For many years, the Glen Rock Jewish Center has provided accommodations for Hebrew school children who need a bit of extra help.
For example, an adult resource teacher and teen volunteers have been on hand to work one-on-one with students who could use some extra help in Hebrew reading.
Still, the shul’s Rabbi Neil Tow said, that wasn’t enough.
“We noticed over time that some students weren’t able to function their best in the standard classroom, so last year we started to think a lot about that in the congregation,” he said.
As a result of those discussions, the GRJC has now established a Hebrew school class specifically for children with special needs.
The program, which began on October 20, is held on Sunday mornings, parallel with the synagogue’s other Hebrew school classes. The shul has brought on Susan Bauer, a certified special education teacher, to lead the 90-minute sessions. So far, three children are enrolled.
“That was our intention, to start small,” Tow said. “We want to give this a try, to see how it works. The congregation is fully behind it. We want to provide an opportunity for students who have not found a place to learn to connect to a school and community.”
Describing the issue as one of inclusion, the rabbi said, “It’s very important to send this message. Children with special learning needs can have a place in the Hebrew school environment and feel welcome and connected.”
Tow said that while the initial concern was to serve members’ children, shul leaders decided to open the program up to the wider community.
“We see this as another offering among the range of offerings in our area,” he said. “There are a series of programs trying to serve this population. We wanted to add another option, another possibility for families to consider.”
Tow said that the idea of the program is to expose students to Judaica in a variety of forms. The first class dealt with the Shema, and students created a mezuzah to bring home.
Students are not divided by grade.
“Because we knew it would be a small group, we decided to welcome students at a variety of ages,” he said.
GRJC’s Hebrew school principal, Rachel Blumenstyk, who has been with the synagogue for some 25 years and coordinates classes for 127 students, said that “everyone should be able to participate in Jewish life. We want to help them become part of temple life and participate in our programs. Hopefully, we’ll see them become bar and bat mitzvah. That’s our goal.”
She said that students in the special needs class will learn to recognize Hebrew letters and basic words and will be taught important prayers. Bauer also will discuss Jewish history, tell stories, screen videos, and offer arts and crafts.
In addition, “the students will participate in any program the temple is doing,” Blumenstyk said, noting that they will join the other Hebrew school students for music, library, and computer lab.
“We do a lot of fun activities,” said Bauer, who also works as a teacher in Allendale’s public school district. She noted that “special education is all about differentiation,” pointing out that since she has two assistants, her students receive a great deal of individual attention. As a result one boy who already knew some Hebrew is getting additional instruction. While students vary in age, she said, “it’s very common in a special education class to have multi-age students at different levels.”
Blumenstyk said she is positive the program will grow.
“There’s a need for it,” she said. “I’ve had a few calls already.”
Bauer is confident as well.
“A lot of children have attention issues,” she said, noting that her special needs class is less demanding than a regular Hebrew school class. For example, the children are allowed to walk around – something they cannot do in a standard classroom.
While the class is designed to help individual students and families, it helps the synagogue as well, Blumenstyk said.
“Last week I went in and it was so nice to see how they learned a song about the alef bet. I was kvelling.”
For more information about the program, email Rabbi Tow at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 201-652-6624; or email Rachel Blumenstyk at email@example.com or call her at 201-652-6624.