By by Arlene Remz, Executive Director
February 26, 2014
This month is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Coincidentally, our organization Gateways is marking a major milestone – our 54th b’nei mitzvah celebration. What is the connection between the two? Our B’nei Mitzvah Program is for students with disabilities, students who even a decade ago, may not have been able to have meaningful ceremonies to mark this major Jewish milestone. I have witnessed incredibly moving ceremonies from students with Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism.
Our B’nei Mitzvah program should not be viewed as an anomaly – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 6 children in the U.S. has a developmental disability, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism. About 1 in 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) alone. I am certain that everyone reading this knows at least one person with an identified disability of some sort, and probably more.
The subject of Jewish Peoplehood has been on everyone’s minds since the publication of the Pew Report. With the numbers of Jews identifying with denominations declining, we need to widen our circle and find new, innovative ways to reach an ever-growing, unaffiliated population. One way to reach more Jews is for organizations to be more inclusive in general. Specifically, organizations need to be aware of and cater to the large number of children and adults with disabilities. If 1 in 6 children has some sort of disability, how can we not address this issue and do our best to reach these children in our synagogues, Hebrew schools and day schools? If we lose these children, we will also lose their families, and how can we afford to lose Jewish families who want their children to be engaged members of our community?
The tagline for this year’s Jewish Disability Awareness Month is “from awareness to inclusion”. I am certain that we are all aware of Jews in our community who have disabilities. But awareness goes beyond this – have you asked questions to understand the disability? Have you included the person’s family in the conversation? Have you tried to understand how this disability affects the person’s participation in Jewish life?
Educating yourself about members of your community with disabilities is an important first step and will most certainly make those people feel valued. But it is what you do with the information that you have learned that is vital. How can you include these people and their families successfully in your community? Are there things that you can do within your community to be more open and welcoming? What local organizations can help make this happen? Are their grants available to make your facilities more accessible and train your staff to accommodate your members with special needs? Do you feel that another organization may better be able to accommodate someone in your community? We are fortunate to be part of a larger community in Greater Boston with a multitude of services available for children and adults with disabilities in multiple settings.
What is remarkable is that not a day, but an entire month is devoted to raising awareness around disabilities and making change in the community. As it is stated in Leviticus 19:14: “Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind, but thou shalt fear thy G-d: I am the LORD”. We have an obligation to make it possible to include all Jews in our community. Let this month be a time of reflection and serve as a call to action.
Category: Reflections & Perspectives
By Rachel Fadlon, Director, Marketing and Communications, Gateways
November 6, 2013
On Thursday, October 24, Jewish organizations across North America were holding their breath to see who would be named in this year’s Slingshot Guide, the foremost resource of today’s most groundbreaking organizations, projects and programs of the North American Jewish community. From over 200 applications, evaluators chose 50 organizations - and highlighted another 17 as Standard Bearers - who they believed would drive the future of Jewish life and engagement. 18 organizations were featured in each of two new supplements - Disabilities & Inclusion and Women & Girls - in order to recognize novel ways that Jewish organizations support specific populations.
A small group from the 83 evaluators reviewed each nominee against four criteria: innovation, impact, strong leadership and organizational effectiveness. As it turns out, 8 organizations in Greater Boston had what it takes to be listed in some part of the guide. Out of the 17 organizations selected to be Standard Bearers, 4 hail from Greater Boston: Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, InterfaithFamily, Keshet, and Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center.
Four more innovative Jewish organizations in the Boston area were selected for the first time. The David Project and JOIN for Justice were both listed in the guide. The Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston’s JCC Camp Kingswood Zohar Program was recognized in the Disability & Inclusion supplement; the Jewish Women’s Archive was recognized in the Women & Girls supplement.
“The Slingshot Guide is an essential resource for putting a national spotlight on inspiring work happening in local communities across North America,” explains Julie Finkelstein, Program Director at Slingshot. “Highlighting organizations throughout the Boston area is a testament to the community’s commitment to building and sustaining engaging, relevant and impactful Jewish opportunities. With Slingshot, our national network of doers and donors learn about Boston’s inspiring stories, and Bostonians of all ages are introduced to some of the most innovative Jewish opportunities happening in their own backyards. Slingshot is proud to partner with CJP and many area organizations and foundations to support Boston’s successful drive towards Jewish innovation.”
