Learning to say yes

Learning to say yes

Matan, run by Dori Kirshner of Closter, teaches inclusion to educators

There’s nothing like growing up as a Jew in the American South to make you identify with outsiders.

And there’s nothing like feeling like an outsider to make you an impassioned advocate for inclusion.

Dori Frumin Kirshner, who lives in Closter now but is a third-generation Southern Jew, hastens to refine that position. It’s not that she wasn’t accepted in the South, it’s not that she wasn’t happy, it’s not that her parents, who still live there, aren’t happy still. She was, she was, and they are.

It’s that you’re still an outsider, she said, and that gives you a kind of radar. An extra sensitivity. An invisible antenna that quivers when someone’s being left out.

In Ms. Kirshner’s case, it led her to combine her passion for Jewish life with her yearning toward inclusion and eventually made her executive director of Matan, the organization that calls itself the “national voice in Jewish special education.” It’s driven her to make sure that just as the Jewish community gave her a haven as she was growing up, it will keep its doors open for others.

Dori, Rabbi David-Seth, Elias, and Evie Kirshner spent time together in Israel last week.
Dori, Rabbi David-Seth, Elias, and Evie Kirshner spent time together in Israel last week.

Ms. Kirshner’s family history is a classic southern Jewish story.

Her mother, Charlett Ritman Frumin, was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. Charlett’s father, Morris Ritman, made his way to Shreveport from a small shtetl in Poland through the southern Texas port city of Galveston. In Shreveport, he met and married Freeda Ritman, whose own Bialystock-born father was “an avocational chazzan” who found high holiday pulpits in such places as Denver. “My grandfather had owned a liquor store, but he became very successful with real estate investments,” Ms. Kirshner said. “My grandparents had a very happy life there.

“Still to this day, my mother’s best friends are all from Shreveport,” she continued. “They’re like the Jewish YaYas; they’re amazing women who call themselves the Big Six. They were all active in Young Judaea; they met at Tel Yehuda,” Young Judaea’s summer camp.

Ms. Kirshner’s father, Marshall, was born in Milton, Florida. “They were the only Jewish family in town,” Ms. Kirshner said. “So they moved to Chattanooga when my father was in eighth grade, and my grandfather took over the family business, in scrap metal.

“My bubbe, Sylvia Frumin, was born in Brooklyn — in Brownsville — but her family moved to Birmingham when she was a few months old.” Once she was married and installed in Chattanooga, she lived a Southern Jewish life. “She raised her three kids, kept a kosher home,” and sent her children to “a very WASPy prep school. My dad was salutatorian.”

When her grandparents spoke in Yiddish, it was with a southern accent, Ms. Kirshner said, but “if you were just to meet them, you’d have no idea they were Jewish. You just didn’t expect it. They had strong southern accents, and so do my parents. I never thought about it when I was young, but now I hear it.”

She does not have a southern accent most of the time, but “David says that my accent comes out when I’m around my family,” she reported. (David is her husband, David-Seth Kirshner, the Conservative rabbi who heads Temple Emanu-el of Closter.)

Dori was born in Memphis, where her father was in medical school; the family, which eventually included her younger sister, Kim, also lived in Baton Rouge and Shreveport before they moved to Houston, where Marshall Frumin is an orthopedic surgeon.

Dori went to Jewish day school until sixth grade; in seventh grade “I went to Kincaid, a ritzy prep school in Houston,” she said. The new school was “a stark contrast” to the Jewish life at her middle school, and at home. “You’d step outside the house, and feel the difference,” she said. “You had different holidays that you were constantly having to explain. I was the kid who brought matzah to school every year, and every year I had to explain what Passover is, and why I was out for holidays.

“Some of the kids at my school prayed for me, because I was going to hell. They were friendly to me, but I always felt different.”

And that, she added, was despite her looks; she’s small, blonde, pretty, and non-ethnic-looking. “Visually, I fit in,” she said.

Still, some incidents linger. “I think back to ninth grade, when I turned a corner in the hall and saw this person drawing a swastika on my locker. When he saw me, he threw down the marker, and went off, running away with his friends. I had to go to my next period class. It was English.

“None of my friends knew what to say to me, and I remember thinking ‘Hmmm. I could either run toward my Jewish identity or run away from it.’ I ran toward it.”

