In London, a special needs school is rare meeting point for haredi Orthodox and secular Jews


LONDON (JTA) — When her son was diagnosed with autism, Ali Sultman was faced with a difficult choice.

To give him the Jewish education her family believed in, she could either enroll him at a regular day school that wasn’t set up to accommodate his needs, or she could put him in what was then London’s only Jewish school for children with special needs. But the latter, Kisharon, catered mostly to children with more severe disabilities than her son faced.

“Like many others, we needed a middle option that just didn’t exist at the time,” said Sultman, a 45-year-old mother of three and former insurance executive. 

So she and another Modern Orthodox mom whom she had met on a playground in 2013 set about opening a new Jewish school called Gesher, Hebrew for “bridge.” Since its opening in 2017, the school has filled a gap in London’s otherwise robust array of Jewish education options — and in doing so, it has emerged as a rare hub of interaction among Jewish families of vastly different religious observance.

Gesher has students from insular haredi Orthodox communities who normally never consider non-haredi yeshivas, and it also enrolls children from secular homes. The school aims to make everyone comfortable by committing to a Modern Orthodox approach.

“Haredi communities are very protective of outside influences. You wouldn’t find haredi Jews with other Jews,” said Josh Aronson, a Manchester-based Jewish journalist and activist for people with disabilities who comes from a haredi home and has an autism spectrum disorder. “Maybe at restaurants they’ll be sitting at separate tables but the children especially don’t mix. So a place like Gesher is very, very rare.”

A boutique school of about 50 students ages 4-12 in northwest London, Gesher is in some ways a testament to the shortcomings of London’s Jewish day schools. Many of them cannot adequately serve students with autism, attention disorders and other learning disabilities.

But the school also adds to an increasing number of programs that suggest the Jewish education sector is taking special education more seriously. Like Shefa, a Jewish school founded in 2014 in New York City that serves children with language disorders, Gesher aims to ensure that children don’t have to give up Jewish education to have their disabilities addressed.

Housed on the grounds of the recently closed Moriah Jewish Day School, Gesher has inherited a spacious location complete with play rooms and a large auditorium, as well as a formidable security arrangement that is characteristic of Jewish schools in much of the world amid rising reports of antisemitic crimes.  

The new building to which the school moved in 2020 is a major upgrade to the small, one-story building where the school first opened. 

“It’s roomy but it looks like a normal school, which helps create a feeling of normalcy that many of our students need,” said Tamaryn Yartu, the school’s South Africa-born principal who, like many of the educators on staff, is not Jewish. One of her students, she recalled, recently said proudly that Gesher “looks just like my brother’s school” after the move into the new building.

But there are some special adaptations at Gesher’s classrooms. Wobble cushions, for example, are never too far away, and chairs have rubber bands on their legs — a setup developed at the school to accommodate fidgeting and to help children with ADHD and similar issues sit through classes. There is also often some animal at Gesher — usually a dog — that volunteers and staff bring for the children to interact with as a form of therapy. The school’s website lists one canine staffer: a trainee therapy cockapoo named Puplinda Gurney.

During a recent show, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a production that’s part of the Spoek Ivrit theater festival for British Jewish school organized the the United Kingdom branch of the Jewish National Fund, or JNF, children who found it difficult to sit through a play were allowed to “chill out,” as one teacher termed it, in a seating area until they were ready to return. 

When a child was being too disruptive, a teacher escorted the student out to one of the school’s multiple play corners. One girl was wearing “ear defenders,” or muting headphones meant to alleviate her sensitivity to noises.

The Israeli actors in the show were made aware that Gesher is a special needs school and adapted the show so that children in the audience would be engaged — they were encouraged to shout out answers to the question raised by the actors — but not put on the spot.

A teacher soothes a student during a theater show at the Gesher School in London, March 7, 2022. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Shows and other special class events are an opportunity to find middle ground “between children of different backgrounds, like the ones at Gesher,” Samuel Hayek, the chairman of JNF-UK, told JTA. “These events are inclusive, empowering and having Gesher take part was a must for us,” Hayek said.

The school has made a difference in the life of many of its students and their parents, including Ali Durban, the cofounder whose chance encounter with Sultman on a London playground resulted in Gesher’s creation.

Durban’s son was “miserable” at the Jewish school that he had attended before Gesher’s creation in 2017, she said. “He was isolated socially” in his class, where there was only one other child with special needs. 

“He was bullied because he was different and the experience left a mark on him,” Durban added. She calls her son’s time in school before Gesher “the dark years.”

Gesher is a private school and charges about $45,000 a year in tuition. But many of the parents have arranged for the tuition to be reimbursed or to be paid directly by their local council, which in the United Kingdom provides subsidies for special education to those eligible.

The school’s program combines a curriculum required by the English education ministry, known as Ofsted; Jewish and Hebrew-language studies; and therapy sessions designed to help the children develop their own techniques for overcoming learning and other disabilities, Yartu said.

“Many of the parents are very interested in preparing the children to be able to come to synagogue without being disruptive,” she said. “But being spoken at for an hour is asking a lot from a child with attention issues. It takes a lot of work and preparation.”  

Gesher’s approach, small classes and abundance of staff — there are almost as many staff as there are students — are appealing to parents beyond the Modern Orthodox community. One such couple is the Feldmans, haredi parents from northern London whose 8-year-old son enrolled at Gesher last January. The child was unhappy at his haredi school, said the mother, who agreed to be identified only by her last name, citing privacy concerns. The couple was paying thousands of dollars for therapy sessions that seemed to only slightly help, she added. But the couple were still reluctant about sending the boy to Gesher, which they felt fell short of meeting their community’s religious standards. 

“It’s less strictly Orthodox. It wasn’t like how I was brought up, and it was overwhelming for us,” she said. The haredi school where the Feldmans initially enrolled their son recommended moving him to Gesher and the couple’s rabbi approved the switch, she said. But leaving the haredi education system took some getting used to, she added. 

“Once we got over that, we realized, like it’s not for us, it’s for our child,” the mother said. “This is what we need to do for the school to be right for him to be happy and confident and you know, be a member of society.”

They experienced almost instant relief.  

“From the first week at Gesher, he’s suddenly become happy. He’s blossomed like I’ve never seen before. He’s so confident, he’s in the classroom, he’s got friends for the first time. Finally he’s in an environment that understands him,” Feldman said.

Now, for the first time in their lives, the Feldmans have made friends who are not haredi — a Modern Orthodox couple whose child also goes to Gesher who live near them. “It’s kind of inevitable because it’s a small school and there’s a community of parents around it that we belong to now,“ she said. 

On the other end of the observance spectrum, Pamela Sneader, a Glasgow-born Jewish mother of two, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that her daughter, Daisy, is going to Gesher “because it’s an excellent special needs school, not because it’s Jewish. That’s just a bonus.” Sneader arrived at Gesher after multiple schools told her they were not equipped to teach her daughter, who is autistic.

“I came to Gesher and it was like ‘no problem, we can totally handle it,’ which was a huge relief. My daughter has blossomed there, mostly in terms of confidence and having friends and playdates for the first time in her life,” Sneader said.

After visiting Gesher for the first time this year, Aronson, 36, came away wishing such a school had existed when he was growing up. 

“I was bullied by teachers and students at the regular haredi school I went to,” said Aronson, who has 13 siblings and whose father is a rabbi. “Nobody knew what I had and I desperately needed the kind of support you see at Gesher.”

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