Community strives to give all students a Jewish education

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Ben Silverman and Carlie Suris participate in an Efshar Circle Torah scroll writing demonstration

One late summer morning, Chaya Leah Tinman walked into the Jewish day school her two older children attended. She intended to enroll her toddler Hershy in a Mommy and Me class. As Tinman approached the desk, holding her 17-month-old, she was told: “We don’t have a program for him.”

Tinman was dumbfounded. Although Hershy was born with Canavan disease, a progressive degenerative neurological disorder, it was a Mommy and Me class.

She could not help but think: “How could they not accommodate him when I was going to be there the whole time?”

“I just wanted him in a Jewish environment,” Tinman said. She says she left the school feeling devastated by the lack of understanding about the need to be inclusive and what she saw as a failure to recognize the value of a Jewish environment for her son.

“What they said was, ‘We don’t have a program for him.’ What I heard was, ‘We don’t have a place in our community for your child.’

“I am a product of a Jewish day school,” she said. “It never dawned on me I would send him anywhere else but a Jewish school. I felt that however much time he had on this Earth, he should have a Jewish education.”

Sean Zorn takes a turn blowing the shofar during an Efshar Circle event

That was 28 years ago, yet the experience had a lasting effect on this Southfield mother who became a social worker and advocate for families of children with disabilities. As an advocate, one of her roles is to help parents understand their rights and obtain appropriate services and resources for their children.

A few years after Tinman’s heartbreaking experience, schools slowly began to recognize the value of inclusion programs and started mainstreaming children with disabilities in general education classes when possible.

“Since then, the schools and synagogues have come a long way in terms of educating all the children in our community,” Tinman said. “For example, some of the day schools now have their own support staff, including social workers and speech therapists.”

Jewish communities around the country, including Detroit, now designate the month of February as Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion month by hosting events such as speakers, book clubs and film screenings.

Danielle and Brodie Gillman

“Still, there are many families I know that want their children to be in a day school and they are not,” Tinman said. “The need is still great, but the resources are simply not there for these children. To meet the needs requires a lot of support in terms of qualified staff in the schools and, of course, financial support — and that’s where our community has come to a halt because we simply don’t have those resources.”

Under federal law, public schools are required to provide an education to all students, regardless of their abilities. And while a private school cannot refuse to accept a student based on his or her disability, the school can base admission on meeting academic criteria.

When Martha Goldberg lived in Ohio, her son Noah attended a Jewish day school with state funding to cover the cost of his one-on-one aide. Tuition was the family’s responsibility.

The Goldbergs moved to West Bloomfield when Noah was in kindergarten. They hoped to continue his day school education, but the schools they visited required that Noah, who has Asperger’s syndrome, attend with an aide. Paying tuition plus the cost of an aide was not financially viable so they enrolled him in a Walled Lake public school. Noah has since transferred to the International Academy, a private secular school in Bloomfield Hills. He is now in ninth grade and has not had an aide since kindergarten.

Rachel Tinman Borsand, her mother Chaya Leah Tinman, brother Hershy Tinman and sister Alanna Tinman Weitzner

Despite having to give up a day-school education for her son, Goldberg is understanding of the financial realities. “It all comes down to money, and small private schools are not always set up to accommodate children with extra challenges. I think our Jewish institutions are open to it, but the money makes it or breaks it,” she said.

The Goldbergs turned to synagogues for Noah’s formal Jewish education and said they had good experiences at both Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield and then Congregation B’nai Moshe in West Bloomfield, which was closer to their home.

While parents are cognizant of the financial constraints and other challenges of accommodating all kids in a Jewish educational environment, they still want their children to have a strong Jewish identity and engage in Jewish programing — and to be received with openness and support in the community, Goldberg said.

Opening The Doors

Hershy Tinman and Noah Goldberg are just two examples of students who could not be adequately accommodated in a Jewish school. Administrators responding to a survey from the Jewish Federation’s Opening the Doors Program identified at least 125 students in their schools with learning, behavioral and/or social differences that they would be able to provide service for if they had more resources, said Ellen Maiseloff, director of Opening the Doors (OTD). This program offers an array of services aimed at providing supplemental learning support to enhance a school’s existing services to allow as many students as possible to receive a Jewish education.

