A Day of Learning About, for Special Needs

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The  Jewish Special Needs Consortium of Greater Philadelphia held its sixth annual “Opening the Gates of Torah Yom Limmud (Day of Learning)” to bring together people from across the spectrum, including those with disabilities, their family members, advocates, educators, clergy and community members, to share in a dialogue about inclusion in the Jewish community.

In conjunction with February’s designation as Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion month, the Jewish Special Needs Consortium of Greater Philadelphia held its sixth annual “Opening the Gates of Torah Yom Limmud (Day of Learning),” on Feb. 7, at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.
The event brings together people from across the spectrum, including those with disabilities, their family members, advocates, educators, clergy and community members, to share in a dialogue about inclusion in the Jewish community. The focus of the program was “Disability, Inclusion and Jewish Community: Living a Meaningful Life” and featured a keynote address by Rabbi Charles Sherman.
The consortium, part of the Jewish Learning Venture’s whole community inclusion initiative, is a group of representatives from local agencies that serve the special needs community and collaborate on ideas.
The organizations in the consortium are: Azar: Occupational Therapy Supports for Jewish Learning; Autism Inclusion Resources; Families CCAN; Friendship Circle; Jewish Community High School of Gratz College; Jewish Family and Children’s Service; the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; Jewish Learning Venture; Judith Creed Homes for Adult Independence; OROT-Serving Diverse Learners in Philadelphia’s Jewish Day Schools; Ramah Day Camp; Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; Ramah Day Camp and Tikvah Family Camp; Advocates for the Jewish Mentally Ill; and the Union for Reform Judaism.
It also featured three workshops: Effective Self-Advocacy Skills Over A Lifetime; Your Life As An Adult; and Creating an Inclusion Toolbox.
“We were trying to reach as many people as we could,” said Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, the director of whole community inclusion for the Jewish Learning Venture. “I’m hoping to give people more tools and resources to work towards inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community.”
Kaplan-Mayer’s son George, who became Bar Mitzvah in January at Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Roxborough, is autistic. Since his diagnosis at age 8, she has been an advocate for the special needs community.
“I think we want people to feel part of a community and part of a movement,” she said.
She told the Jewish Exponent of Rabbi Sherman’s impact on the 60 attendees. Sherman’s 34-year-old son, Eyal, has garnered national attention for his disability, which he discussed at the program.
“He really gets to the heart of living with a disability,” Kaplan-Mayer said.
Sherman, who is the spiritual leader at Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park, said speaking at the event was important to him not just because he is a rabbi, but rather due to how much his life has changed since his son fell ill.
“I came here not really as a rabbi but as a parent,” he told the Exponent.
Eyal was diagnosed at 4 years old with a brain stem lesion, which the rabbi said is often described as a “death sentence.” He underwent numerous surgeries and was in a coma for many months. He now lives with the help of a ventilator and feeding tube, and cannot talk or hear.
Sherman explained many people are often uneasy or unsure what to say or do around someone with special needs.
“I think we’re a little further along the journey than other people,” the rabbi said. “People are still frightened. They don’t know what to say.”
One person who can relate to the struggles of having a child with special needs is Heidi Morein of Cheltenham. Morein, a member of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, has a son, Julian, 17, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 8.
Julian is a junior at Cheltenham High School and is currently looking at colleges, including Arcadia University and University of Alabama.
This was her fourth time attending the program, which she always finds interesting, although, she noted, there are so many people out there who would be well-served by attending an educational forum like the yom limmud.
“There’s so much information about the autism spectrum disorder,” Morein said. “It’s much better to be focused on services.”
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