A Mecca for Special Children


by Rivka Chaya Berman - GLEN COVE, NY

June 19, 2005

At first glance, the classroom at Chabad of Glen Cove Long Island’s Hebrew school for children with special needs looks like any other classroom. Brightly colored posters depicting the Hebrew alphabet and familiar items from the Jewish holidays decorate the walls, Jewish songs are sung. But the six boys, ages five to eight, who follow their soft spoken teachers’ instructions and are happily swabbing tempera paint on their latest holiday-themed art project were not welcomed in any other Hebrew school.

The students’ bevy of delays: speech, social, cognitive and behavioral made them too different, too hard to handle, in a regular school setting. Until Rabbi Mendy Heber who heads Chabad of Glen Cove opened up his special education Hebrew school this past fall, children with special needs were left without any option for Jewish education near home. “It’s really hard,” said Gabrielle Tesch whose six-year-old son attends the school. “When you have a kid with delays no one wants to hear from you.”

Rabbi Heber was quick to pick up on the need for a special Hebrew school. “In other settings, these children would sit in class and touch everything around them,” said Rabbi Heber. “Some had trouble keeping focused. Some are very bright in particular fields but have trouble relating to children around them,” said Rabbi Heber. “Our Hebrew school is geared particularly for these children. It’s not just social, it’s a real Hebrew school geared for them, on their level.

The school opened with two students and proved popular enough to triple in size by June. This summer, while other schools stow their Hebrew workbooks into cabinets for a summer’s rest, the Glen Cove Hebrew school remains open. Summer sessions are not bar mitzvah cram session, but they are scheduled to “keep structure in the kids’ lives and keep them from regressing,” said Sara Goldman, a school parent who was instrumental in starting the program.

“Last year, Rabbi Heber said my son was welcome to come to his summer camp. I didn’t send him, but the fact he was open to Sammy was nice,” said Goldman, a resident Old Brookville, Long Island. Rabbi Heber’s welcoming stance gave Goldman the opening to mention her wish for a Hebrew school where Sammy could be exposed to some of what her other children were learning at the local Jewish day school. “I was pleased that Rabbi Heber was so open-minded and enthusiastic about it. Kids like Sammy are of a community of children that people do not want to deal with.”

Funding the teachers’ salaries was a challenge. Special education demands small class settings leaving few parents to shoulder the cost. Sara Goldman pitched in with the seed money to get the school going. “The program is subsidized by Chabad of Glen Cove so that the cost need not be a hindrance for parents to give their special children the education they so rightly deserve and are entitled to,” said Rabbi Heber.

Finding the right teachers with special education qualifications and Hebrew school background was another hurdle. “We were looking for teachers who were warm, nurturing with a lot of patience. Someone whose heart was really in it,” said Goldman. Many candidates and interviews later, Seth and Aviva Brender, a husband-and-wife team, were selected. Seth holds a Masters’ Degree in Special Education and has taught for eight years. Aviva is completing her Masters in Special Education and is a kindergarten teacher at the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Aviva creates the curriculum, and Seth works on classroom behavior and social management.

Although the Brenders’ goal is to offer their students a Jewish education on par with their mainstream peers, the children’s abilities and need for social growth influence the Brenders’ lesson plans. To prepare the children for the Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Brenders devised an innovative way to convey the main points of the holiday. After Aviva introduced the children to the idea that it is important to listen to the Torah’s instructions, she interviewed the children about rules that are important in class and at home. In mini-Torahs of their own, she helped the kids write five rules like: “We may not hit anyone” and “We should listen to our mother and father.”

“It was very basic that brought the idea of the Torah to their world. The projects we do reinforce the story of the holiday and build understanding,” said Seth. “The kids went away with ownership of the holiday’s meaning.”

Hand in hand with the Jewish knowledge imparted in class is emphasis on meeting social goals. Seth spends time eliciting responses from the children to build their conversational skills. Visitors in the classroom on any given Sunday are likely to hear Seth and Aviva offering specific sorts of praise to the children like, “I like the way Sammy is holding his paintbrush.”

“The rules constantly need to be reinforced in a positive way,” said Seth. “We don’t concentrate on the negative. We want the child to use other children as positive role models.”

Their students give the Brenders the thumbs up. “After the first class, my son said, ‘Those teachers are really nice. I am going back,’” said Tesch.

Goldman’s son is equally enthusiastic. “If he could verbalize to that extent, he would say that he loves his teachers and loves having friends in class that he can relate to.”

Progress is measured differently at the Glen Cove Hebrew school. “The parents understand that progress is very gradual,” said Seth. “What looks like a small step is really a huge step.” When Purim came, the students were able to describe the story behind the holiday and boo Haman as the villain. Over Passover, some students thrilled their families by reciting of a few of the Four Questions during the Seder dinner.

During Hebrew school hours the parents have formed an informal support group. They share tips about therapies, doctors and make play dates--a first for some of the children who had been shunned in other schools. “I thought I’d use the time for myself, go grocery shopping, but I find myself staying to talk with the other parents. The parents are honest and up front--and nice,” said Tesch.

As the school grows, Rabbi Heber is looking forward to the possibility of opening a second class. Other parents, who have seen what their children have accomplished with the Brenders, have found themselves envisioning how Chabad of Glen Cove will prepare their sons’ for bar mitzvah services. Goldman is not shy about sharing her dream for the school: “I would like Chabad of Glen Cove to be known as a special ed Hebrew School Mecca of Long Island.”

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