School was academically both rigorous and rewarding, she said, but her emotional life was elsewhere. “I lived on the Jewish side of town, and I was very involved in BBYO, and I went to a URJ camp, and a Conservative shul.” The camp was Henry S. Jacobs, the Reform movement’s Deep South outpost in Utica, Mississippi, near Jackson. The shul was Congregation Beth Yeshurun, the largest Conservative synagogue in North America. “And my parents met at Young Judaea,” she added. “In the South, you kind of take what’s available. We’re not as divided. You’re not this kind of Jew or that kind of Jew. You’re just a Jew. If you’re willing to identify yourself as a Jew, no one really cares where you go to shul.

“The Jewish community is very tight-knit. You know you’re a minority, and that you have to stick together.

“My school was pretty xenophobic at the time I was there,” she continued. “I don’t think that children who were Indian or Asian felt very different about that. There were about 100 kids in my graduating class, and 10 to 15 of them were Jewish, and not all of them identified as Jewish.” That’s why, when it was time to pick a college, she chose Emory, which is southern — it’s in Atlanta — but has many more Jews. “I wanted to be somewhere where being Jewish was more normative,” she said.

“I learned that northeastern Jews didn’t feel ‘other,’” Ms. Kirshner said. “They didn’t feel unusual. And even the people at Emory who weren’t Jewish but were from New York or the northeast, the ones who were Greek or Italian, knew about Judaism.”

It took a while to get used to being openly and comfortably Jewish, to be able to keep her Jewish star necklace visible instead of making sure that it was tucked inside her shirt, she added. “David still teases me that sometimes I whisper things about Judaism.”

Although she had not decided what she would do after college but was toying with the idea of earning a master’s degree in public health, her Hillel rabbi, Louis Feldstein, encouraged her to earn a degree in Jewish education. “I started laughing, because I didn’t know that a degree in Jewish education existed,” she said. In fact, very few institutions granted it then, in the 1990s. “He said, ‘You need to go to graduate school for this’ — and that changed my life.”

One of Ms. Kirshner’s teachers at Emory was the historian Deborah Lipstadt, who specializes in modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies (and who was sued by Holocaust denier David Irving, and because sometimes the truth prevails, she won big). Dr. Lipstadt also strongly encouraged Ms. Kirshner to become a Jewish educator. “She said, ‘That’s what you need to do,’” Ms. Kirshner recalled. Thus charged and energized, Ms. Kirshner headed off to the Jewish Theological Seminary’s school of education (which was not yet called Davidson).

As part of her academic work, Ms. Kirshner spent a year in Israel. “I lived with Israelis, and I got a job at an all-women’s gym, where I answered the phone — and that really taught me Hebrew,” she said. “And I got to walk in the street when there was no traffic on Yom Kippur, and to experience Pesach and Shavuot and Sukkot there. It was amazing.”

It was that feeling of being normal, of being accepted, that she got at Emory, in New York, in Israel, that led her toward special needs education. She was drawn toward the educator Howard Gardner’s influential work on multiple intelligences. “I always assumed that everyone has some sort of intellect, some kind of gift, some way of being successful,” she said.

Ms. Kirshner had a fellowship to JTS that obligated her to teach in a day school in the diaspora for two years; she fulfilled it by working at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Manhattan, then housed at the Park Avenue Synagogue. “It was amazing in a lot of ways, but it was not really serving children who learn differently because it was just too small, and we weren’t equipped for it,” she said.

From there, Ms. Kirshner moved to the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, run by UJA Federation of New York, and then moved to the federation’s fundraising department, where she worked on the always nagging problem of how to entice the next generation of wealthy Jews not only to identify but also to give.

When the leaders of Matan, an organization founded in 2000 to help Jewish children with special needs get a Jewish education, looked for funding, they went to Solelim, a venture philanthropy fund Ms. Kirshner ran through UJA. A little later, when they needed an associate executive director, they tapped her; a little later still, the executive director left and Ms. Kirshner took over that position.

Ms. Kirshner’s work with Matan began in 2007. Coincidentally, that was when the Kirshner family moved from Manhattan to Closter, so Rabbi Kirshner could take the bimah at Emanu-El. (Dori Frumin and David-Seth Kirshner first met at JTS, where he was ordained; their daughter, Evie, is now 12, and their son, Elias, is 9.)

Matan “was started by three women; one a neuropsychologist, one a special educator, and one a Jewish educator,” Ms. Kirshner said. “They felt that too often, the Jewish community was saying no. No, we can’t accommodate you; no, your daughter cannot stay in the day school; no, we have no place for your son in our afterschool program. There was no support, and no mandate, and very few programs that made it possible for children who learn differently to remain in a Jewish educational setting.”

