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Helena's Triumph: A Special Needs Bat Mitzvah Story

By Deborah Fineblum Raub, for Gateways
June 1, 2012

Helena Schreibman is comfortable at Congregation Mishkan Tefila. After all, each week she takes her Gateways: Access to Jewish Education B’nei Mitzvah classes here, coming in all the way from her home in Winthrop.  Each week she’s worked with her tutor learning to read Hebrew and prayers and each week she’s practiced with her fellow students the fine points of a service such as the blessings and Torah procession.

Helena with Rabbi and her Bat MitzvahBut the 9th grader never thought she’d be having her bat mitzvah here. Her mother’s unexpected passing in April 2009 and a series of conflicts had pushed Helena’s bat mitzvah off again and again at the family’s home congregation, Temple Tifereth Israel in Winthrop. But this time when her dad, Nat, made a date, May 9, 2012, it stuck.

And the event was the product of incredible teamwork. “It really does take a village to raise a child and this day is proof,” remarked Arlene Remz from the bimah. Remz heads up Gateways, which provides students with special needs like Helena a Jewish education tailored specifically for them.  “The Gateways community has been with you in tough times and has now come to celebrate your bat mitzvah with you,” Remz said.

And celebrate they did. The chapel was filled with Gateways students and their parents, beaming at Helena.  As she led into the opening words of Ma Tovu, Helena looked up with a huge grin when everyone chimed in, the Gateways kids singing the loudest of all.

“Helena, today is a day you and your family and friends have looked forward to for many years,” said Mishkan Tefila Rabbi Leonard Gordon. “I know how much this moment means to you and all you did to make it happen. Helena, your mother Michelle would have wanted us to invoke her blessing on this occasion. This ritual marks the fulfillment of one of her hopes ... As the rabbi at Congregation Mishkan Tefila and a friend of Gateways, I am especially delighted to join with your tonight and share our joy in hosting this service. May this be the first of many such moments we share.”

Nancy Mager, who directs Gateways’ Jewish Education Programs and has worked with Helena over the past several years, was the next to speak. “You have such a positive attitude, you make friends wherever you go,” she said, adding that Helena is determined to continue her Jewish Education next year in both the Sunday program and Gateways’ Mitzvah Mensches youth group, where she’s already an active participant.

But on this day, like generations of b’nei mitzvot before her, Helena ducked the candies being thrown her way and the Gateways kids, like generations before them, wasted little time collecting them.

As the congregation moved to the social hall for the celebration, the “village” Remz had referred to was in full flower.  The buffet dinner had been organized by the Mishkan Telfila Sisterhood, the cake was a gift from Helena’s tutor, Michelle Gary, and Schreibman cousin and photographer David Fox manned the camera, while the colorful centerpieces had been crafted at the Mishkan Tefila’s Religious School’s recent Mitzvah Day.

“Everyone did something to make it special for the family and it all came together,” said Laurie Gershkowitz who, along with Sharon Diamond and Diane Jaye, organized the dinner and party. Helena and classmate at her Bat Mitzvah

But none of the behind-the-scenes grown-up planning seemed to matter at the moment. As her Gateways friends lifted Helena high on her chair, she threw back her head and laughed, without an ounce of fear.  

“When I saw her reading and singing up there, I was incredibly proud of her,” said Helena’s teacher at Winthrop High School, Chris Donnelly, who’d made the trek out to witness his student experience her special day. “I was really, really impressed.”

In fact, besides Helena’s father and grandmother, no one beamed brighter than her teachers and her tutor.

“When other kids get up and say the blessings at their bar or bat mitzvah, it’s pretty easy for them,” said tutor Michelle Gary. “But Helena must have practiced the brachas before and after the Torah reading thousands of times over the last couple years. Never once did she get frustrated or give up. And you know what? She did them perfectly. It’s just that most people who heard her could not have known how much went into it. If they did, they would have seen it for what it really was. It really was a triumph.”

Category: Profiles

Tagged under: bat mitzvah, b'nei mitzvah, congregation mishkan tefila

 

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

 

Parenting Through a Jewish Lens

By Arlene Remz, Executive Director
April 23, 2012

At Gateways, the focus is on children and teens.  We love the wonderful bar and bat mitzvah stories, the examples of students making great strides at school, and the pictures of high school volunteers and Sunday program participants laughing at a Purim carnival.  Our Day School Programs, Jewish Education Programs, Teen Volunteer Programs, and Gateways to College directly serve young people, while Community Services and Professional Development help students by supporting their teachers and schools.  Parents and families get support through all these programs, but I have to admit that support has been indirect.

Parenting Through a Jewish Lens flyerNot any more.  This fall CJP and Hebrew College will offer a special Parenting Through a Jewish Lens (Ikkarim) class for parents of children with special needs.  Parenting Through a Jewish Lens is a 10-week course for parents that explores core values through discussion and some text study.  Led by expert instructors, the focus is on conversations about the questions that really matter: What is my vision of parenting? How can I help my child identify a good path?  How can I help my family through dark times?  How do I talk to my child about God?  

Jacob Meskin, Academic Director of Adult Learning at Hebrew College and co-author of the curriculum, explained the thinking behind the class this way: “When you have a child, you change the way you think, you have a new set of things to work out.  Judaism has a lot of wisdom about these kinds of issues, such as creating a family environment, getting along with your spouse, and raising children.”  A parent who took Ikkarim described its power simply, "This program enabled me to slow down and think about how I want to raise my child."

Parenting through a Jewish Lens is offered in synagogues and communities throughout the Greater Boston area, and parents of children with special needs have been among the almost 1,000 who have already participated.  But I believe that there is a place for a Parenting Through a Jewish Lens class specifically for those parents. The class can help build a sense of community among parents of children with special needs, who may welcome conversations with others who have similar experiences.  In a shared space these parents can get the support from Jewish tradition that every parent looks for.   As Meskin explains, all parents need “the sense that they matter, the strength to cope with their challenges, and help finding a way to God for them and their children.”

We coordinated with Hebrew College to offer this program at the same time and place as the Gateways Sunday Program---Sunday mornings from 9:30-11 at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston.  This way, while the students are in their Gateways classes, the parents will meet nearby.  If someone is interested in Parenting Through a Jewish Lens for parents of children with special needs but their child is not presently in the Sunday program, this is a twofer—the opportunity to enroll in two wonderful programs, one for you and one for your child.  And there is babysitting for siblings if you need it!

To learn more about the class and to have your questions answered, you can attend an information session on Sunday April 29 from 9:30-10:30 or you can contact Elisha Gechter, Associate Director of Adult Learning at Hebrew College.

Category: News

Tagged under: parents, cjp, hebrew college, parenting through a jewish lens, sunday program

 

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 (www.jgateways.org) 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.

Sincerely,

Estelle Gomolka
Newton

Category: Reflections & Perspectives

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