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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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