One of these women, Meredith Polsky, has a master’s degree in social work and another in special education; it was Ms. Polsky who secured one of Matan’s first fellowships, a Joshua Venture award. “Meredith was a rosh edah” — a division leader — “at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, and she had this kid who for the first week of the session was her favorite camper,” Ms. Kirshner said. “Because he had significant ADHD and learning difficulties, they ended up spending a lot of time together.

“At the end of the week, the camp decided that they should send him home, because he was taking up too much of her time. She was devastated. And that was her light-bulb moment. She said that this should not be happening. She said that every other kid in his family was getting the best of what the Jewish world had to offer, but this kid was just not being allowed in.

“That was when she committed to doing whatever she could to change the landscape, and so, when she was in her 20s, she basically wrote the blueprint for what would be Matan.”

Matan teaches educators how to work with children with different learning styles.
Matan teaches educators how to work with children with different learning styles.

In the beginning, Ms. Kirshner said, Matan focused on “creating freestyle options at JCCs in Scarsdale, Manhattan, and Riverdale, and at supplementary schools in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Westchester County, for children who were not being supported or able to enroll in Jewish supplementary education programs.” In other words, Matan was a “direct service organization,” working with children who had been diagnosed on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum or had some other developmental disorder. “We worked with shuls and JCCs, and we were the bridge between the families and their communities,” Ms. Kirshner said.

There was a problem, though. Families still did not feel part of the larger community. Their welcome was provisional, based on the existence of special, side programs.

When Ms. Kirshner became Matan’s executive director, in 2009, the grants that had supported it had dried up — the 2008 financial crash had a serious impact on Matan, as it did on so much else — and the organization was in serious financial need. “In 2010, we engaged in a strategic planning process with the board and a consultant, and we worked with focus groups. It was clear, both in my kishkas and through the focus groups, that people were using Matan like a Band-Aid. Nothing was changing about Jewish education or educational leadership.

“I was having conversations with Jewish educators at shuls, and they didn’t know much about how to be supportive of differences. They’d push it off — they said that they’d hire Matan to do it for them. So the board and I decided that in order to change the way that the Jewish community was thinking about special needs and Jewish education, we would have to train Jewish educators to become part of the solution.”

Supported by grants she was able to secure in 2011, including seed funding from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the North Jersey-based Adler Family Foundation, Matan went in a new direction. “We wanted to create something brand new,” Ms. Kirshner said. “We wanted not only to be innovative, but to really make change. We wanted to have a significant impact on the field.

“We don’t do direct service any more,” she continued. “We don’t even believe in it any more. What we want is for everybody who has a position of leadership, who runs a school, who is responsible for administering a school and interacting with families — we want them all to take responsibility.

“We don’t want them to be experts — they can’t all be experts — but we want them to be part of the solution.

“This issue used to sit on the shoulders of parents, and it was only if the parents had the energy to fight that anything would happen. I kept saying, ‘Why should they have to fight? The Jewish community should be there.’ This should not be hard.

Children in a Matan program celebrate Sukkot.
Children in a Matan program celebrate Sukkot.

“Ultimately, I would love for there to be a day when Matan does not have to exist any more, because everyone gets it right. I feel that about 85 percent of what we do in the community is attitude, and only about 15 percent is the skill set that you really need. Because if you have the attitude that says, okay, I don’t have all the answers, but let’s talk about it, you’ll get a lot more done.

“Remember,” she added, “when you lose one student, you are losing that family.”

Matan now trains educators to include children with special needs whenever possible; not to shunt them off to the side, into programs that are both well-meaning and effective but still are peripheral, but to incorporate them into the larger whole.

That is of course easy to say. How do they do it?

“We have become the place where you go for deep training,” Ms. Kirshner said. All sorts of Jewish educational leaders, the people who run supplementary schools, summer camps, early childhood programs, youth group leaders, or now, increasingly, day schools, are finding their way to Matan’s training institute.

Matan provides cohorts of educational leaders with in-person training, online follow-ups, mentoring, as many consultations as necessary, and a network of peers that offers all sorts of help, both practical and spiritual. “We require that the directors who are trained go back and teach their faculties and lay leaders,” Ms. Kirshner said. “It’s not that you just go to a conference and get a binder and put it on a shelf. It’s about shifting behavior and ideology.