Ellen Maiseloff

“Federation identifies it as a priority to provide programs and services to these children, their teachers and the community, and we are working hard to find the funding to expand what we offer to meet the needs of these learners,” Maiseloff said.

“As much as our program has grown and is thriving, there’s still more to do and, ultimately, it comes down to resources to continue to enhance and expand this program by serving as many students as possible. There is still a tremendous number of students who need learning support to find success in the classroom environment with their peers.”

Further, the number of unserved students does not take into account those who may not be on the radar or those with needs that cannot be accommodated in a Jewish school unless the family provides a full-time, one-on-one aide and potentially absorbs the costs of ancillary support staff, such as a speech pathologist or occupational therapists.

Despite the number of students with disabilities who are not in a Jewish educational environment, there are significantly more students who are now being accommodated, something that was not always possible. Opening the Doors currently serves 1,153 students in 26 day schools, preschools and religious schools. When it started in 1995, OTD served just more than 200 students in nine schools.

Based on reporting from schools that responded to an OTD survey, of the 1,153 students, 24 percent have learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. Nineteen percent have an attention deficit disorder; 11 percent are identified as having a speech or communication disorder; 8 percent are students with anxiety, sensory issues, oppositional defiance disorder or dysgraphia; and 3 percent have Down syndrome or other intellectual disabilities.

Despite the challenges of being able to accommodate every student seeking a Jewish education, the Detroit Jewish community is considered in the forefront when it comes to providing programs and support to students with disabilities.

Two years in a row, starting in 2013, Opening the Doors earned national accolades from the Slingshot Foundation for its inclusion programs. And, in 2016, Maiseloff received Federation’s Mandell L. & Madeleine H. Berman Award for Outstanding Professional Jewish Communal Service in recognition of her work with the program.

Other Jewish communities look to Detroit as a model for inclusion practices, says Shelly Christensen, executive director of Inclusion Innovations, a national organization that designs programs and strategies for religious communities looking to create a more inclusive environment.

“What is so impressive [about OTD] is the degree of education for teachers and administrators through regular annual conferences that feature the most cutting-edge specialists in disciplines that address the most relevant issues of the day,” Christensen said.

Successful Inclusion

Conner Larson

Shayla Mostyn, a seventh-grader with cerebral palsy at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, is an example of a student who is being successfully accommodated in a day school environment. According to her mom, Lezlie, when Shayla was younger, she was able to receive speech therapy and physical therapy at Hillel, through Farmington Public Schools, and the school is able to provide all the academic support she needs to be successful.

“I like the idea she is not lost in the system or treated like a special needs kid,” Lezlie Mostyn said. “She is among people who understand and help but don’t enable her. All the teachers work as a group, and she’s thriving in this school. As a parent, that’s all I can ask for.”

In another place of Jewish learning, 23 students, including 9-year-old Conner Larson, spend their Sunday mornings engaged in lessons about the holidays, stories from the Torah, Jewish symbolism and a host of other Judaic topics. These students are enrolled in Efshar Circle, a collaborative program between OTD and the Friendship Circle. Before Efshar Circle, many of these students would not have been able to thrive in a congregational program, even with an aide.

“Conner has always loved Sunday school, but I felt like our congregation didn’t know how to teach to his learning style,” said Stacy Larson of Farmington Hills. “Now he is at Efshar Circle and he is learning a lot about Judaism. They know him, they understand him, and nobody cares if he blurts things out during class. He is working at his own level, he is being engaged and he is so happy there.”

Efshar students learn at their own pace in a multisensory environment. Every child has a one-on-one volunteer and each class is taught by a Judaic teacher and an educator with a master’s degree in special education. The students come from a variety of Jewish backgrounds and levels of observance, says Sarah Schectman, Efshar Circle director.

“Everything is very hands-on,” Schectman said. “The teachers focus on engaging a child’s sense of Jewish identity through tactile learning and, because we have the one-on-one volunteers, we are able to modify the material and accommodate each of our students.”

Ellah Rosenzweig, an Efshar Circle student, has fun in the sukkah

West Bloomfield mom Danielle Gillman did her research before choosing a congregation for her family. Because her daughter Brodie has autism, Gillman wanted to make sure she found an inclusive synagogue that could also teach to Brodie’s learning style. She decided on Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield.

