Jackie Bobrin doubted her 8-year-old son Ethan would be able to attend religious school. "Regular" life was difficult enough with the behaviors his doctors attributed to a possible combination of Attention Deficit Disorder, Asberger's and bipolar disorder, she said. What synagogue would have the interest — or resources — to give him the extra attention he needed?
Surprisingly, the Bryn Mawr mother of three said, she found both at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley. While many area synagogues have accommodated children with special needs in recent years, Har Zion has made a point of doing so since 2000. Its Madregot program is a complete religious education track specifically designed for special needs children in kindergarten to 10th grade. It serves 10 to 16 children each year with disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy to autism, regardless of whether they are members or not.
A coordinator and eight teachers run a separate self-contained classroom for those who need a modified curriculum and shadow the others who stay with their age group.
All that extra staff can cost upwards of $80,000 a year, said Dorene Karasick, who chairs a fundraising committee for the program. But it's well worth it, the Penn Valley resident said, because "the need is there. I never want to see this program not available."
The fact that the synagogue has committed to do all of this at no extra cost is stunning, said Bobrin, a fitness instructor. It's a "constant battle" to get one-on-one assistance in public schools, she said, so "it's a big deal to find support for my kid at any stage in life."
At Har Zion, she said, a trained high school-age teaching assistant knows how to take Ethan out of the classroom and calm him down, if necessary. Otherwise, he's in with all the other kids, learning the same things. "It's great to know that he can still participate but also have the support and flexibility to be himself, because this is who he is right now," said Bobrin. "I don't want him to learn in a vacuum. We just needed to know that there was someone who was going to take care of him."
Johanna Werbach, the parent chair of the program whose 9-year-old son, Eli, has Asperger's Syndrome, said the Madregot staff put a lot of thought into what will make the material interesting for their students. The teachers "appreciate him in a way that regular school sometimes doesn't," said Werbach, an attorney from Villanova.
As a result, she said, Eli looks forward to going every week. More importantly, she said, he understands what it means to be a member of a Jewish community, and that's "a really magical thing."
For more information on the Har Zion's Madregot program, call education director Rabbi Nogah Marshall at 610-667-5000, Ext. 114. See Also: Special Needs Get a Boost
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