On an afternoon in 2003, Brenda Landau witnessed an event that would change the way the Tucson Jewish community would provide religious education for students with special learning needs. Landau, currently a senior vice president at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, was serving as the director of education at Congregation Or Chadash. “I think it was my first day, and I walked in and saw a teacher trying to deal with a student with special needs who became boisterous during a game,” recalls Landau. “The staff member was clearly not familiar with ways to work with a child with special needs. Immediately after that, we put together a special needs committee, made up of community members, and we wrote a grant to fund a special needs inclusion program.”
The Special Needs Inclusion Project grant was funded by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, which allowed Or Chadash to hire Laurie Dietz to coordinate the necessary materials, teachers and aides to meet the varying needs of the students. Although the initial grant was written to provide services to the student Landau observed on her first day, the committee moved forward in recruiting other families who had children with special needs.
“I was aware of Jewish students whose needs were not being met, and whose families were not involved in any synagogue life,” says Landau. “The parents felt that there was nothing in congregational life for their children, so they didn’t feel that they could participate as a family.”
In 2008, the Special Needs Inclusion Project became a program of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Coalition for Jewish Education, in order to serve special needs students throughout the Tucson Jewish community. In the transition, Dietz became the community special needs inclusion coordinator.
“I meet with the education directors at the synagogues. We work together to identify the students with special needs, meet with the parents, and find out specifically what each child needs,” says Dietz. “It is individualized. Then we determine if they need tutoring, or a one-on-one aide because they can’t be included unless there is an extra person in the classroom.” The congregations typically hire the aides that are needed in the classrooms, and Dietz provides instruction to ensure the aides can best help the students. Dietz also conducts regular observation in the classrooms to see if any changes need to be made, and teaches in-service programs for the teaching staffs.
Lori Riegel, MJEd, who wrote her master’s thesis on “Widening the Tent: Welcoming All Learners in Congregational Schools,” surveyed communities across the country and found that parents of children with special needs often feel excluded from congregational life regardless of the services that are offered to their children. “There is such a stigma for the parents, who look at the other families that, on the surface, don’t appear to have the same struggles. They feel so different, like no one understands their child,” said Riegel. (Full disclosure: Riegel is also advertising manager at the AJP.)
This feeling of stigmatization often keeps parents who enroll their students in religious school from disclosing the special needs of their students. Riegel, who just became the inclusion consultant at Temple Emanu-El, has had conversations with many parents who don’t indicate the needs of their child on their registration forms. “Parents don’t include the information because they don’t want their child to be treated differently, or singled out. Unfortunately, if we don’t know that their child has special needs and might just need a couple of small modifications to make learning possible, students might struggle to learn or participate fully in class.”
The number of students receiving services through the JFSA Special Needs Inclusion Project has increased as more children are diagnosed with special needs. “The synagogues are open to accepting everyone, and in order to accept everyone, we have to be able to make accommodations and modifications for the child to be successful,” says Dietz.
Sharon Glassberg, director of the Coalition of Jewish Education, has watched the project impact families throughout the community. “Once the program was off and running, families started to realize that there is a place for their children, regardless of what learning challenges they might have,” says Glassberg.
As the project has grown, there has been an increased need for B’nai Mitzvah tutors. “This year we were able to provide special needs B’nai Mitzvah tutoring for six students. Their learning challenges ranged from ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder to developmental delays,” says Glassberg. She believes that although the primary goal of the project has always been to provide inclusive services to students with special needs, there has been an added benefit that no one predicted. “The other students in the classes have had to open up their minds to people with different needs, so it benefits both sides.”
For more information, contact Glassberg at 577-9393 ext. 122 or [email protected].
Laura Wilson Etter is a freelance journalist, grant writer and artist in Tucson.