and a campaigner for increased accessibility for people with disabilities.
School psychologist and former religious school teacher Amy Ash, the mother of two young children, is director of the program.
She said for older students, there will be two Sunday classes a month, designed to make Jewish culture and Judaism accessible through individualized teaching. They will also have the option of a two-year bar or bat mitzva preparation.
For the younger children, a series of six interactive, family-oriented events is planned, organized in collaboration with the JCC of Central New Jersey.
The first event was a Passover celebration held at the JCC in Scotch Plains on April 17; the next — also for kids ages three-seven — is at Temple Emanu-El on Sunday, May 22, and, like the first, is open to all members of the Jewish community. The event, “A Journey to Israel,” will be structured as a make-believe trip to the Promised Land, complete with passports and visits to six Israeli cities. The journey will also feature a video, arts and crafts, dancing, and Israeli snacks.
Ash said, “What we’re offering will complement what other congregations do, a group situation and fellowship for the children that might not be possible in other situations.”
Deborah Linder, the program’s educational director, has certification in Jewish special needs education. She has been preparing children at Emanu-El for b’nei mitzva ceremonies for a number of years, as well as serving as an adjunct professor of special education at Kean University in Union.
Linder has master’s degrees in special education and business administration and teacher certification in Jewish education from the Union for Reform Judaism. A bar/bat mitzva tutor at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills for a number of years, she received United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ’s Klein Award for dedication to innovative and creative teaching and the National Association of Temple Educators’ Gamoron Award for Curriculum Excellence.
“People of all abilities need to be included in the Jewish community,” Linder told NJJN. Ma’ayan uses a multi-sensory approach tailored to each student to ensure that a Jewish education — with the opportunity to become a bar/bat mitzva — is accessible to every child. “The children are successful learners who build a sense of accomplishment and a strong link to the Jewish community,” she said.
Linder is planning to gear twice-a-month Sunday lessons around the Jewish holidays, and to give her students a basic familiarity with prayers and rituals, as well as some Hebrew, so they can enjoy a sense of participation in services, as well as learning about their Jewish roots.
Toby Ganz, a temple vice president who is responsible for Ma’ayan, said plans to expand the temple’s special education program had been on its wish list for a long time. “Now,” she said, “thanks to the generous support of the federation, Rabbi Douglas Sagal’s leadership, and an outstanding staff, Ma’ayan will finally serve as a leading center for Jewish special education in our greater Jewish community.”
The program will also have a parents’ committee, she said, so families “can find commonality and form bonds within the Jewish community.” There will also be volunteer opportunities for siblings, so they can befriend other Jewish children who share and understand their family situation, “and therefore can offer acceptance, understanding, and friendship,” said Ganz.
She said no synagogue affiliation is required except in the case of b’nei mitzva students, “who will need to be affiliated with a synagogue for obvious reasons. However, it need not be Temple Emanu-El. Our teacher will work with any congregation to prepare Ma’ayan students to have a bar or bat mitzva ceremony in their home synagogue.”