Posts in category "Reflections & Perspectives"

I Am Nessa, Part 1

By Nessa Levine
September 4, 2015

picture of assorted multicolored glasses framesMy name is Nessa Levine. I am going to be a freshman in high school this coming fall, and I am super excited about it, but I am also nervous. I am almost 15 years old. I am Jewish. I love writing, reading, singing, acting, dance, computers, astronomy, Rainbow Looming, and art. My goal in life is to be a published author. I also have Asperger’s Syndrome, but that is quite the tongue-twister, so I just call it AS.

How I explain AS to people is that everyone is born with an invisible pair of glasses. These special glasses have lenses that alter the viewer’s perception of the world. Most neurotypical people (people who don’t have any physical, social, emotional, behavioral, or learning disabilities) have similar lenses on their glasses. One neurotypical person’s lenses might perceive one or two things a bit differently than another neurotypical person’s lenses, but for the most part, neurotypicals see the world in the same way. People who have AS or other disabilities have really quirky lenses. Their lenses cause them to see--or, in some cases, sense--things that neurotypicals simply do not have the ability to perceive. For example, when I was little, I could often hear the faint humming noises in a room or somewhere that other people managed to ignore like it was nothing! I would not be able to focus on reading or coloring because of that cacophonous humming that my mother never noticed. Or, also when I was younger, when my teachers made a spelling, grammar, or arithmetic mistake when writing on the board, I would be the first in my class to call it out. My teachers would brush it off like it was nothing, but I would see it as the end of the world. Luckily, my math teacher really appreciated my arithmetic critiquing and my having memorized “Thirty Days Hath September” so that I could help my classmates with a math problem involving the number of days in various months.

The perception of these humming noises and the “‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ unless it says ‘eigh’ like in ‘neighbor’ or ‘weigh’” mistakes is one of the things that causes problems for people like me. Neurotypicals find it ridiculous, distracting, and completely unnecessary that I notice these things. They tell me that I shouldn’t waste “precious brain space” on memorizing world capitals, poetry, or digits of pi. The way I see it, if I don’t notice it when the teacher says that 12 times 4 is 60, who will?

The other problem that my special lenses cause people is that my lenses are so focused on remembering that the capital of Albania is Tirana that I can’t pick up on simple gestures and cues that neurotypical lenses are designed to pick up on. I don’t notice if my conversation partner zones out on me when I’m discussing chemical bonds and valence electrons. I am the last person to notice if my shirt doesn’t match my pants. And if I am flailing my arms around while emphasizing a point and there happens to be a cup of water near me, you can forget about the water staying in it. It’s as if I don’t even know the cup is there!

Even though I have AS, it is just one piece of the puzzle that is me. I am so much more than Asperger’s Syndrome. I am an artist, a writer/blogger, a dancer, a feminist, an advocate for LGBTQ rights, a hater of racism, a singer, an actress, a daughter, a friend, a granddaughter, a niece, a lover of learning and books, and a dreamer. I am Nessa.

Stay tuned for I Am Nessa, Part 2: Adventures in CIT-ing at The Massachusetts Jewish Day Camp

Category: Reflections & Perspectives

Tagged under: Asperger's Syndrome, teens, actuallyautistic


A Place for Julia

By Rachel Fadlon, Director of Marketing and Communications
December 15, 2014


'Why couldn't our own tribe - our own people - offer something for our child?"

Michelle and Ron Herzlinger

“Our four year-old daughter Julia was attending a Jewish Day School in New York City with her brothers when her world crashed," relates Michelle Herzlinger. "Julia started what would become a journey into the frightening world of epilepsy. So many dreams we had for her vanished in a moment, including attending a Jewish Day School. There was no Jewish place for Julia in New York City, not during school hours - or after.”

After many years of struggling to find the right school for Julia in New York, the Herzlingers relocated to Newton so that Julia could attend the Ward School. They enrolled their two older sons in a Jewish day school. While they were delighted with Julia’s new school, they were heartbroken that there still wasn’t a Jewish option for her. Little did they know that they were about to discover Gateways, which prides itself on supporting every child who wishes to receive a Jewish education.

Following a tip from a former Ward parent – who was also a parent of a Gateways student and three teen volunteers – Michelle visited the Sunday Program and quickly enrolled Julia.

“From the first day that Julia walked in to the Gateways Sunday Program, our broken dream was repaired. She now has her own place in the Jewish community, where she is truly honored and respected. Thanks to Gateways, our dream of a Jewish education for our daughter Julia has become a reality.”

Julia is currently enrolled in her second year in Gateways’ Sunday Program and will begin planning for her Bat Mitzvah in a few short years. The Herzlingers look forward to celebrating this upcoming simcha thanks to the support of their Gateways family.

Category: Reflections & Perspectives


Inclusion For All

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

Tagged under: disabilities, JDAM, inclusion, Jewish Advocate


The Heart of a Program: Teens Giving Back

By Arlene Remz, Executive Director
May 3, 2012

You hear a lot about the pressures on high schoolvolunteer and student make a menorah together students nowadays.  The push to get good grades and go to the right colleges.  The issues around bullying, cliques and other social pressures.  The sometimes disastrous distraction of social media.

When I walk the halls of our Sunday program and see our high school volunteers, those images fade away.  I see cheerful, engaged teens who are thoughtful and focused on something besides themselves.  I see teenagers who wake up early on Sunday mornings so that they can work closely with a student with behavioral, physical, and/or learning challenges, and they come week after week filled with energy and enthusiasm.

