By Arlene Remz, Executive Director
May 3, 2012
You hear a lot about the pressures on high school 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.
There 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.”
Category: Reflections & Perspectives
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.
Not 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.
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:
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
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.
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.
Category: Reflections & Perspectives
By Susan Flynn, Associate Editor, Boston Parents Paper
March 5, 2012
For Frank Murphy, the likelihood that his daughter would celebrate a bat mitzvah like other Jewish girls her age could be summed up in two words.
“Never. Ever,” he says.
Ten years ago, while recovering from surgery to correct a defect in her heart, Rachel Murphy suffered a stroke and cardiac arrest. She was 2 years old and the lack of oxygen caused irreversible damage to her brain. She lost her ability to walk, speak or eat on her own.
“We went into the hospital with a kid who was healthy and we came out of the hospital with a kid who was completely different. I can’t even begin to tell you what that’s like,” says Murphy. “The only cognitive ability she had before and after surgery was her recognition of music. Music was the one thing that kept her with us – and the guys at Gateways get that.”
Gateways, based in Newton, is a six-year-old nonprofit that provides Jewish religious education to children with learning disabilities – from mild autism disorders to more severe cases like Rachel’s. Every Sunday, Rachel and her father rise at 7 a.m. and drive 45 minutes from Milford to Newton for classes that use picture stories, songs and crafts to make the teachings of Judaism accessible.
Now, when the family celebrates Jewish holidays, they can sing songs Rachel knows by heart. “Without Gateways, she would just be in the room. She wouldn’t be as plugged into our family,” Murphy says.
As she approaches her 13th birthday, Rachel will prepare for a bat mitzvah ceremony, a significant rite of passage for Jewish teens, but one perhaps even more poignant for families like the Murphys.
While federal law mandates that schools must accommodate children with special needs, there are no similar edicts for churches and synagogues, and some parents struggle to find ways to nurture their children’s spiritual needs. Fortunately, over the last decade, many organized religions have taken real steps to welcome all members of a family, even the ones who can’t sit still through a sermon or who scream out at inappropriate times.
All over Massachusetts, religious education curriculums are being modified to reach special needs children where they’re at – developmentally and cognitively. Places steeped in tradition are embracing new technologies, and religious educators say it’s possible – and just as important – to apply the advances made in special education in the schools to help children develop a relationship with God.
“Faith isn’t an intelligence test. There are very few children who can’t understand on some level,” says Cathy Boyle, a Winchester resident who adapted a Catholic religious education curriculum for her autistic son. “I think the churches are starting to realize that there are so many kids with autism and if you turn them away, the families turn away. These kids are the future of our church.”
Rich Robison, executive director of the Boston-based Federation for Children with Special Needs, is also interim pastor at the First Baptist Church in Bedford and the father of two children with Down syndrome. He understands how critical it is for a place of worship to make a child feel welcome.
“A parent can feel terribly wounded and disenfranchised from a community if the very organization you anticipate would profess everyone is welcome is the organization that sets up barriers to exclude,” says Robison. “To some people, it can feel like a punishment from up high. If they can’t accept my child, who will?”
Worldwide Interest in One Mom’s Teachings
At St. Mary’s Parish in Winchester, the secretary says she wishes she had a map to mark with pins all the places from around the country – and the world – that people have called from to inquire about the curriculum that Boyle created. Nebraska, Iowa, Alaska, Northern Ireland and Australia are among them.
After home-schooling her son to ensure that he could make his First Communion, Boyle was approached about teaching a class for children with special needs. She customized an existing curriculum for children like her son who are non-verbal.
Word spread. “If you build it, they will come,” says Boyle. Before long, she was teaching a class of 20 children from 10 different towns. She later traveled throughout the Archdiocese to lead workshops.
Skeptics may question how much the children grasp, but Boyle argues they understand plenty. “The key is to meet them where they are.”
She recalls how one day her son did something he thought was wrong while preparing to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, which involves asking for forgiveness. Instead of using the sign language word for “Sorry,” he signed “God.”
She says she was fortunate to have a priest who supported her son. One Sunday when the Boyles were not there, the priest made note of the fact that an autistic boy was a part of the congregation. “And he said, ‘This boy can be loud sometimes, and that’s all right because faith can be messy,”’ Boyle says. “That kind of backing from the pulpit sends a strong message.”
Rebecca Redner is a teacher at Gateways who first got involved with its programs as a volunteer one-on-one aide in high school. The experience was so rewarding, she says, that she ended up studying special education at Boston University.
Teen mentors are a key component of Gateways programs, along with small classes and a commitment to tailor programs to individual needs. In addition to classes in Newton, Gateways works with Jewish day schools and individual temples. About 80 percent of the students are on the autism spectrum.
Redner says her students frequently exceed expectations and surprise parents and rabbis with their ability to read Hebrew and grasp the meaning behind Jewish holidays. For instance, while teaching about Passover, Redner showed children the symbolic Seder plate and then began explaining that Passover celebrates Jewish freedom; deeper questions ensued.
“‘Why would God let the Jewish people be slaves if he loved them?’ You never know what they will come up with,” Redner says. “They are always surprising you.”
Marni Smilow Levitt, of Sharon, has two sons enrolled in Gateways programs as students, and another son who volunteers as a one-on-one aide. “Gateways has really become the go-to agency for special education for Jewish children in the Greater Boston area,” she says. “What I really want is for my kids to have a connection to the Jewish community, and that won’t happen unless they have the same opportunities to participate.”
Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah in Lexington has worked with Gateways to prepare students for bat or bar mitzvah ceremonies, and has found that the children rise to a level higher than anything he imagined.
“I think there has been an awakening in the Jewish community of the responsibility that we have to provide Jewish education to children with special needs,” Jaffe says. “In every instance, Gateways has found a way to reach their child so their child does know what it means to be Jewish. The success is something that allows the parents to know that the kids can succeed in other ways they may not have realized as well. It’s really extraordinary.”
Susan Flynn is associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper.
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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