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Although children with disabilities make up approximately 20% of Jewish students, until recent years, few Jewish educational services were available to them. In 2001, two determined parents, Jennifer and Erik Bittner, founded the organization Etgar L’Noar (Hebrew for “The Children’s Challenge:) with a handful of other parents and with the support of their synagogue, to provide a Jewish education for their two sons with autism, and a Sunday morning Hebrew school was born. Soon after, Jennifer and I agreed to become the board’s co-president.
Volunteers helped build the organization, and special education teachers gave generously of their time to educate these students.
Each Sunday morning, teenage volunteers worked one-on-one with Etgar students. To prepare the teens, we offered weekly trainings, led by volunteer experts and professionals in the field of special education, speech therapy, and medicine. Many of these teen volunteers were so inspired by this training and their work with Etgar students that they have gone on to become health professionals and educators. (My daughter, SaraBeth, was one such volunteer, who went on to become a co-founder of Teach for China. One never knows where and how good ideas will spread!)
After a year or so, we held Etgar’s first fundraiser, a chamber music concert, in my living room. We raised an impressive amount of money for this small organization with no formal budget. Soon, we added a b’nai mitzvah preparation program and the Mitzvah Mensches inclusive teen youth group.
Although Etgar L’Noar was meeting the needs of students with more significant disabilities, after several years, it became clear that Boston needed a more comprehensive organization to serve the growing demands of all Jewish students with learning challenges.
Another Boston organization, the Jewish Special Education Collaborative (JESC) – also begun by parents and dedicated friends, providing supports for students attending day schools – was willing to consider a merger. I led merger discussions, and after many meetings of the two organizations’ boards, we began to build trust.
One of our early challenges was deciding how much public focus to place on the two populations our organization served. We agreed we would give an appropriate education to all the children we served, but we faced some differences: The parents of children with severe needs wanted to publically celebrate their children; the parents of those with learning disabilities were more reluctant. They were afraid the children would be stigmatized. We reached a compromise when a board member set up an award for teachers of those with mild learning disabilities. Thus, we could focus our full attention on both groups but in different ways. Fortunately, now all sorts of challenges are just part of the normal range of human learning styles.
To complete the merger, we passed on the responsibility of leadership. The current leaders of both organizations stepped down, mitigating territorial merger allegiances.
Our local Jewish Federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, connected us with Ruderman Family Foundation, which supplied our merged organization with the visionary leadership and essential funding to grow. The newly formed Gateways: Access to Jewish Education now had the ability to provide services and professional development in a variety of Jewish environments, including day schools, congregational and community supplementary schools, as well as preschools in our own programs.
Ten years later, Gateways serves hundreds of students each year in its Sunday school and b’nai mitzvah programs. It has expanded its inclusive teen youth group, provides direct services and professional development in the majority of day schools in Greater Boston, and works with educators at synagogues, supplementary schools and Jewish preschools. We’ve even published two books, the Gateways Haggadah and the Gateways Shabbat Family Companion.
Gateways could never have existed without extraordinary volunteer effort, which brought the entire Boston Jewish community together. As our students became b’nei mitzvah, and read, spoke, or used the computer to enhance their communication, the community saw how much effort they had put into learning Judaism; the entire community was reminded of its own obligation and joy in educating all of the next generation.
In time, disabilities inclusion helped us put our sectarian differences aside to create the opportunity for all Jewish children to receive a Jewish education, regardless of ability, and for all families to thrive in our community. Gateways has paved the way for an inclusive Boston Jewish community and can serve as a model for Jewish communities around the globe.
Needless to say, it has been one of my most rewarding volunteer jobs.
To learn more, visit www.jgateways.org.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life. Visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to learn more.