The David Project helps college students use their own voices, points of view and experiences to positively shape campus opinion on Israel. Slingshot evaluators were excited about the David Project’s “willingness to take risks in service to its cause, and praise the organization’s use of thoughtful measurement tools to assess the future efficacy of those risks.”
Gateways: Access to Jewish Education is the central agency for special needs programs and services for students across Jewish educational organizations and denominations in Greater Boston. Slingshot noted that “through training for educators and consultations with organizations wishing to better include learners with disabilities, its multifaceted approach fills a critical void in Jewish education.” In addition to being a Standard Bearer, Gateways is also featured in the Disabilities and Inclusion supplement.
InterfaithFamily offers online educational content; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and an InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative, providing coordinated comprehensive offerings in local communities, including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area. Slingshot notes that “as the number of intermarried families in American continues to grow, InterfaithFamily leads the conversation and demands a place for interfaith families in Jewish communal life.”
JCC Camp Kingswood Zohar Special Needs Program is proud to provide camping programs that empower children of all abilities to develop self-confidence, self-esteem, independence, skills and lifelong friendships all while strengthening their Jewish identities. One evaluator shares, “The ability to find an appropriate and caring summer camp experience for children with disabilities throughout their teens and beyond will have a great impact on helping these young people feel connected to the Jewish community.”
The Jewish Women’s Archive is an online presence with virtual exhibits, oral history projects, an encyclopedia of over 2,000 articles, and engaging blog content, all aimed at preserving the legacy of both well- and lesser-known American Jewish women. “Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) stands alone in pushing forward an agenda of inclusion of women in Jewish history,” wrote one Slingshot evaluator.
JOIN for Justice strengthens the community organizing practice of Jewish leaders, ensuring that Jewish communities play a powerful role in North American social justice struggles. Evaluators were impressed with JOIN for Justice’s “success in building meaningful partnerships that result in generating change throughout the Jewish community.”
Keshet works towards the full equality and inclusion of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Jews in all areas of Jewish life. “In its 17 years of operation,” says Slingshot, “Keshet has built and led the field of Jewish LGBTQ inclusion. Over and over again, Keshet has proven its ability to adapt its work to the needs of the community.”
Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center is a beautiful and radically inclusive mikveh (ritual bath) and education center for healing, celebrations, life transitions and conversion to Judaism. Mayyim Hayyim is the only organization in the guide that is recognized in both supplements and as a Standard Bearer.
Boston has long been thought of as a city of innovation. Recognition in the Slingshot Guide by so many of its nonprofit organizations is just another confirmation of this.
For more detailed information about the organizations in the Slingshot Guide 2013-2014, visit www.slingshotfund.org
Category: Awards & Recognition
By Rachel Fadlon, Director, Marketing and Communications
October 2, 2013
Rabbi Keith Stern: What does being a bat mitzvah mean to you?
Jamie: It means that I know a lot about being Jewish.
Rabbi: What have you done to get ready for your bat mitzvah?
Jamie: I practiced saying prayers, learned about my Torah portion, went to Gateways, met with the Rabbi, and did a mitzvah project.
While this may sound like a typical exchange between a rabbi and his pre-bat mitzvah congregant, it is in fact so much more. Jamie Davidge, 13, has cerebral palsy and this conversation consisted of her rabbi asking her questions out loud and Jamie selecting her answers from her augmentative communication device (a computer that speaks for her) that she uses to communicate.
Jamie’s becoming a bat mitzvah marks the culmination of a journey for the Davidge family, who had to pursue a long and winding path to get to this day. Families of typical Jewish children either enroll them in their congregation’s religious school or send them to day school to receive a Jewish education. They hire a tutor and meet with their clergy to prepare for b’nei mitzvah using the blueprint laid out by their congregation. This system works for most families. But for families with children with more severe needs, the idea of being able to prepare their children for a meaningful ceremony oftentimes seems unrealistic or unattainable.
