Gateways NewsBlog Feed

Speaking Publicly About My Disability

By Tamar Davis, Chief Executive Officer
August 21, 2020

 
Dear Friends,

It was overwhelming and heartening to see how many of you took time to watch my first video message two weeks ago—and thank you for welcoming me so warmly to my new role as CEO of Gateways. In my desire to get to know you and continue the imperative communal conversation about inclusion on behalf of all our children, I plan to use this space on two Fridays each month to share various thoughts, learning moments, and Gateways highlights with you.

It may seem logical that—considering the job I just took on (finishing my third week today!)—I would naturally feel comfortable talking about my own personal disability, and my experiences of advocating for myself in the Jewish community and beyond. However, this was most definitely not the case until well into adulthood. That first occasion where I spoke publicly about my personal journey of navigating our world with severe hearing loss was a life-defining moment that led me to where I am today at Gateways.

It was in 2011 when I was asked to speak one Shabbat afternoon as part of a “getting to know your neighbor” speaker series at my synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where I was living at the time. I entitled my speech, “To Hear or Not to Hear: What Was the Question?” What still amazes me most about that first time was the sheer number of people who attended that afternoon. Typically, about 100 people came to synagogue on Shabbat afternoons, but the day I spoke, over 300 people showed up. Afterwards, there were three main themes to people’s responses to me: many gained new insight on what it means to live with a disability, others were inspired (but not necessarily to action), and some even expressed how they didn’t feel comfortable talking about their own or a family member’s disability.

This experience was incredibly enlightening for me. I grew to understand that while we all want our communities and schools to be inclusive, all too often, we don’t realize how inherently non-inclusive our communities are until we hear a first-hand account of what a person with a disability is experiencing. I know now that my personal story is bigger than just me, and it needs to be told as part of the movement for inclusion in our society. 

From then on, I always said yes whenever I was asked to speak at other synagogues and with community leaders from my perspective as a person with a disability. In addition, I adapted my talk to include actionable insights, and to share practical steps on how a community can become more inclusive to all who want to access Jewish life.

I never dreamed that I would be adapting my talk to share a new perspective when I became a parent of a child with a disability (different from mine). And I certainly never dreamed that I would become the leader of an organization with a mission to advocate for inclusion for all of our community’s children, regardless of disability or diverse learning needs. How appropriate that in this week’s Torah portion reads the famed verse, “צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף” (Tzedek tzedek tirdof), “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20). What a clear call to action that we cannot desist in our efforts to create and sustain a just world, a world where every child has equal access to what they need to grow and thrive.

I meant every word I said in my video message, and I’ll say it again here: I want to hear from you, understand your thoughts about inclusion, and learn how Gateways can continue being a beacon of hope for our children in their path to becoming meaningful participants in Jewish life and learning. I always welcome your responses.

Wishing you continued good health and Shabbat shalom,

Tamar

Category: Reflections & Perspectives

 

Gateways Names Tamar Davis as CEO

By Michelle S. Alkon, President, Gateways Board of Trustees
June 10, 2020

Image of Tamar Davis Galper

As President of the Gateways Board of Trustees, I am thrilled to announce that Tamar Davis has been named Gateways’ new Chief Executive Officer.

The CEO appointment is the culmination of a yearlong process during which we reached out to our many stakeholders and partners in the greater Boston Jewish community to establish clear attributes, qualities, qualifications and experience for the individual to succeed our retiring founding Executive Director, Arlene Remz. We looked for someone with a commitment to the mission of Gateways and to Jewish values. We required leadership and management skills, strategic planning abilities, finance and operations acumen, capacity to build partnerships with key constituents and stakeholders, ability to think creatively, and the passion to serve as the voice of Gateways. We sought a leader who will effectively chart Gateways’ path as we enter the next chapter in our evolution.

Tamar was described by her references as the “perfect person to lead Gateways” and many said that “Gateways’ CEO is the perfect role for Tamar.” It was the unanimous and enthusiastic sentiment of the Search Committee and the Board of Trustees that Tamar Davis be offered the role of CEO. Characterized as an extremely dedicated professional, Tamar is a strategic thinker and thought partner who works collaboratively with her colleagues to develop and implement results-oriented solutions.