Rebecca, a first-year volunteer and 10th grader at Brookline High School, explains her commitment this way:  “I had a major school project one weekend, but I still came on Sunday.  If I’m not here, the kids really miss me.  Not just the student I work with, we are all in the group together.”

The Teen Volunteer Program has been around about as long as the Sunday Program.  My daughter was a volunteer in the early days, even before I worked for Gateways.  All three of my children have been Teen Volunteers, and I agree with Andy Lesser-Gonzalez, our volunteer coordinator, when she described what the program gives to its volunteers: “they learn about themselves, they develop leadership abilities and true friendships.”  Andy has seen shy volunteers come out of their shells and insecure teens grow in maturity.

volunteer and student wrap arms around each otherThere are many entryways to the program.  Teens hear about it through school or through friends and family.  Some have siblings who attend the Sunday classes and they choose to work with another child as a volunteer.  Some teens volunteer through Prozdor, the community Jewish high school program, which grants class credit to volunteers, all of whom get weekly training as part of the program.

At the heart of the program are the relationships formed between the students and the volunteers. Volunteers can work as classroom assistants who help out where needed.  Those who bring special talents and skills can focus on assisting in music, videography, and other activities.  And volunteers can be paired with a student to serve as a one-to-one aide for the duration of the school year (or sometimes multiple years), a support that every student in the school receives.  The application process for the volunteer program enables us to get a sense of the applicant, and we work to make a good match.

“The kids are amazing,” says Rebecca.  “”It can be challenging, but it’s so rewarding.” Brynn, a senior from Scituate, grew up far from Jewish education opportunities.  “Just like my student, it was hard for me to go to Hebrew School.  It’s a bond we share,” she says.  Brynn is graduating and next year will be in nursing school in Pittsburgh.  Will it be good to sleep in Sundays next year?  “I love it here,” she says, “I don’t want to leave.”

volunteer and student wrap arms around each other

Category: Reflections & Perspectives

Tagged under: teen volunteers, sunday program, mitzvah mensches, prozdor


B'Yadenu: It's In Our Hands

By Arlene Remz, Executive Director
April 17, 2012

This is an exciting week at Gateways.  This week we send out letters to the leaders of Boston area Jewish day schools requesting proposals to be one of the six schools that will participate in B’Yadenu, an initiative to build the capacity of day school teachers and leaders to better serve students with a range of learning needs.   

You may have already heard about this initiative.  We’ve discussed it on our website and it’s been in the news.  Funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Ruderman Family Foundation, it’s a collaboration between Gateways, CJP's Initiative for Day School Excellence and Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership.  The initiative is called B’Yadenu (In Our Hands), Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners in Jewish Day Schools: A Whole School Approach.  

What does that mean?

Put the focus on the last three words, “whole school approach.” For years we’ve worked with individual students and teachers in day schools to develop the skills for success in those classrooms—we’ve laid the groundwork for this grant.  We’ve provided support services for students in day schools.  We’ve provided professional development and consultation.   This has made a huge difference in many day schools’ ability to retain students that, in the past, might have needed more support than the schools could offer.  That allowed for greater diversity of teaching and greater diversity of students, which in turn improved the learning environment for all students.   It wasn’t comprehensive, though.  It wasn’t “whole school.”

Through this initiative, the schools will work with Gateways, CJP, and YU to:

  • Create a baseline assessment to establish their current practices and capacity for serving students with special needs throughout their school;
  • Create and implement a comprehensive three-year whole-school professional development plan to improve instruction of all learners; and 
  • Strengthen the knowledge and skills of school leaders to ensure genuine school-wide commitment to this initiative.

The goal is to help schools retain and attract students with a wider range of learning needs and thereby increase enrollment.  Not just for these six schools—the ultimate goal is for the schools to serve as models that can be studied and adapted to work in day schools across the region and the country.

I am so excited, and proud that Gateways will play a key role in this innovative multiyear initiative.  Not only will we be coordinating and providing professional development to the day schools, but we’ll also be expanding Gateways’ capacity as a regional agency for Jewish special education services and programs.

As I think about our role in B’Yadenu and what its overall goals are, it’s good to remember what B’Yadenu will mean on an individual level.  Think of a child whose parents are committed to sending her to day school, but she has processing or behavioral issues that interfere with her learning.  The school wants to make a day school education possible for her and is committed to helping her, but it has a tight budget and limited tools.  She is often pulled out of classes for support services.  For her that means being marked as different and missing out on whole class activities.  She and her classmates have little opportunity to see her strengths and to experience her successes.
Now imagine a school where teachers have the strategies and resources to support a wide variety of learners in their classrooms, and where administrators expect differentiated instruction in the classroom.  The student mentioned above may still need to have some individualized supports at that school, but mostly she will be in class with her peers, learning alongside them, and contributing her unique gifts.

The goal of whole school change is that the child mentioned above would graduate from her day school.  But it would mean more than just her family’s feeling of pride at that graduation.  It would mean that teachers in that school have the tools to help students with a wide range of learning challenges; administrators know their school is stronger because it can retain and attract a much wider base; parents see their children engaged and motivated; and students, all the students, experience success.

B’Yadenu….it’s In Our Hands!

Category: Reflections & Perspectives

Tagged under: b'yadenu, cjp, jim joseph foundation, ruderman family foundation, yeshiva university's institute for university-school partnership, professional development, day schools