Grant allows Special Needs children to get religious education

by | Dec 7, 2012 | Other News

In January, Ohef Sholom Temple will launch an innovative program designed specifically to make Jewish education accessible and tailored to children with special needs.

“We believe that v’shinantam l’vanecha, you shall teach your children, refers to all children,” says Kitty Wolf, religious educator at OST, a Reform synagogue in Norfolk. “We want everyone who feels like they have a child who needs some kind of special accommodation to be able to learn about their Jewish heritage.

“In the past, that has proven at times to be a challenge,” says Wolf, a former regional educator for the Union for Reform Judaism. “We saw kids that were in our Sunday School classrooms who were disruptive because they weren’t learning or were frustrated, and our teachers—who are great but don’t necessarily have an educational or special needs background—really didn’t know how to accommodate them. And we didn’t want to have to say to these children or their families, ‘We can’t have you in our school.’”

When Wolf and Debbie Haring, OST Religious School director, found out about a grant offered by the Synagogue-Federation Partnership of the Tidewater Jewish Community, they developed a proposal and subsequently were awarded funding.

“The Temple Grants program that grew out of the UJFT Strategic Planning process and initially funded by the UJFT and Simon Family Foundation of the Tidewater Jewish Foundation was intended to fund programs that strengthen temples and their ability to attract and retain members. When Eddie Kramer, Ohef Sholom Temple president, and I spoke about the grant program, I urged him to push for innovation. I even extended the deadline so that Ohef Sholom could participate and when Eddie told me about the idea that was incubating I was thrilled and urged him to pursue it. It has so many wonderful elements, such as Jewish education for hard to reach populations and its availability to members of other congregations that I was pleased to approve the funding,” says Harry Graber, UJFT executive vice-president.

Wolf and Haring immediately hired Heather Keller, an experienced special education teacher with Suffolk Public Schools who is Jewish and whose son attends OST Religious School.

“When Kitty and Debbie asked if I would help, I liked the idea of starting something new, and being able to help give these children the accommodations they need to get a Jewish education,” Keller says.

“Our goal is to help the children be more comfortable in a classroom—whether that’s with an aide in their regular class or in a smaller setting in my room. And we’re not taking the children away from the other kids, even if they are in class with me for part of the time,” she says. “They’re still going to participate in art, in music, for snacks, and maybe more, it just depends on the child.”

With all of their expertise (Haring has taught in public schools for 24 years and also has a background with special needs children), the team developed an outline for the pilot program and established criteria for enrolment.

This first year, eight children ages three through 10th grade will be admitted. To ensure that children receive an education tailored for their specific needs, the administrators made three requirements mandatory for enrolment: parents must request participation for their child, the child must already have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in place, and communication with the child’s regular school teacher must be established.

Once accepted, students will receive an IJEP (OST’s individualized Jewish education program), which Keller will create with parents’ input. Students will work one-onone with Keller or with an aide who has received specialized training. Teacher training is also planned.

Amanda Mewhinney is a second grader who attends OST’s religious school. Because of her special needs, her mother, Jane, or father, Jason, go to class with her each Sunday. When Jason found out about the program, he submitted an application.

“Amanda loves to learn,” he says. “And she’s so smart when she’s allowed to focus.

“This program will offer Amanda and other Jewish children whose needs vary, the chance to explore their roots at their own pace, and it will allow teachers to adapt to each students’ learning style,” Mewhinney says. “It will make it easier for everyone to have someone in place who is familiar with these children and trained to deal with the types of problems that can come up. We’re looking forward to it.”

All Jewish families with children who fit the criteria are encouraged to apply. Priority will go to current OST Religious School students and families, then to children whose families are members of other are synagogues, and then to unaffiliated Jewish families. Tuition fees for those not already enrolled in the religious school are required, and OST non-members pay an additional fee. Temple membership is not required.

“We’re starting out small with a goal of eight, but we hope that the community will embrace this, that other temples will embrace this, and that this will be something we need to find more room for in the future,” Haring says. “These children need a Jewish education as much as the—for lack of another word—regular kids do, and we’re excited about all of the possibilities and potential of this program.”

Call 757-625-4295, email or for more information.

A gift to the United Jewish Federation helps enable the Synagogue-Federation Partnership of the Tidewater Jewish Community to fund grants such as this one. Visit to find out more about ways to personally make a difference.

by Laine M. Rutherford