More must be done for special needs children
The value of enabling all to enjoy inclusion in Jewish communal life is as old as Abraham and Sarah, who, according to Midrash, were the ultimate hosts, welcoming all into their tents for nourishment of both body and soul.
And while it takes both awareness and effort to be mindful of including everyone — whatever their needs may be — the benefits are palpable, said Terry Feinberg Steinberg, director of special education services at the Agency for Jewish Learning.
“Building Abraham and Sarah’s Tent,” to be held Thursday, May 13, at Congregation Beth Shalom, is a collaborative program that will feature nationally known inclusion expert Shelly Christensen, as well as a panel discussion with community representatives to explore ways in which Jewish Pittsburgh can better integrate those with special needs into the fabric of Jewish communal life.
Although Jewish Pittsburgh has made strides in including those with special needs, there is still work to be done, said Feinberg Steinberg.
“People [with special needs] who have lived here have had success and feel welcomed,” Feinberg Steinberg said. “But people that come from bigger cities think we’re behind. And we are.
“Support from the government often depends on what state you live in,” she continued. “We’re trying to catch up. But we are in a very special place because people have come together. They have seen it’s time to work together and collaborate together.”
A result of that collaborative effort is the upcoming program, sponsored by the Agency for Jewish Learning, the United Jewish Federation, 13 local synagogues, all three day schools, Friendship Circle and several other Jewish communal organizations.
“Special needs has been a priority of the [UJF’s] Aging and Human Needs Commission for a long time,” said Joshua Donner, associate director of planning and funding for the UJF. “In the last two or three years there has been a real recognition of the need for us as a community to work together on this issue. There have been some great collaborative efforts and this event is one of those. We want to make sure that anyone who wants to engage in the community has the means to do so.”
Christensen, who is Jewish, will focus her talk on “the Jewish values that really represent inclusion, that remind us that all people belong inside the tent,” she said, speaking by phone from Atlanta. “Everyone wants to be included in meaningful ways, with the emphasis on ‘meaningful.’”
It is important for the Jewish community not only to raise awareness of those with disabilities, but also to make the commitment to be inclusive, Christensen said.
“It’s not enough to just say we’re inclusive,” she said. “And I have worked the last nine years to develop processes so synagogues can walk the talk.”
“The work I do is based on a quote from Chasidic master Yehudi Hakadosh: ‘Good intentions are not enough. It’s the action that makes the intention so profound,’” she added. “I think this illustrates the journey we have to take as a community. How do you get from good intentions to actions?”
The evening will include a panel discussion with Al Condeluci of United Cerebral Palsy, Ed Frim of the AJL, Martin Lubetsky of UPMC and Feinberg Steinberg.
Laura Marshak will receive the UJF Shore/Whitehill Award for her work as a professional adviser to Friendship Circle, established in Pittsburgh in 2006 to help children and young adults with special needs to become more fully integrated into the broader community. The program allows children and young adults with special needs to enjoy the company of teenage and young adult volunteers in a full range of social activities.
Marshak developed the guiding philosophy of Friendship Circle, “blurring the lines of those you would consider special needs and those without special needs,” said Donner. “It’s not about one person helping another but about community.”
Harold Goldwasser, who has been running a special education Sunday school program at Congregation Poale Zedeck for over 35 years, will receive the AJL Special Needs Distinguished Service Award. His current group of 12 students is divided into two classes, one with younger students and one with older students, some of whom have been studying with him for 15 years.