This is the first post in our new series, Reflections from the Matan Institutes. We are thrilled to feature this post by Rabbi Shelley Kniaz of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley.
My son Matan is a wonderful young man, but he is not incorporated! Matan, Inc.* was founded with the goal of enabling all children to have the benefit of a Jewish education. Last spring, our school was among 35 in the nation selected to join the Matan Institute’s initiative to strengthen support for special needs in synagogue religious schools. Temple Emanuel could already be proud of our CHAI Program, one-on-one instruction that is a decades-long labor of love by our talented and caring master-teacher, Irving Zeidel. With his expert guidance and the help of the Matan Institute, we are now expanding and building on that program.
Last spring, I participated in the Matan Institute; a two-day conference for education directors, followed by a series of webinars and three more in-person conferences. Four of our faculty attended Matan’s one-day training for teachers last summer and presented what they learned at our faculty orientation. I also worked with a personal mentor and a network of colleagues who are on this journey with me.
Attending Religious School on Sunday mornings or at the end of a long school day can be a challenge for all students. Homework, sports and other activities are part of a packed schedule that can be overwhelming. In addition, at Temple Emanuel we serve children with allergies of varying severity; those who are “on the spectrum”; and those who have specific learning difficulties, including dysgraphia (physical difficulty with writing), dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and many others. We are striving and learning how to better serve all of our students. At the end of the Matan Institute last spring, I formulated two goals for our school. They are: 1) to better enable our faculty to meet the needs of all of their students in the classroom and 2) to be able to tailor individual programs for each student.
My first step was to form a working advisory lay committee. A member of Temple Emanuel who is an experienced special needs professional agreed to chair this committee. They have been helpful at every stage of this process.
Here is the progress we have made:
- We have added personnel that have significantly increased our flexibility, including additional teaching support in classrooms.
- Smaller Hebrew classes, some with our professional special needs teacher.
- Acquisition of a laptop for students with motor difficulties.
- High school aides taking on special responsibilities, learning how to help with instruction and to “shadow” students who benefit from individual attention.
Whether learning disabled or “typically developing,” we encourage our families to be in regular contact with their children’s teachers to provide information and guidance about what works best. The more we know, the better we can do.