Tamar comes to this position from her seat on our Board of Trustees. As a person born with a disability, and a parent of a child with a disability, Tamar is keenly aware of how Gateways is striving to meet the ever-growing need for multiple paths of access to Jewish education for the broad spectrum of learners in our diverse community. Professionally, Tamar has been the Chief Development Officer for the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Boston. She came to JCRC after 12 years at Hadassah, most recently as their National Director of Annual Giving. Tamar has a Bachelor of Science in Marketing from Yeshiva University’s Syms School of Business. A proud stepmother and mother to five children, Tamar and her husband, Allan Galper, live in Brookline.

This change in leadership is a true flexion point for Gateways, as Arlene Remz retires as our first and only Executive Director. At Gateways’ founding she said, “With the formation of Gateways, Boston becomes the only community in the country that works on special education across all Jewish educational settings, including day schools, congregational schools, preschools and community schools.” Over the last 14 years, Arlene led Gateways from success to success in achieving that vision, strengthening our leadership position in the realm of inclusion in Jewish education and altering expectations across the community for welcoming people of all abilities. We are forever grateful to Arlene for her dedication, perseverance, imagination, and compassion in leading Gateways to this point in our organizational life.

Tamar has shared her excitement at joining Gateways. "I look forward to building on the vital foundation that founding Executive Director Arlene Remz implemented 14 years ago when she uniquely positioned Gateways to fill a need in the Jewish community – for children of all abilities to have access to Jewish education. My personal mission is based on creating a strong and inclusive Jewish community, and this can only happen when every child is fully included in Jewish life and Jewish learning."

Rabbi Marc Baker, President and CEO of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, notes that CJP has proudly partnered with Gateways since its inception. “Arlene Remz —and Gateways— have touched the lives of so many families in our community. She is leaving Gateways in extremely capable hands. Gateways’ new CEO, Tamar Davis, has devoted her career to Jewish communal relations and fundraising. At the same time, she has demonstrated a lifelong commitment to inclusion. Tamar will continue to ensure that Gateways will achieve its mission of giving access to Jewish education to every child.”

Please join us in welcoming Tamar Davis to her new role, which she will begin in August.

 

Search Committee Co-Chairs Lisa Hills and Barbara Schultz also contributed to this post.

 

Easing the Cycle of Anxiety

By Walter Lyons
May 28, 2020

Shadow image of head with confetti-like materials emerging from itAs we all struggle with a brave new world in which the fundamentals of our learning structures and habits are dramatically altered, anxiety levels among students, parents, and educators have skyrocketed. While many experts focus on helping teachers and parents recognize and cope with anxiety, it is equally important to understand how anxiety manifests and impacts behavior, particularly for children and teens who may already be struggling.  

Executive functioning is the set of mental processes that helps us pay attention, organize, plan, prioritize, and start and complete tasks. However, when anxiety increases, executive functioning decreases. During this era of remote schooling, parents and teachers may be seeing students have trouble doing things you know they can do. If you find yourself asking questions like, “But you knew this yesterday.” or “Why haven’t you started your homework?”, anxiety may be the cause.

Unfortunately, the more attention we draw to the concern, the more we risk launching a vicious cycle in which increasing the stress adds to anxiety, which decreases executive functioning. What can we do to break this cycle or at least offer support to a student wrestling with anxiety?

Strategies for Helping Children Manage Anxiety

 1. Decrease the anxiety.

Stop and take a break. Dr. Blaise Aguirre, Medical Director of 3East Continuum at McLean Hospital, suggests validating what the child is feeling. For him or her the feelings are real. Try to talk about what is happening at that moment; but if the child can’t discuss it, let it go. You may still feel strongly that the child has to finish the assignment; but be aware their anxiety may make that impossible at the moment.

 2. Help with the process.

Many students can continue on their own once they get started or organized. Adults can help children prioritize and organize. Work cooperatively to decide what to do first. Begin by asking, “What’s next?” or “Where do you think we should start?” The student may need support making their work area functional or deciding on what computer settings to use.

An overwhelmed teen may find a to-do list more intimidating than helpful. Rather than look to the end of the project or assignment, focus on the next step. Both large and small assignments can be broken into a series of actionable steps.

