Speaker focuses on Jewish children with special needs

Speaker focuses on Jewish children with special needs

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, spoke at the Squirrel Hill Jewish Community Center Sunday about Jewish special needs children. His speech, “Including the Special Needs Child,” was widely attended by the Pittsburgh community.
“Taking the idea that all people are made in God’s image seriously would require a major reordering of Jewish priorities,” he said at the start of his speech.
Artson, who has been a crusader for the inclusion of children with special needs since his son Jacob was diagnosed when he was 3 (he is a teenager now), told the audience how his son has been ignored by his Jewish peers except for when school credit was involved, and how Jewish organizations all over the country push funding for his needs aside as he will never be a “heart surgeon or a lawyer, and thus never able to be a significant donator to their federation.
“We are crippling our children for life if we teach them all that matters is the number of letters after your name or the number of zeros in your paycheck,” he said. “Excluding those among us with special needs is nothing less than a denial of God. Jewish institutions that do not [and will not] have special needs programs should close. He demanded the community’s attitude move from pity to self-empowerment.”
Artson emphasized how enormous an impact can be made by simply smiling and saying “hi” or “Shabbat Shalom” to someone ordinarily made to feel invisible. In order to educate the laity how to handle those with special needs, he suggested each synagogue should have a column in its bulletin devoted to this issue, and it should include ideas from the special needs members themselves.
Striking a special chord with the audience was Artson’s depiction of who his son was beyond his autism.
“Every autistic person clings to something. Jacob clings to the Torah. Jacob has been a keynote speaker at Jewish institutions around the country and wants to become the world’s first nonverbal autistic rabbi. Every time Jacob and I study Torah together,” the rabbi said, “he sees things in it that I never would have seen in a 100 years.”
Following Artson’s presentation, Terry Feinberg Steinberg, director of special education services for the Agency for Jewish Learning, and herself the mother of a special needs child, gave recognition awards to two local women for their lifelong dedication to students with special needs. Marci Kantrowitz Barnes was honored for Creative Innovation in Jewish Education, and Joan G. Charlson was honored for Dedication and Service to Jewish Children with Special Needs.
Barnes worked as director of lifelong learning at Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park in the North Hills, a magnet community for special needs kids due to the local school’s programs and aides for kids with special needs.
“Families with special needs children move here, and many of them are Jewish, and Ohav Shalom is the only synagogue in town.”
The influx of special needs children into the community inspired Barnes to establish programs for catering to them. Barnes worked with parents, the student aides in school and the AJL to help train Hebrew school teachers how to work with special needs children. She also procured a generous donation to build the Alvin Weinberg Children’s Computer Center at Ohav Shalom, a place with interactive, hands-on technology for teaching special needs children Hebrew.
“We have students with autism, dyslexia, Asperger’s, and others, and each student is treated according to his or her individual needs.” Barnes will be leaving Ohav Shalom on July 31 for budgetary reasons.
Joan G. Charlson, described by Steinberg as “tzedek and chesed” has been working with special needs kids since she was an undergraduate in the 1960s. She founded the special needs program at Jewish Family & Children’s Service and because of her work there, she is now the “godmother” to almost every young Jewish adult with special needs that is now involved in the Jewish community. She “retired” in 1995 only to go on to create the AJL Special Needs Advisory Committee and be heavily involved in special needs advocacy at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills.
“We have seen real improvement over the last 10 years but we still have ways to go,” she said. “This is a never ending task. We must reinvent the wheel for each new child.”
Steinberg agrees. “We have made progress but we still need more programs and more collaboration between the agencies. Awareness has been raised, but we are very underfunded.”
Still, she agrees with Artson that the biggest problem is individual thoughtfulness.
“Special needs kids are always put on the bottom of the list, everything is an ‘if’ for them. We need to remember that it is so easy for these people to feel left out.”
(Derek Kwait can be reached at intern@thejewishchronicle.net.)