“They don’t treat us like they are making accommodations, and that’s a huge difference for us because it eliminates the feeling of separate but equal,” Gillman said. “Everyone treats Brodie with a lot of dignity and respect. They’re not trying so hard. It seems very natural. I feel like the clergy is just as invested in her as they are with any other kid. They are not just accepting of a kid that’s different; they treat her the same.”

Similarly, Brodie had a positive experience with inclusion when she attended preschool at the Pitt Child Development Center (CDC) at the Jewish Community Center. Each year, the CDC typically has two or three children who are placed with an advocate (aide) to assist with things like social interactions or sensory needs.

“Our goal is to have the advocate interact with all the children and to look like a third teacher in the room to an outsider and not someone who is there for one particular student,” said Shannon Hall, CDC director.

Educators agree that with limited resources, meeting the needs of a younger child is much easier than an older child because in a preschool environment, those needs are more social than academic. There have, however, been instances where a child requires more than what his or her advocate can provide, Hall said. In her 14 years at the CDC, there have been three situations where a child left the preschool because he or she couldn’t be adequately accommodated. The inclusion program began in 2000.

Collaborative Efforts

As this community looks to better meet the needs of a more diverse population of learners, one of the methods being explored is through further collaboration.

Currently, a team of administrators from Beth Jacob, Yeshiva Darchei Torah, Farber Hebrew Day School, Hillel Day School and Yeshiva Beth Yehudah are participating in a project originated in Boston called B’Yadenu (in our hand). These educators are exploring ways to serve a wider range of students and planning professional development with a goal of providing a day school education to more students with special needs.

Efshar Circle parents and students celebrate Shabbat

One of the methods being explored is collaborating on training to address common issues such as differentiating instruction in the classroom or managing challenging behaviors, according to Dr. Jennifer Friedman, dean of student learning at Hillel.

“We’re doing a much better job of being a cadre of professionals in the community, working toward our goals of reaching all types of learners,” said Friedman, adding there has been some discussion of a self-contained classroom in a Jewish day school environment but, without funding, that is not possible.

“What we have is much more than a lot of communities have, which is great, but I also think we could figure out how to give more services to kids with special needs,” she said.

“When the government couldn’t figure out a way to provide the uninsured access to quality medical care, we as a community came up with Project Chessed. We know how creative our community can be in coming up with ways to meet a specific need so we could figure out a way to provide our kids with access to a quality Jewish education.”

Contributing Writer Jennifer Lovy has a son with autism who attends public school and is also a student at Efshar Circle. She also has two children at Hillel Day School.

About Opening the Doors

Operating on a budget of more than $600,000, Opening the Doors (OTD) provides direct services to 2,600 students, educators and parents through a variety of programs and services. Funding comes from Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit campaign allocations, two grants from the Jewish Fund, a $1 million endowment from the Dresner Foundation and, in some cases, fees for service.

Most students are served through a collaborative partnership among 26 schools where special education teachers with a master’s degree support both students and teachers where needed, including making modifications or suggestions to help student success. in the classroom.

Doors to the Future is designed for children in an early childhood center and utilizes para-educators to act as one-on-one shadows for preschool children to give them the chance to participate in the classroom.

More than 50 percent of the students impacted by OTD are in congregational schools. To meet the high demands, the Harold Wade Madrichim Leadership Institute trains teen shadows from all schools to help diverse learners be better included in the classroom.

In 2014, OTD took over a school inclusion program run by JARC. Through the program, 11 students have been provided with a full-time shadow at a Jewish day school. However, the program is currently funded by a grant from the Jewish Fund that expires at the end of this school year. Director Ellen Maiseloff is actively seeking funding so the comprehensive program can continue.

Seminars and conferences also make up a key component by providing resources for parents and practitioners. On Sunday, Feb. 26, Opening Doors will offer “Grit, Perseverance and Frustration Tolerance“   with speaker Cindy Goldrich offering tips and strategies to help children with ADHD and executive functioning challenges. Registration at 12:30 p.m., program at 1:30 at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. For details, see JewishDetroit.org/JDAIM (Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion) or call Shoshana at (248) 205-2549. For more on OTD, go to jewishdetroit.org/programs/jewish-education/special-education.

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