Open the Gates includes special needs students at Ohef Sholom

by | Jan 8, 2016 | Other News

In the Image of God—B’Tzelem Elohim

At Ohef Sholom Temple (OST), Big Ideas are taught on Sunday mornings— ideas that enrich and move toward action throughout the week. One Big Jewish Idea from the Torah is B’tzelem Elohim—the idea that God created humanity “in the image of God.” (Gen. 1:27) This idea from the creation story guides how OST approaches learners with special needs.

The creatures of this world are a testament to the diversity of God’s creation. Like snowflakes, each are unique. That is one reason Ohef Sholom’s founders engraved above its entrance, “a House of Prayer for all Peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7) Everyone has special needs, with different praying and learning styles. Some have learning needs that demand a greater degree of individualized attention than others. In Monday through Friday schools in the U.S., such learners are entitled to federally mandated Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).

In 2012, through the generous support of a grant from the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, OST began a special needs learning program called Open the Gates. Today, the Sunday learning community offers individualized services so that everyone can learn about torah together.

Features of Open the Gates
• Jewish Individualized Education Plans (JIEPs) which is developed with families and staff.
• Heather Keller, Virginia-certified special education teacher, and Karen Owens, special education assistant.
• Teacher training, adaptive equipment, and materials to assist special learners.
• A discrete, safe classroom for students who temporarily need to be in their own setting, called the Sababa Center. This is Hebrew for “It’s cool.”
• Employment opportunities for older teens with special needs as Sunday Madrichim (Guides).

Goals of Open the Gates
• Integrate special needs learners into communal learning experiences;
• Teach progressively increased independence, a.k.a. “ENDependence”;
• Enrich the community with all who are created in the image of God, and;
• Deepen a personal understanding of self and God.

How JIEPs work
A recent JIEP meeting of five stakeholders in the Jewish education of one child illustrates the impact of community education. Sitting at the 9 am Sunday morning table are the parent of the student, his Sunday teacher, his individual aide, the OST specialist, and the OST director of Family Learning. The purpose of the meeting is to resolve an apparent conflict between a classroom learning objective about appreciating language in context and the student’s Monday-through-Friday school IEP objectives on language, as well as a five-page psychological assessment about his cognitive capacity.

All speak and listen with respect and trust. There is an explicit understanding that all have common interests: the spiritual and intellectual growth of the student, openness to the undiscovered cognitive capacity of the young learner, and commitment to try mutually agreeable instructional strategies. At the end of Sunday morning, it becomes apparent that the modified instructional strategy inspired the student to articulate his understanding of language context in such a way that the other students in class learned from him.

For another example of Jewish inclusion, see the Eli Talks video, “I am Here, Hear me Bark,” and the role of a Reform Jewish summer camp in creating a life-changing Jewish community.

From a Jewish perspective, special education is not only about how a community accommodates an individual, but also how an individual inspires a community. Special education partnerships take months and years to develop the trust needed for crafting mutually agreeable and effective instructional modifications. Jews have an inspiring blueprint for these partnerships: B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God each one is created.

by Christopher E. Kraus, JD, MTS, director of Family Learning at Ohef Sholom Temple