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Yachad Conference draws 200 attendees

Experts and parents help special-needs kids — and each other

 
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Laurie Minchenberg of Passaic wanted advice and information about how her eldest son, Tuvia, 11, who has special needs, could become a bar mitzvah. But she wasn’t sure how to broach the subject with her synagogue leadership.

Anne Rand of Teaneck, whose son Zev became a bar mitzvah several years ago despite learning issues, understands.

The two women shared ideas at Sunday’s Yachad Parent Conference and Resource Fair at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. It brought together 200 people, including experts, parents of children with special needs, and children with special needs and their siblings. Topics included sibling issues, financial planning, and inclusion of youngsters and adults with special needs in the Jewish community.

It was co-sponsored by Yachad/the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, an agency of the Orthodox Union dedicated to the full participation of individuals with disabilities in Jewish life, and UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Council for Special Needs.

The OU has designated February, when the event took place, as North American Inclusion Month, to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in the community, according to Chani Herrmann, director of New Jersey Yachad.

Sharyn J. Gallatin, chair of the JCSN, said “I think what was unique is that it’s the only Jewish fair of its type in our area; we were hoping to raise awareness and let people know there are a myriad of services available close to home.”

While she stressed it was not the point of the conference, a perceived shortage of state services in Bergen County for families of special-needs children helped provide the impetus for the event, Gallatin acknowledged.

New Jersey’s Division of Develop–mental Disabilities does not have an office in Bergen County; the closest office is in Paterson.

Discussions between state legislators and JCSN regarding this issue are “ongoing,” according to Gallatin.

One of the functions of the conference was to connect parents with local organizations that help fill the gap, according to Herrmann. For instance, two local Jewish community centers — the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades and the YJCC in Washington Township — provide summer programming and Sunday programs for kids with special needs. Both sent representatives to the fair.

Autism, Down syndrome, learning disabilities, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder were among the challenges parents sought resources and advice regarding. Children with special needs and their siblings participated in activities including baking hamantaschen and mask-making.

Gallatin ran a session on the rights of special needs children in the public schools and whether to mainstream them.

“It’s every parent’s goal their child be mainstreamed,” she said. “But the right program has to be in place.”

Keynote speaker Dr. Daniel Tomasulo discussed “Interactive Behavioral Therapy,” a form of group psychotherapy for people with intellectual disability to help one another “through kindness and compassion.”

“I led the parents through the exercises so they get to feel what it’s like to move through these exercises and meet new people,” said Tomasulo, author of “Healing Trauma: The Power of Group Treatment for People With Intellectual Disabilities.” He directed parents to the website Thehealingcrowd.com for more information.

Jeff Lichtman, national director of Yachad, spoke about “the effort to include youngsters and adults in the broad Jewish community in meaningful ways of their choice.”

His discussed the myth that inclusion means participation in 100 percent of communal activities.

“The idea that it is not fair if someone is not included 100 percent of the time — I would disagree,” Lichtman told The Jewish Standard. “There are AP classes in high school, regular classes — would you say everyone must be the same and be in every class? Of course not.”

But he stressed that special-needs children should be welcomed in youth group and synagogue life, including having bar and bat mitzvahs if possible. Yachad works with rabbis to help youngsters achieve this goal.

“[Historically], some rabbis said, ‘No, he can’t be bar mitzvahed because he didn’t go to Hebrew school,’” said Lichtman. “We might help a family find a congregation whose rabbi is willing to work with a special-needs child, or better yet, provide the family’s rabbi with resources.

“Ninety percent of the time it’s out of ignorance, not meanness,” that a rabbi will balk at helping a special-needs child fulfill the rite, according to Lichtman. “We’ll say, ‘Let’s talk with the rabbi and discuss how other congregations have handled this.’”

Stephen Ehrens, CPA, an estate and financial planning adviser for Northwestern Mutual Financial Network in Fairfield, Conn., discussed setting up trust funds for children with special needs so they do not lose eligibility for benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) after their parents die. He has a daughter with special needs.

“I saw all the issues we had for my daughter and all the things I was concerned about,” Ehrens told the Standard. “There is no centralized place to get information. You’re grasping at straws, fighting with schools, trying to get medications, a million questions. I thought this would be great field to help others.”

He added that he found the conference helpful, especially Tomasulo’s lecture.

Other parents shared Ehrens’ view of the fair’s value, and mentioned the chance to bond with other parents.

Minchenberg spoke of a talk Rand gave on helping her son Zev, who stutters, to deliver his bar mitzvah speech.

