Beverly Bernstein Looks Back on 20 Years of Helping Special Needs Kids at OROT

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Beverly Bernstein plays a board game with students
Beverly Bernstein plays with students in the OROT program at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School in Elkins Park. (Eric Schucht)

Beverly Bernstein hasn’t just been with OROT from the beginning. As she puts it, she was there before it even existed.

The program was founded in 1999 and helps to educate children whose learning differences are outside the scope of Jewish day schools. Students who qualify for the program are offered a personalized support program addressing academic, social and behavioral needs.

For 20 years, Bernstein has served as its educational director. Now the time has come for her retirement, with her last day planned for July 31. Lisa Woodward, a literary expert at Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School in California, was named as Bernstein’s replacement.

“I’m getting older, and I just feel that now is a time to work part-time and concentrate more on my grandchildren,” Bernstein said. “It’s time for me to move on, and it’s time for OROT to grow to the next level, and it needs someone else to take it there.”

Bernstein grew up on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. After earning her bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College, majoring in social studies with a minor in education, she started teaching English at a junior high school in New York City. Eventually, she was put in charge of its resource room, where her “love for special ed just blossomed.”

Inspired to pursue her newly found passion, Bernstein returned to school to earn her master’s in special education at Yeshiva University. From there, she moved to the Philadelphia area and started work for Politz Hebrew Academy as its enrichment and special needs coordinator (mostly because her children went there), a job she’s held for 30 years.

OROT’s development was kick-started by Gail Norry, board vice chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. She approached Jay Leberman about starting a program for students with special learning needs at Jewish day schools in the Philadelphia area, such as her then-3-year-old son Ben, who is diagnosed with autism.

Leberman had helped start a similar program in Chicago and used it as a framework. Bernstein was brought on to head the program as she was one of a handful of people in the area who could teach special education in both Judaic and general studies. Bernstein said the program started out simply addressing students with hardcore learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). At first, the program only had two students, one teacher and Bernstein.

“She was the natural hire; she really took it and ran. She really developed a program that was strong and versatile,” Norry said. “We are grateful to Beverly, not just what she did for Ben, but what she did for the Greater Philadelphia community.”

Grants from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program have helped to support the program through the years as it has grown and changed. Today, the program has nearly 50 students in 10 classes throughout Perelman Jewish Day School, Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, Politz and the middle school at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.

Bernstein attributes the program’s growth to schools pushing it more as OROT has demonstrated its effectiveness.

“I’ve built OROT into a program parents can trust. They know once they put the child into the program that they’ll get the best education possible to meet his or her needs, and in a day school that the parents want,” Bernstein said. “They can trust us to do what’s best for their child.”

Carole Miller is the director of development at OROT. She said without Bernstein, the program would not be what it is today.

“[OROT] would not be here without her; it just wouldn’t exist,” Miller said. “She is fiercely dedicated, loving, intelligent and just really one of those people who is a gift to work with.”

Once retired, Bernstein said she plans on spending more time with her five grandchildren and visiting family in Israel. While she will miss seeing her friends and OROT colleagues every day, she plans to use her newly found free time wisely when not working part-time at Politz.

Bernstein’s retirement and her many accomplishments will be celebrated at the OROT Annual Event from 5:45-9:15 p.m. on May 16 in Merion Station. A video commemorating OROT’s alumni will be played along with presentations from current students.

“OROT in 20 years has gotten big. It went from two students to this year we have over 50, and next year we’re anticipating a large growth also,” Bernstein said. “We have now educated a generation of Jewish children who are connected to their Judaism, on whatever level, and before OROT, that would not have happened.”

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