Why I Chose Special Education

By Lisa Friedman, Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey

Editors Note: Special thanks to Lisa for graciously allowing us to share this story. She originally posted this on on her own blog, Jewish Special Needs: Removing the Stumbling Block.

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When I begin a workshop or presentation on Jewish special needs education, I like to give a little background about myself. I share the obvious credentials of where I went to college (Rutgers), where I got my Master’s degree (again, Rutgers) and where I have worked (West-Windsor Plainsboro School District, Temple Beth-El). But I also really like to talk about the Jewish part of my path.

I’m a NFTY kid through and through. NFTY is the North American Federation of Temple Youth, The Reform Movement’s national youth organization. Of course, it was JFTY when I was involved, but now I date myself!

At the age of seventeen my parents gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and it was truly a life-changing experience. I spent six weeks of the summer between my Junior and Senior years of high school participating in NFTY’s Urban Mitzvah Corps, an intense summer program designed to “provide participants with an authentic opportunity to explore their Jewish identities through the lens of social justice and Tikkun Olam.” Participants in this program choose jobs sites and volunteer their time. Together we built a community that made a difference in the lives of the mentally and physically challenged, the underprivileged and the elderly. Our evenings were spent learning, enjoying social activities, and discussing current social justice issues. And of course, as a Jewish community, our weekly celebration of Shabbat was a highlight.

My job sites were the inner-city parks & recreation program and Camp Daisy, a day camp for children with developmental disabilities. Daisy was my first experience with individuals with physical and developmental disabilities. All these years later, and I can still picture, like it was yesterday, the joy of splashing in the lake with my campers.

Three weeks at Camp Daisy and that was it. I was hooked. My track was set.

But as I said, I am a NFTY girl through and through. So even though I spent years teaching special education in the public schools, I jumped at the chance to shift into the role of a Jewish professional within the Reform Movement. My worlds seamlessly came together. It was like coming home.

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Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. This position includes overseeing an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School with programs designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. In addition, Lisa’s role is to work with families, staff and clergy to ensure a smooth transition for special needs students from Religious School through the b’nei mitzvah process and beyond.

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