Posts in 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 wrap arms around each other 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


Gateways Mom Writes Letter to the Editor (Boston Globe)

By Estelle Gomolka
March 12, 2012

After The Boston Globe published iPad Gives Boy a Voice at His Bar Mitzvah, an article about a Merrimack Valley family's moving bar mitzvah experience for their son with autism, Gateways mom Estelle Gomolka wrote a letter-to-the-editor reflecting on an unforgettable day for their family nearly five years ago: daughter Sarah's bat mitzvah.

Dear Editor,

When I read the recent Boston Globe article about the young boy with autism celebrating his bar mitzvah (iPad gives boy a voice at his Bar Mitzvah, March 4, 2012), I knew well the pride and the love his family experienced on that day.

I know because five years ago our daughter Sarah also had a bat mitzvah, something we’d long dreamed of for her but never thought would be possible. For Sarah, who has cerebral palsy and cannot speak but uses an electronic device to communicate, it was the program at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education that made that special day possible. At Gateways, every Sunday she would hear the songs and the stories that connected her to Jewish tradition and her Jewish self, and it was there that she found friends and teachers who became part of her Jewish community. In the two years she spent in Gateways’ B’nei Mitzvah Class, Sarah became comfortable with the ins and outs of the service and her teacher helped her prepare for the kind of bat mitzvah that would be meaningful for her -- and for our family. When her big day finally arrived Sarah was able to recite the prayers of the morning service and deliver her Bat Mitzvah speech through pictures and a pre-recorded voice using a PowerPoint presentation. It was a moment none of us will ever forget! And when her Gateways friends and teachers surrounded her afterwards with happy, supportive mazel-tovs, it taught us so much about the power of community.

Gateways ( welcomes children with special needs from across the Boston area into a variety of programs, from the Sunday program Sarah attended to supports in area Jewish day schools and congregations. If you know of a child who might be able to benefit from a specialized approach to Jewish learning, Gateways would be happy to hear from you.


Estelle Gomolka

Category: Reflections & Perspectives

Tagged under: boston globe, letter to the editor, gomolka, b'nei mitzvah


The Beauty of Diversity (Special Needs Included)

By Arlene Remz, Executive Director
February 6, 2012

A few weeks ago, I had the evening news on while preparing dinner, and I perked up when I heard Brian Williams introduce a story about a six-year-old New Jersey boy.Target ad featuring child with Down syndrome

Ryan Langston - blond-haired, wide-eyed, and infectiously energetic – takes time from school and playing with his brother and friends to model the latest kids wear for some of the biggest retailers around, Target and Nordstrom among them.

Whether showing off this season’s bomber jacket, or a new line of hoodies, his good looks, poise and boyishness are striking as he poses with other kids in national ad campaigns.

So what, right? 

Well, Ryan has Down syndrome.  But glancing at the ads, that fact seems no more noticeable or relevant or important than the girl next to him having black hair, or the boy to the far right being Asian.

Binny at school in his Striar T-shirtWatching this segment on NBC News, I couldn’t help but think about our Gateways kids.   

Kids like eight-year-old Binny Ellenbogen, a boy with Down syndrome who is happily and successfully learning with his peers at Striar Hebrew Academy of Sharon (SHAS).

The school is one of 13 Jewish day schools in the Boston area at which Gateways supports inclusion of students with special learning needs and ensures that they receive a Jewish education.

Or ten-year-old Mira Weisskopf, a beautiful girl with cerebral palsy who attends Zervas Elementary School in Newton during the week, and a Gateways Jewish education program each Sunday.Mira at the Gateways Sunday Program

Just like Ryan in the ads, each of them is part of the fabric of their schools and communities, adding to the richness and diversity within them, bringing a dose of individual potential to the mix.

Our culture, discourse and sensitivities are driven to a considerably extent by what is reflected in television shows, movies or advertisements.

So it is heartening to me that major companies such as Nordstrom, Target and Proctor and Gamble – all purveyors of the national dialogue through their ad campaigns – have quietly but boldly chosen to include those with special needs.

Gateways believes that only through such exposures will the greater population come to know that these individuals, like all of us, come packaged with strengths and weaknesses, but that we all have our contributions to make and should be allowed the opportunity to offer them.

JDAM2012That brings me to the fact it is February, and that means we are marking Jewish Disability Awareness Month. 

One of the operative words here is “awareness,” because as we recognize that all of those among us – like Ryan or Mira or Binny – are part of the collective tapestry, we are obliged to open every avenue for them to reach full potential, whatever that may be.

For the Gateways family, that entails swinging open the gates of Jewish community to our children and youth with special needs, allowing them to become full and participating members of our synagogues and schools, and empowering them to become agents of Jewish continuity.

But it all starts with awareness – of those with special needs and their positive place in the collective whole.  And not just this month, while the Jewish community pays special attention and then moves on.  No, this is imperative every month.

Now… how I’d love to see Mira or Binny in one of those Target ads.

P.S.  Check out Jay Ruderman’s blog Zeh Lezeh.  In A Model of Inclusion: Now Put It to Work, guest blogger Jo Ann Simons writes about how her son was featured in a clothing catalog in the 1980’s. She challenges companies to not only photograph people with disabilities, but hire them.

Category: Reflections & Perspectives

Tagged under: JDAM, inclusion