Jamie is just one example of how the Greater Boston Jewish community has made an effort to embrace all its community members. In her conversation with her rabbi, Jamie mentioned Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, the local central agency for making Jewish education accessible to all Jewish students. Her journey began when her parents learned about Gateways’ Sunday Program which is a self-contained religious school for children who need a more intimate learning environment and are unable to thrive in the synagogue religious school setting. There, Jamie attended classes and was assisted by a one-on-one aide. As she grew to pre-bat mitzvah age, she joined the B’nei Mitzvah Program on Wednesday evenings, where she was part of a small class and worked one-on-one with a Gateways tutor.
Gateways provided Jamie and her family with a structured program where she received individualized support and differentiated instruction. She was also lucky that Gateways received funding from the Boston Jewish Community Women’s Fund, enabling her teachers to create a Special Path to Bat Mitzvah, a girl-centric curriculum focused on highlighting strong Jewish women (including women with disabilities) and the contributions they have made. “Jamie was really the impetus that prompted us to apply for the grant,” says Nancy Mager, Director of Gateways’ Jewish Education Programs. “Having her in our program challenged us to identify the unique needs of girls with special needs. We wanted to make accessible to our girls the best of what is out there for typical bat mitzvah aged girls.”
Although Jamie did not participate in Temple Beth Avodah in Newton’s religious school, she and her family remained connected with the congregation through the process. She submitted a profile to the temple newsletter (like all b’nei mitzvah in the congregation are expected to do), sharing news about her bat mitzvah.
“Rabbi Keith Stern was an incredible, supportive partner in the process,” recalls Mager. “In our initial meeting [about Jamie’s bat mitzvah], he made it clear that it was important to the synagogue that Jamie felt at home and was celebrated for who she is and what she knows. Her disability was always secondary.”
“Jamie has been a member of Temple Beth Avodah since she was a baby,” says Rabbi Stern. “As she has grown up, I have been endlessly amazed by her tenacity and the dedication of her parents. Her excitement over her Bat Mitzvah was positively electric! She showed this with an extraordinary smile and, after every completed prayer, a “Yesher Koach!” straight from her sound board.”
Understanding and respecting that Jamie’s ceremony would look different than a typical service, Rabbi Stern and the temple staff worked with Gateways’ staff and Jamie’s family to create a ceremony that would enable Jamie to participate meaningfully. This meant restructuring the typical service to include everything she had learned, but in a shorter length of time so Jamie wouldn’t become fatigued; relocating from the large sanctuary to a space that was less intimidating; and using Gateways materials to aid in creating a meaningful dvar Torah.
“Since Jamie cannot say the prayers herself, instead of using the preset voice of her device, we recorded her sister Anna reciting them,” explains Rebecca Redner, Jamie’s teacher at Gateways. “We recorded Anna at the Davidge’s home with Jamie sitting and listening and grinning the whole time. After each prayer was recorded, Jamie insisted on trying it out. She was delighted with our decision to use her sister’s voice.”
When asked how she felt when she first learned that she was going to have a bat mitzvah, Jamie said “Confused”. When asked later, she answered “Excited and nervous”. When her rabbi asked her how she thought she would do on the day of her bat mitzvah, she said “Great!”
Redner is not surprised. “I always knew how intelligent Jamie was. She was really the one to push us [Gateways] to create a ceremony that showcased her knowledge and passion,” says Redner. “This is a girl who clearly loves praying and being Jewish, and I am so proud that we could help her learn to her greatest potential and enable her to share it with the community.”
“I am truly awed by Jamie and the effort she expends to express herself,” says Rabbi Stern. “Her siblings and her parents are remarkable people who deserve halos if Jews ever start giving them out. And I am deeply thankful and proud that Jamie knows that she is a part of a congregational family – a place where she was, and will always be, welcomed.”