 3.   Work through anxiety.

When anxiety rises, executive functioning and working memory can falter. Noted Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) Jessica Minahan, author of The Behavior Plan: A Practical Guide to Understanding the Most Challenging Students, writes, “We have all experienced losing basic skills in times of stress: forgetting your basic address when asked during an interview, blanking out when asked your sibling’s age on a first date. Children who are anxious often have to exert more effort to perform well, as they drain resources to manage their emotions.”

When we work with our students ahead of time to better organize, plan and begin their assignments, we reduce their anxiety, provide support, and enhance opportunities for collaborative learning.

 4.   Manage anxiety triggers.

Anxiety can be extremely challenging for students, parents and teachers alike. But we can very effectively reduce anxiety by eliminating its source.

Parents are the experts in knowing what is best for your child, and teachers are proficient in knowing how to best meet a child’s educational needs. It is important to remind ourselves that we are all working together, and sometimes wearing many hats, when trying to figure out how to best care and provide for our children and students.

Perhaps it is okay if not every assignment is completed. Maybe if a student is unusually resistant or is shutting down, it is okay to put the schoolwork away. Doing so may offer an excellent opportunity for a conversation, a walk around the block together or a moment to acknowledge that you are listening to your child and respecting their choices.

 

How to Make Your Seder More Inclusive

By Rebecca Redner, Educational Specialist, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education
March 25, 2020

Family lighting candles before Passover SederPlanning a Passover Seder in the midst of social distancing can seem like a depressing exercise.  Many of us are envisioning dining room tables empty of our usual guests and mourning the time we aren't able to spend with friends and extended families.  However, this year's unique circumstances may present families of children with disabilities with an opportunity to create a personalized Seder that truly works for them. 

During most Seders, parents of children with disabilities may struggle to balance the needs of their child with the expectations of a large and lengthy family Seder. But during this year's Seder, which will most likely be spent with immediate relatives, parents can create an inclusive experience built around the needs of their children and their family. 

Here are some tips for creating a family Seder that will be meaningful and engaging for all participants, from pre-readers, to individuals with learning differences to those unfamiliar with Hebrew language and Jewish traditions. 

  • Create a schedule for your Seder and keep it visible throughout the evening. Schedules make special events predictable. When children know what to expect during a special event, it reduces their anxiety and helps them to participate. Checking items off the schedule as the evening progresses also presents multiple opportunities to praise your child for their participation. Be sure to build in a few short breaks or movement activities to help everyone stay engaged throughout the evening. 
  • Use pictures to illustrate directions, bring the Passover story to life, and even to illuminate the meaning of each prayer. Special educators often use clear, engaging images or picture symbols that have a consistent “look and feel” to each other in order to facilitate communication and help pre-readers understand text. Many children, particularly those on the autism spectrum, think visually and are drawn to symbols and pictures. These visuals can hold their attention and interest much better than text alone.
  • Provide opportunities for your children to be helpers and leaders by assigning them jobs. Think about what your children will be able to do successfully: perhaps they can lead a prayer, tell a part of the Passover story, pass around the plate of karpas, or simply uncover the matzah. Giving children these important roles will help them to feel ownership of the Seder.
  • Engage all of the senses through songs, visuals, food, dance, or even small toys representing parts of the Passover story. The Passover Seder is meant to be a multi-sensory experience, which is perfect for children with disabilities.  So be sure to look up from your Haggadahs and truly bring the seder to life!
  • Provide step-by-step directions to break down more complex tasks. Rather than giving directions in a single set of directives (such as, “Take a vegetable off of the plate and dip it in salt water, and then say the blessing before you eat it.”), offer a single direction, wait for the child to complete it, and then give the next. By helping children to succeed in following each step of the seder, we can to build their sense of accomplishment and, in turn, their engagement in the ritual. 
  • Give kids an “out,” an appropriate way to ask for a break or refuse to eat a food they don't like.  Provide them with scheduled breaks or a certain number of break tickets they can use at any point during the Seder. Give them a script for asking for a break or politely refusing a food they don't want to eat, and practice these conversations beforehand. When children have appropriate ways of communicating that they want a break or don't want to eat a food, they will be less likely to resort to acting out in order to be heard. 

We hope these tools help everyone to feel comfortable and confident at your Seder table this year.

 

The Gateways Haggadah includes visuals, explanations and tools to include people of all ages, abilities and levels of Jewish knowledge in your Seder.

For Passover 2020, the publisher, Behrman House, is offering free shipping on order of $30 or greater. Order here to get your copies in time for Passover.

