Teaneck girl wins essay contest
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Teaneck girl wins essay contest

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OHEL essay contest winners, from left, Jared Rosen, Baila Gunsburg, Yaffa Jacobson, Zehava Shayna Seidman, and Rivka Lubin.

Zehava Shayna Seidman of Teaneck took first place in the middle school division for her entry in OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services recent essay and picture contest aimed at raising awareness and sensitivity to those with disabilities in the Jewish community. Nearly 1,000 entries were received from third- to 12th-graders in more than 50 schools.

Teaneck’s Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls Principal Rookie Billet sat on the panel of judges along with writer and speaker Rabbi Paysach Krohn and “Binah Bunch” children’s magazine editor Rachel Hubner. Entries were received from students in Brooklyn, Cedarhurst, Teaneck, Monsey, Miami, Baltimore, Lakewood, Cleveland, Dallas, Toronto, and Englewood, as well as from Australia.

Zehava, a sixth-grader at The Moriah School of Englewood, received a flier about the competition from her teacher, Rachel Schwartz, and decided to enter.

“I felt maybe if we show people kids can really help with these kinds of things, they can do good for these kids,” said Zehava, the daughter of Renee and Daniel Seidman. She added that her participation in the contest has further sensitized her to those with special needs.

“My mom has a friend whose daughter gets seizures and it’s hard for her, but I think we can try and help her,” she said. “Next time I meet someone with disabilities, I would get to know that person more, and hang out with them even if others think they’re weird. It’s not what is on the outside of the person that matters, but what is on the inside.”

She plans to use her $500 prize money toward her August bat mitzvah chesed project, which she hasn’t yet chosen. The Seidman family belongs to Cong. Keter Torah.

OHEL Director of Communications Derek Saker explained that the contest was part of the Brooklyn-based organization’s 40th anniversary events. OHEL’s professional services are available throughout New York, New Jersey, and South Florida.

“We started as a foster agency because of a great need for placement for Jewish children. But today we are a vast social service organization providing foster care as well as outpatient and residential developmental disability services, mental health services, summer camps, and a training institute,” said Saker. “Part of the campaign we’ve been running to mark our 40th year is to communicate to a larger audience the services we provide.”

The contest was geared to confronting unease and prejudice within the Jewish community, he said. “There have been tremendous inroads, but there are still major stigmas remaining for those providing and in foster care, or suffering from mental illness or developmental disability.”

To illustrate the point, Saker told of a young Jewish mother who until recently did not feel comfortable taking her autistic child out of the house. “A few months ago, she contacted OHEL, and both she and husband are now in a support group. They suddenly found likeminded people and have grown in their confidence.”

Saker said that a few teachers expressed concern that the essay and drawing contest might cause embarrassment for children with disabilities in their classes. “We discussed it with principals and decided that it came down to an excellent teacher having the capacity to take a competition like this and integrate it into the classroom, being sensitive to someone with a disability without putting them in the spotlight,” said Saker, pointing out that even a condition such as diabetes, which is not obvious, is legally considered a disability.

Each winning essay, he continued, showed “depth in understanding and wanting to learn more about the subject.”

First- and second-place winners on the high school level were Jared Rosen, a Ramaz Upper School senior, and Rivka Lubin, a junior at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway; and on the elementary level, Faigy Greenspan, a Bais Yaakov of Toronto third-grader, and Yeshiva of Spring Valley fifth-grader Baila Gunsburg. Winning second place on the middle school level was Yaffa Jacobson, a seventh-grader at Adolph H. Schreiber Hebrew Academy of Rockland County.

To see the winning essay, go to Zehava Shayna Seidman’s winning essay.

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