“It has to be collective or it doesn’t work.”

The training helps educators solve real-world problems. “Our mentors consult with people who are determining how to start an inclusion committee, how to support a family whose child is nonverbal through a bar or bat mitzvah, how to train your faculty before the school year starts, how to communicate with parents during the year, how to talk to the person who does membership at your shul, how to see whether inclusion is clear enough on the shul website.”

An educator learns at a Matan conference. (TOM NYCZ)
An educator learns at a Matan conference. (TOM NYCZ)

The more you work to be inclusive, the more people you draw in. “Rabbis used to say, ‘We don’t have any people with special needs in our community,’” Ms. Kirshner said. “They don’t say that as much any more. When they do, the answer in Matan is ‘How do you know? They haven’t tried to get in.’

“We want people to know that until rabbis speak about this from every bimah, people’s attitudes aren’t going to change. Yes, change starts at the bottom up, with parents and siblings, but it also has to come from the top down. Rabbis have to say ‘Yes, this is normal. These are our values. This is how we live.’’’

Matan has worked with many local educators. Rabbi Sharon Litwin of Teaneck, who is the educational director at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, was a Matan fellow three years ago, when she had the same position at Temple Israel in Ridgewood. “I did the program became I noticed that there were more and more children in the religious school who had learning needs that we were not meeting,” she said. “I had no training in special education, so I basically was just doing the best I could for them, using my intuition.”

Intuition can only take you so far; Rabbi Litwin realized that she needed training. “We had a wide spectrum of students, kids with everything from dyslexia or ADHD to autism and other kinds of sensory disorders.” Sometimes parents would detail their children’s challenges, “sometimes they’d kind of casually tell me about them,” and other times parents would say nothing at all, leaving the staff to figure it out.

“Matan gave us actual tools, with actual research behind it, to help us include the students as much as possible,” Rabbi Litwin said. “Intuition sometimes allowed us to put on Band-Aids, but not to do anything structural.” Matan showed the way to structural improvements. “The thing that has had the most impact is that when I work with teachers, I have a better understanding of the different learning styles in our classrooms. If you have a student who has a or b or c behavior, these are the tools to help them.”

Matan’s network also helps. “If I have a question, I have a whole group of people I can ask for an answer,” Rabbi Litwin said.

Glenn Graye of Cresskill, who belongs to Temple Emanu-El, is a strong supporter of Matan, and of Dori Kirshner.

Mr. Graye’s 26-year-old son, Maxwell, is autistic. Mr. Graye decided, when Max was a child, that despite his challenges he would become bar mitzvah and that the family would become and stay active members of the shul community.

It was a struggle. “But now, many years later, we are part of the footprint of the temple,” he said. “We go every Friday night. It used to be that people would turn their heads. Now, everyone says hello, and they give us a hug.”

Matan is too late for Max and his family, but Mr. Graye sees great hope in it. “The only way a handicapped child and parents can feel a part of the community is through inclusion,” he said. “You are always segregated — there are many things you can’t do. What they are doing is having the disabled community become part of the mainstream in places where they can, and that way the regular community can learn from the special needs community, and vice versa.

“They are opening up the world, and opening up eyes, by having the special needs community be part of the community. I am touched by it, because I never had it.

“Without leaders stepping up to the plate, you are just lost in your own little world. I see the way the rabbi embraces my son, and my son embraces him back. The tendency, when you say hello to someone who doesn’t know how to say hello back, who looks at you with a funny expression, is not to keep doing it. The rabbi keeps doing it, keeps saying hello, and with a smile.

“It makes me so proud.”

Dori Kirshner and Matan are doing great work, he added. “What Dori is doing is going to open up the future for the next generation. I applaud and support it. I am overwhelmed by the effort that goes into it.

“When my son was young, I wondered why he couldn’t eat lunch with the regular kids, so that the regular kids can understand the special needs community. That’s part of what Matan is doing.”

For Dori Kirshner, it all goes back to what she absorbed as a child in Houston. “People don’t want to be known or defined by their disability,” she said. “They want to be a person first. There has to be a place where they can let that out.

“For me, the nexus of the Jewish community and disability, the reason it’s so important to me, is that the Jewish community was my place, the place where I could be seen. The place where I didn’t have to hide who I was.

“The Jewish community should be there for everyone, whether or not they have disabilities. Historically, it hasn’t been that way.” That’s why her life’s work is to make the community a safe place for every Jew.

Learn more about Matan at

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