New computer lab aims to help special needs students

New computer lab aims to help special needs students

Parents, teachers and students at Temple Ohav Shalom’s Sunday school were on hand to unveil the synagogue’s new computer lab on Sunday, Nov. 23.
Named the Alvin Weinberg Children’s Computer Center, the festivities included a ribbon cutting ceremony, music, bagels and cupcakes, speeches and thank you cards presented to the benefactor, Lisa Antin.
Purchased by a donation through the Alvin and Shirley Weinberg Foundation, the four new computers will be used primarily by children with special needs who are students at the synagogue’s religious and Sunday school.
Marci Barnes, director of Lifelong Learning, said that of the 200 children who are enrolled at Temple Ohav Shalom’s religious school, approximately 15 percent have special learning needs. While some are learning disabled, many are on the autistic spectrum, all of which creates challenges in the Sunday school and Hebrew school classrooms.
Cathy Filson, who teaches fourth grade at Temple Ohav Shalom’s religious school, has been committed to special education advocacy and programming for over 20 years. She has been teaching at the religious school for 14 years and Hebrew for five years. In her first year of teaching Hebrew school, six out of her 18 students were on the autism spectrum.
“After that first year of teaching Hebrew, I realized they weren’t all on an equal playing field,” Filson said. “Many kids were very capable learners but were on the autistic spectrum, and came with a host of anxieties and behaviors; it wasn’t necessarily their ability to learn but how they’d be acclimated in the learning environment. Some had dyslexia, for example, which affected their ability to read Hebrew.”
Because it was hard for some of the children to sit through a two- or two-and-a-half-hour class in a rigorously structured environment, Filson and the
former Lifelong Learning director started to brainstorm about ways to accommodate the children who have different learning needs. When Barnes started her job this past August, she and Filson developed a way that Filson could work with small groups in 45-minute sessions, using various alternative methodologies to help teach these children learn Hebrew in the way that would work for them.
“Many children with special needs learn well from computer programs, which gives them auditory and visual reinforcement; that is why she is thrilled about the new center,” Filson said. “I think it will enhance their progress, speed it up and increase their fluency, because it’s a whole decoding process. It will help them to improve their skills and apply it more easily.”
Filson also praised Temple Ohav Shalom’s willingness to not only welcome children and families with special needs but to accommodate them in such a unique manner.
“I think that speaks so highly of their willingness to say, ‘You are a member, you and your family are members, and we are here to welcome you and help them to meet your goals and their goals.’ And I think that’s pretty awesome,” she said.
The Agency for Jewish Learning has been working with them and will continue to do so in the future to ensure that the religious school is successful in meeting all children’s needs.
“The heart of special needs,” said Barnes, “is that different people learn by different modalities. Some people are visual learners, some are oral learners, and some need to see things in action. This [computer center] is a symbol of all the possibilities we can find in Jewish education.”
The computer lab will also be open to other students in the temple community, including those studying for their b’nai mitzvah, with the purchase of Haftorah software. Even the preschool students will have an opportunity to log on to age-appropriate Web sites, and there will also be Judaic art-related software
Lisa Antin made the grant to Temple Ohav Shalom on behalf of the Alvin and Shirley Weinberg Foundation. The foundation, she explained, was established by her parents, Shirley and the late Alvin Weinberg, for the purposes of helping charitable causes in the Jewish
Alvin Weinberg passed away seven years ago, and since then, Antin said she’s been seeking to support causes that were important to him. The foundation makes a disbursement annually.
“Every year, I am on the lookout for a very simple concept — a need that needs to be filled to enrich the lives of Jewish children and youth, and we fill it,” Antin explained. “It’s that simple.”
Antin was first introduced to Temple Ohav Shalom through her friend and congregant, Evan Shikora.
“We found there was this need there for a computer learning center for Jewish children with special needs,” Antin said. “When we saw that need, we became very excited and we were happy to fund it.”
“My father believed deeply in Jewish education and he always supported it; he was very Judaic and giving,” continued Antin. “This is a way for us to carry forth this tradition in his memory.”
One parent of a child with Asperger’s syndrome was enthusiastic about the new computer lab.
“I think it’s going to be a great thing for my son because it will break up his time in the classroom,” the parent said. “Also, kids on the [autism] spectrum tend to be very into computers and video games, and this will be giving them motivation and incentive to be there as well as a tool for learning that’s more geared toward the way they learn.”
Rabbi Art Donsky, Temple Ohav Shalom’s spiritual leader, is also enthusiastic about the new computers.
“We are very grateful to Lisa Antin and the Weinberg Foundation. The computers will be a great enhancement to meet the needs of special needs kids, many of whom are used to working with computers and video games and also have experience working with computers for other educational programs.”
Barnes said that based upon her research, there is no other equivalent special needs computer center at any synagogue in western Pennsylvania. She also said that the disproportionate number of children with special needs in the North Hills is due to the school districts’ wraparound services that include rather than segregate these children.
“Temple Ohav Shalom is this little jewel of a synagogue in the North Hills community,” Antin said. “I have found it to be warm and inviting; I am proud to be part of it and I know my father would be too.”

(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at

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