“It gave me ideas,” said Minchenberg, citing Rand’s providing a copy of her son’s speech, which concerned Moses, a biblical hero who struggled with a stutter. “I thought, ‘I can go to this fellow parent and ask for advice because she has a more in-depth understanding of what a bar mitzvah for a special-needs child is about.’”

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Devora Rand, 8, sister of a child with learning issues, attended Yachad’s resource fair.
 
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Walling off, reaching out

Teaneck shul offers discussion of Women of the Wall

It is not an understatement to say that the saga of Women of the Wall is a metaphor for much of the struggle between tradition and change in Israel.

Founded 25 years ago by a group of Israeli and non-Israeli women whose religious affiliations ran from Orthodox to Reform, it has been a flashpoint for the fight for pluralism in Israel, as one side would define it, or the obligation to hold onto God-given mandates on the other.

As its members and supporters fought for the right to hold services in the women’s section, raising their voices in prayer, and later to wear tallitot and read from sifrei Torah, and as their opponents grew increasingly violent in response, it came to define questions of synagogue versus state and showcase both the strengths and the flaws of Israel’s extraordinary parliamentary system. It also highlighted rifts between American and Israeli Jews.

 

‘It’s valuable to hear both sides’

Ridgewood man discusses Israeli, Palestinian narratives

Jonathan Emont — a 2008 graduate of Ridgewood High School who celebrated his bar mitzvah at the town’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center — always has felt a deep attachment to the state of Israel.

Still, the 23-year-old said, he never expected that country to be at the center of his professional life.

Things changed, however, when the recent Swarthmore College graduate went to Israel on a tour the America-Israel Friendship League offered to young journalists.

“I did journalism in college,” he said, explaining that although he majored in history, he also was the editor of Swarthmore’s Daily Gazette.

 

Yet more Pew

Local rabbis talk more about implications of look at American Jews

The Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews, released last October, really is the gift that keeps on giving.

As much as the Jewish community deplores the study’s findings, it seems to exert a magnetic pull over us, as if it were the moon and we the obedient tides. We can’t seem to stop talking about it. (Of course, part of that appeal is the license it gives us to talk, once again, about ourselves. We fascinate ourselves endlessly.)

That is why we found ourselves at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last Wednesday night, with the next in the seemingly endless series of snow-and-ice storms just a few hours away, discussing the Pew study yet again.

 

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Fighting for Israel’s kids

Nirim brings survival treks to tough neighborhoods

Shlomi Avni thanks his parents for keeping him on the straight and narrow.

He grew up in Or Akiva, a small city halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv, just inland from Caesarea. His neighborhood was poor, with many of his peers tempted to drop out of school and turn to crime.

But his parents — his mother from Morocco, his father of Turkish descent — made sure he studied and took school seriously.

In high school in nearby Hadera, he was exposed to wider horizons and broader aspirations — in particular, the desire to be accepted into an elite combat unit in the army.

As someone who loved the sea, his choice was Flotilla 13 — the special forces unit of the Israeli navy — in other words, the Israeli version of the U.S. Navy SEALs.

 

Menendez on Iran: Keep up intense pressure

At JPost conference, senator reaffirms U.S. support for Israel

The West should continue to pursue a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, but that process should be reinforced by a continuous commitment to international sanctions against the Islamic republic, according to Senator Robert Mendendez.

“It is clear to me that only intense punishing economic pressure has influenced Iranian leaders to come to the table,” New Jersey’s senior senator said while addressing the Jerusalem Post’s annual conference in New York on Sunday.

Mr. Menendez, a Democrat, heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is one of the Senate’s prime supporters of sanctions against Iran. On Sunday, he also called for a credible military option to remain on the table in the Iranian negotiations. The threat of U.S. military action can be a force for attaining national security goals, he said, crediting his committee’s authorization of military force in Syria last September for convincing Syrian President Bashar Assad to give up control of his chemical weapons arsenal. The United States must reassure its regional allies that the military option will remain on the table with Iran, he added.

 

‘Shave for the Brave’

There is not much that anyone can do to comfort colleagues whose son has died of cancer.

Nor is it intuitive to think that if anything could help, it would be a line of rabbis getting their heads shaved.

But that is what 54 Reform rabbis did in Chicago on April 1. The so-called Shave for the Brave was in response to the December death of 8-year-old Samuel Sommers — Superman Sam, as he was called.

Sam’s short but joyous life was chronicled by his mother, Rabbi Phyllis Sommers, who blogged about his struggle; she and Sam’s father, Rabbi Michael Sommers, were the first to have their heads shaved onstage during the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ meeting last week.

 
 
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