By Sharon Goldstein, Director of Day School Programs, Gateways
August 30, 2013
Have you ever really thought about all that goes on during your child’s day in school? Each time they switch classes, it can literally feel like stepping into another country. Each teacher has different rules, expectations and customs. Do you raise your hand to go to the bathroom, or just go? Are you penalized for handing in an assignment late? Can you call out an answer, or do you need to raise your hand? Can you eat in class? Imagine how much more overwhelming this can be for students with executive functioning and organizational issues. Here are a few strategies that parents and teachers can implement to help ease back-to-school anxiety and navigate the academic jungle.
Using these strategies will cut down on typical back-to-school anxieties and help ease your child back into the daily grind. We wish you a happy, successful year!
Category: Educational Practices
By Rachel Fadlon, Director, Marketing and Communications, Gateways
June 21, 2013
“I am blessed to be an eighteen year-old who actually knows what I want to do when I grow up.” Ilana Mael, a recent graduate of Gann Academy, met Jaime when the two were paired together at Gateways’ Sunday Program three years ago. On a whim, Ilana had signed up to get more information about a volunteer opportunity to work with students with special needs. Little did she know that she would not only be accepted into the program, but that the experience would change her life.
Jaime had been attending Gateways: Access to Jewish Education’s Sunday program since age 5. The program provides a Jewish education for students who are unable to participate in a typical religious school environment. She has cerebral palsy and communicates using an assistive technology device. Aside from small classroom sizes and teachers who are all special education professionals, each student in the program has a dedicated teen volunteer (sometimes more than one) who works one-on-one with them. In addition to working in the classroom weekly with their student, all teen volunteers also meet each week to receive training and support from a teen volunteer coordinator.
Jaime and Ilana were paired together after Jaime’s former volunteer graduated from high school. As Ilana learned to communicate with Jaime, she discovered a clever, witty young girl. The two bonded over shared interests – TV, music, hobbies – and even planned to show up dressed the same to class. “Each week,” says Mael, “I couldn’t wait to see her and continue our conversations about Taylor Swift and Lovelanes. She is a bright, funny young woman…I love her sense of humor!”
As Jaime approached the age of becoming a bat mitzvah, she also began to attend Gateways’ B’nei Mitzvah Program on Wednesdays. As part of this preparation – just as in many congregational B’nei Mitzvah programs – Jaime had to pick a cause that she supports and raise awareness and money for it. Jaime choose Lovelanes, a special needs horseback riding program that she participates in. She wrote letters that were sent out in Gateways weekly newsletters sharing information about her project and giving updates on her progress in reaching her monetary goal.
Meanwhile, in addition to volunteering, Ilana became involved in Gateways’ Mitzvah Mensches, an inclusive teen youth group focusing on social action and philanthropy. The teens chose several causes that were important to them to learn about during the year. They also raised money. At the end of the year, the students campaigned for which cause to donate the funds they had raised.
At this point, Jaime was just dollars away from reaching her fundraising goal for Lovelanes. As luck would have it, Lovelanes was one of the choices that the Mitzvah Mensches were considering and Ilana jumped in to save the day. Not only did she successfully convince her peers to vote to support Lovelanes, but she also persuaded them to give the money directly to Jaime so that she could donate it to Lovelanes with the reset of the money she had raised as part of her bat mitzvah project. It is unclear whether Ilana or Jaime were more excited by this accomplishment.
On May 29, Gateways’ held an appreciation event to honor the almost 70 teens who volunteer in its Sunday Program. Two teens were chosen to speak about their experiences – Ilana was one of them. As she got up to speak, she did something unexpected: she walked over to Jaime and wheeled her onstage with her, so that she could direct her words to Jaime. As Ilana spoke of how she became a volunteer and how she came to adore Jaime, Jaime sat on the stage beaming with joy, taking in every word – and clearly agreeing. “The dedication of the entire Gateways staff is truly inspirational,” Mael shared. “There is no doubt in my mind that Gateways has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my high school experience ---I am so grateful to have had this opportunity.”
Not only did Ilana gain a friend, but through her experiences with Jaime and her involvement in Gateways’ programs, she is now certain that her future career path will include special education.
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