By Heather Comak, Special to the Journal
December 22, 2011
MEDFORD-- On a recent Friday night, a group of young Jewish adults sat in a circle and used drums to tap out a beat to the Chanukah blessings. Then they enjoyed a Shabbat service and dinner. Nine of the young adults had special needs, with ranging levels of disabilities; 14 were undergraduates at Tufts University. The inclusive group, called Gateways to College, meets monthly on the Tufts campus.
“I like coming and talking to my buddy,” said Jacob Yellin, 26, of Salem. Jacob is one of four disabled adults from the North Shore who participates in the group. His “buddy” is Sarah Eisemann, 20, a senior at Tufts.
The mission of Gateways to College is to provide Jewish adults with special needs the chance to interact with peers and build a sense of community, while learning about Judaism. Gateways to College is a part of the larger Gateways: Access to Jewish Education program.
Program Coordinator Sonni Bendetson founded the group a year ago.
“Young adults with special needs who don’t go to college often lose their peer group after high school,” Bendetson said. Although opportunities to engage with the Jewish community become more abundant after high school, Jewish social interaction for young adults with special needs significantly declines after high school, she said.
Bendetson, a 2009 Tufts alumna, interned at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education as an undergraduate. There she learned that parents wanted to provide their disabled kids with a way to stay connected.
Sandy Slavet’s daughter Marie participates in the program. “When you have community support like this, it’s not something you take for granted,” said Slavet, director of the Disabilities Resource Network of Jewish Family and Children’s Services.
Tufts students take part in monthly training, a sort of “Disabilities 101,” said Bendetson. They learn basic communication techniques — like offering words of encouragement and asking their buddies to repeat what they have said if it was hard to understand.
Most of the group’s activities focus on discussion of Jewish concepts and upcoming holidays. At a recent meeting, they celebrated Chanukah.
Afterwards, they all attended the Shabbat service at Tufts Hillel. Gateway members were offered visual guides, including large type prayer books kept at Hillel. It’s also an opportunity to show the rest of the Hillel community how to make materials more accessible.
The program has opened new doors for Tufts students who did not attend temple often as adolescents, or non-Jews interested in partaking of the services.
“I’ve been meaning to get involved with Hillel,” said Jon Lam, 20, a Tufts junior. “This program has helped me meet a different group of people than I’d normally hang out with [on campus]. It has helped shape my own Jewish identity.”
Arielle Evans, 20, a sophomore, joined to find an outlet for giving back. “My favorite part is Shabbat services — seeing my buddy Ilyse’s involvement is amazing. She knows all of the words, and can stand and clap to each prayer,” Evans said.
The Gateways program clearly benefits the disabled, as well.
“I have made friends, and I didn’t have many Jewish friends before this,” said Nikolay Kuzmina, 25, of Marblehead. “I’ve learned about my heritage,” he added.
Gateways to College exists at Tufts University’s Hillel thanks to a one-year grant from Combined Jewish Philanthropies, as well as funding through Repair the World.
Bendetson hopes to continue the program next year and expand it to other college campuses.
For more, click here or visit http://www.facebook.com/GatewaysToCollege.
Category: Educational Practices
December 15, 2011
Members of Mitzvah Mensches wrote and delivered the following speech at Gateways' Sweet Sounds event, and presented CJP President Barry Shrage and Jewish Federations of North America President Jerry Silverman- now honorary Mitzvah Mensches- with Gateways "Mensch" T-shirts.
We are the Gateways Mitzvah Mensches. Mitzvah Mensches is a social action youth group. A mensch is somebody who helps others. At Mitzvah Mensches, we hang out with other Jewish teens and learn about how we can help others.
For the past few weeks at Mitzvah Mensches, we have been learning about CJP. We learned that CJP supports programs that help the elderly, help kids get a Jewish education and help people with disabilities.
CJP makes sure that Jewish teens like us can go to Gateways. CJP also helps Gateways. With the help of CJP, Gateways can fund mitzvah projects. We think that CJP is an awesome organization.
We would like to thank Barry Shrage, the President of CJP, and Jerry Silverman, the President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, tonight because they support Israel and help Jewish organizations in Boston. Thank you, Barry Shrage and Jerry Silverman for all of your hard work. Since you are generous and cool, we would like to make you honorary Mitzvah Mensches, just like us.
By Arlene Remz, Executive Director
December 12, 2011
November 20 was a day I will never forget. Gateways’ “Sweet Sounds” Event always serves as a potent reminder of all the lives we are able to touch through our menu of programs, the hundreds of children with special needs – and their families -- now able to be included as full members of the Jewish community.
“Sweet Sounds” never fails to remind me that none of this would be possible without the vision and support of our wonderful Boston Federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), and all of the supporters whose dedication and generosity stand behind each and every child who can now receive a Jewish education that’s right for them.
But this year, after our Event Co-chairs Marni Smilow Levitt and Cindy Kaplan welcomed the 400-plus Gateways supporters to Mishkan Tefila’s social hall, after we dedicated the event to the memory of our dear friend and supporter Mort Ruderman, heard from those whose lives have been transformed by Gateways and saluted those educators we’re able to inspire through the Nemzoff Prize, I realized anew how deeply and widely the Gateways impact is felt every day.
It’s felt across denominations and communities, in day schools, congregational schools and preschools and among the teachers who Gateways helps to create more welcoming and inclusive classrooms. It’s felt each time our children sing the Sh’ma, learn alongside their siblings at 10 area day schools or in one of our local congregational schools, each time they participate in their families’ Shabbat and holiday rituals or enjoy the bar or bat mitzvah they could only have dreamed of a few short years ago.
Visit our event page to hear some of what these wonderful “voices” shared with us (and see Barry Shrage adopted as an honorary Mitzvah Mensch – complete with official T-shirt!).
I look forward to seeing you all at next year’s Sweet Sounds…
Gateways: Access to Jewish Education is Boston's central address for Jewish special education. Follow our blog as we spotlight the best in Jewish educational practices and materials for children through exciting ideas, valuable resources, moving personal stories and important updates.
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