Wearing kipot and prayer shawls, the students opened their siddurim and chanted the Ashrei prayer quietly but clearly, as their teacher and three teenage assistants guided them through a transliterated text. Then the students gently opened the small ark in their classroom, as one carried a Torah around the room, before they practiced the blessings for an aliyah, when they’re called to the Torah, sang a spirited version of “Oseh Shalom,” and covered their eyes to say the Shema.
Ordinarily these activities wouldn’t be worth noting in a Hebrew school class on a Sunday morning. But for the four students who are part of Congregation Sons of Israel’s Lev Program, who include three on the autism spectrum disorder and one with Down’s syndrome, these achievements are impressive.
All too often, children with special needs are isolated from the Jewish community, which may not have the resources to take care of them appropriately.
That’s not the case here at CSI in Briarcliff Manor, where even those students who are in this self-contained class on Sunday mornings still join other students for dance, music and other non-academic activities.
“Our philosophy is that everyone deserves to have a Jewish education,” said Roni Shapiro, the synagogue’s education director. “Everyone deserves to be part of a community.”
That welcoming embrace has been especially meaningful for the families.
“We attend a special-needs family camp through Ramah, and it strikes us, after every session, how lucky we are,” said Jack Zinn, a vice-president at CSI whose son, Ian, is in the Lev program and is on the autism spectrum disorder. “No other synagogue represented there has a program like CSI. Other people struggle to find a place for their child in the synagogue.”
Zinn and his wife initially had modest hopes for Ian. Although he’d been attending CSI’s Hebrew school since kindergarten, they weren’t sure what to expect as he approached his bar mitzvah.
With the bar mitzvah a year away, Zinn is thrilled.
“He’s exceeded expectations,” he said. “He’s learned the letters, he can read a little Hebrew, he can do a good part of Ashrei and the blessings before and after the Torah.”
To help these children enjoy congregational Jewish life, the Lev class focuses closely on teaching Hebrew and elements of the service, in preparation for their bar or bat mitzvahs. The students work with a transliterated service, although some are able to read Hebrew. They are helped by the teenage assistants who effectively shadow these children, gently redirecting a student whose attention may wander, guiding them during a learning game, or holding their hand on the page to keep them focused on the text.
Recognizing that these children learn differently, when it’s time for Hebrew language, the students stand on a mat, imprinted with the Hebrew letters, and seek matches for the foam-letter equivalent that’s posted on the blackboard. The Sunday sessions also include learning about a seasonal holiday, Israel and socializing during a mid-morning challah snack.
“The main focus is to be a mensch,” said their teacher, Sheera Zuckerman. “Their behavior is impeccable. I hold them to a high standard, and they learn.”
The synagogue also provides resources for students in regular Hebrew school classes. “The Lev program covers all children that need some kind of academic support,” said Zuckerman, who’s been in charge of the program for the past three years.
There are about six children per grade, starting in third grade, who get Lev services. “We give them the materials they need, with different kinds of games and books,” said Shapiro.
Making sure that all children, and families, feel included is a fundamental tenet in CSI’s DNA.
“It’s the nature of our congregation,” said Zinn. “There’s a solid commitment to it. Culturally, they’ve created this acceptance.” He acknowledged that in the earlier years, it wasn’t always easy. “For Ian, it takes a lot longer for him to understand how to be quiet. We educated people, who are very supportive now. The rabbi said it’s ok to give him Hershey kisses as a reward” for sitting quietly in services.
“They’ve impacted the other kids,” said Shapiro. “When they see these kids,” she said, “they get the message that all of us are made in God’s image. It’s a beautiful thing to see.” n