“Helping to Shape Young Jewish Lives”: One Congregation’s Special Needs Success Stories
When you walk into Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, N.J., on a Sunday morning, you are likely to see an exciting scene. On any given Sunday, you might notice various programs taking place, parents stopping into the building and socializing with one another, children scurrying past on their way to religious school classes, and enthusiastic, committed teenagers serving as madrichim (classroom assistants). What you likely won’t see are specific classes for students that learn in unique ways, but they are there. Temple Beth-El is proud to provide a Jewish education to all students, regardless of any academic limitations or disabilities a child might have.
Why do we offer these classes? Each year, we have students who struggle to learn Hebrew. As a result, some act out, while others shut down. We want these children to love religious school, to gain an understanding of their Jewish heritage, and to feel connected to their Jewish community—the same things we want for all our children. Perhaps most significantly, we are answering our moral imperative as Jews to educate every child according to his/her needs. We are acknowledging that every soul is pure and that every child is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. The Torah is the birthright of every Jew, not just Jews who can learn its teachings according to established norms.
We have many success stories. We can share the story of the young man whose public school said that he should not learn a foreign language. His family and the religious school were not willing to accept that, and he not only learned Hebrew successfully, but went on to be confirmed and serve as our youth group president. Or the young woman who deliberately isolated herself from her peers, but with support slowly built her confidence, allowing her to serve as a madrichah with great distinction. Or the young man who acted out in class, gave all of his teachers a “run for their money,” and dreaded coming to school, yet who now spends at least three days at temple each week in school and various activities.
The picture is clear: An education program that meets the needs of every individual allows all our children to blossom and grow in amazing ways. Reaching the milestone of bar/bat mitzvah is significant, but Jewish education is about so much more than getting kids ready for bar and bat mitzvah. We are helping to shape young Jewish lives. Without Temple Beth-El’s Special Needs programs, these children and many others would be the frustrated ones who struggle to finish seventh grade. Instead, their faces shine from the bimah on the eve of confirmation as they reaffirm their commitment to Judaism.
And our students are not the only ones to benefit. Welcoming all children to our religious school and temple means that each of us within the community is charged with developing respect and tolerance for one another’s differences. Further, the learning is not just for children. Adults of all abilities are welcome to join in any of our Adult Education programs and to participate in the life of our temple community.
When God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and instructs him to lead the people, Moses responds, “Please, Adonai, I have never been a man of words…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10) Yet, despite his self-professed speech disability, God does not see Moses’ disability as a reason to dismiss him, but rather provides Moses with an assistant in Aaron. The Torah does not define a perfect or typical student of God. Like Moses, everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and all are entitled to live a meaningful Jewish life.
Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El who oversees the school’s special needs programs and facilitates inclusion throughout the community at large.