 

Isabella's Bat Mitzvah: A Mother's Reflections

By Cara Coller
February 6, 2020

Child, mother and father dressed in fancy clothingAs I sat down to write this, for once in my life I was at a loss. Not at what to say, but how to express what it means to be Isabella’s mother and to share her bat mitzvah day with her and her community. I reflect on the last 13 years and all she has endured, experienced, accomplished and how much she amazes us each and every day.

Isabella’s bat mitzvah day was one that I never expected to experience, a day that as a mom, I hoped and prayed for, but knew that the odds were against us. To be on the bimah, reading Torah with my daughter, I can only say, “Well, my Izzy Bee, you proved those odds wrong, as you have done so many times.”

When Izzy was just 48 hours old, we learned her life would not be as easy as we had pictured it. At only 4 ½ pounds, we handed her over for lifesaving heart surgery, not knowing how someone so small could endure that. A surgery that, at the time, saved her, but handed her challenges that would last a lifetime. But those are challenges that she takes on with strength and perseverance.

Isabella has forever changed my husband’s and my views on life, on what is most important, and how we view the world around us. She has taught us that people and who they are matter so much more than appearance, objects, places, or items. We know that differences and challenges make us more beautiful, more alive than we thought possible. Isabella has taught me what it means to be strong: that to be scared and to still be able to accomplish things or do something you never thought you could do or survive is the bravest of all.

They say that G-d gives you what you can handle, and that there is a reason for everything. Well, I sometimes have trouble understanding that or why things had to happen the way they did.  What I do know is that before Izzy, Boston was never even a thought in our minds. We came here from Miami for her, and because of her, we have connected with all of the incredible people who surround us—family, friends, and an entire community, true “warriors” that I am honored to know.

That community is full of people who every day wake up and choose to make a difference in someone else’s life, to make sure that everyone feels included. That is the world of Perkins School for the Blind, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, Children’s Hospital Boston, and Temple Emanuel. They say it takes a village. When a child is medically complex, you learn who your village truly is. And what an amazing village we have.

In Miami, we always felt loved by our clergy, but we never felt we could attend services, and we were unable to find Isabella a Hebrew school. But here in Boston, we have found Gateways, which has helped Isabella learn to love Judaism. And the Gateways staff led us to Temple Emanuel, where on our first visit to tour the preschool, although Izzy spent most of the time running circles on the bimah, it did not faze our guide, Lisa Hills, one bit. Nor did it startle the congregation when we were called for an aliyah as a new family, and my son, who did not like crowds, stood up and announced to the entire congregation he did not like reading Hebrew and Izzy ran off the bimah.

I still recall that one night, when we chose to come to Temple Emanuel’s Shabbat Alive service, Isabella decided to sing as loud as possible with the Rabbi and Cantor. No one was upset or discouraged; instead, they embraced it. At the end Izzy ran up and hugged Rabbi Michelle, and people came up to us tell us how amazing she is. No, judgment, no looks, no whispers, just love! I knew at that moment we were home.

Over the last year, I watched Izzy study prayers and work so hard every week with her Gateways teacher, Rebecca, and her aide, Nathan, because she wanted to become a bat mitzvah. Isabella has taught us to be patient and that even if we may take different paths, we can still end up where we need to be. Time does not define what we can accomplish, only our actions do. She has taught us what it means to be strong and see the world from not only one view, but many. She has taught us to appreciate every milestone and every occasion. And how proud we, her family and her community, are that she has accomplished one of the greatest honors in a Jewish woman’s life, reading from the Torah.

Isabella’s Hebrew name, Chaya Yitzchaka, is such a reflection of who she is. We named her Chaya, which means life, when she was in the NICU, and we were not sure where this road would lead us. We then added Yitzchaka when she was three, after her great grandpa, Irving, which means laughter. “Life of laugher”: Isabella stands true to her name. She lights up a room with her love of life, her singing, dancing, and delight in music. Each day she brings us laughter, joy, and life, so much life! She has taught us to appreciate every milestone and every occasion, to open our eyes and see a world that we may not have seen so beautifully, if it weren’t for her. For this, we are forever grateful.

 Read Gateways Teen Volunteer alumna Shoshana Cohen's companion article here.

This article originally appeared on JewishBoston.com.