Gateways BlogBlog Feed

I Am Nessa, Part 1

By Nessa Levine
September 4, 2015

picture of assorted multicolored glasses framesMy name is Nessa Levine. I am going to be a freshman in high school this coming fall, and I am super excited about it, but I am also nervous. I am almost 15 years old. I am Jewish. I love writing, reading, singing, acting, dance, computers, astronomy, Rainbow Looming, and art. My goal in life is to be a published author. I also have Asperger’s Syndrome, but that is quite the tongue-twister, so I just call it AS.

How I explain AS to people is that everyone is born with an invisible pair of glasses. These special glasses have lenses that alter the viewer’s perception of the world. Most neurotypical people (people who don’t have any physical, social, emotional, behavioral, or learning disabilities) have similar lenses on their glasses. One neurotypical person’s lenses might perceive one or two things a bit differently than another neurotypical person’s lenses, but for the most part, neurotypicals see the world in the same way. People who have AS or other disabilities have really quirky lenses. Their lenses cause them to see--or, in some cases, sense--things that neurotypicals simply do not have the ability to perceive. For example, when I was little, I could often hear the faint humming noises in a room or somewhere that other people managed to ignore like it was nothing! I would not be able to focus on reading or coloring because of that cacophonous humming that my mother never noticed. Or, also when I was younger, when my teachers made a spelling, grammar, or arithmetic mistake when writing on the board, I would be the first in my class to call it out. My teachers would brush it off like it was nothing, but I would see it as the end of the world. Luckily, my math teacher really appreciated my arithmetic critiquing and my having memorized “Thirty Days Hath September” so that I could help my classmates with a math problem involving the number of days in various months.

The perception of these humming noises and the “‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ unless it says ‘eigh’ like in ‘neighbor’ or ‘weigh’” mistakes is one of the things that causes problems for people like me. Neurotypicals find it ridiculous, distracting, and completely unnecessary that I notice these things. They tell me that I shouldn’t waste “precious brain space” on memorizing world capitals, poetry, or digits of pi. The way I see it, if I don’t notice it when the teacher says that 12 times 4 is 60, who will?

The other problem that my special lenses cause people is that my lenses are so focused on remembering that the capital of Albania is Tirana that I can’t pick up on simple gestures and cues that neurotypical lenses are designed to pick up on. I don’t notice if my conversation partner zones out on me when I’m discussing chemical bonds and valence electrons. I am the last person to notice if my shirt doesn’t match my pants. And if I am flailing my arms around while emphasizing a point and there happens to be a cup of water near me, you can forget about the water staying in it. It’s as if I don’t even know the cup is there!

Even though I have AS, it is just one piece of the puzzle that is me. I am so much more than Asperger’s Syndrome. I am an artist, a writer/blogger, a dancer, a feminist, an advocate for LGBTQ rights, a hater of racism, a singer, an actress, a daughter, a friend, a granddaughter, a niece, a lover of learning and books, and a dreamer. I am Nessa.

Stay tuned for I Am Nessa, Part 2: Adventures in CIT-ing at The Massachusetts Jewish Day Camp

Category: Reflections & Perspectives

Tagged under: Asperger's Syndrome, teens, actuallyautistic


Gateways Haggadah in Action

By Meredith Hirschberg, Director of Education, Temple Beth Torah, Wellington, FL
March 18, 2015

Meredith Hirschberg When I received my first copy of the Gateways Haggadah I realized that this was a special gift that I needed to share - immediately - with my Rabbi and Cantor. It was the most unusual Haggadah I had ever seen and looking at it through the lens of an educator first and a    mom who leads a Seder second, it seemed that much more impressive. I knew that this would be a Haggadah that would not only serve the needs of all our students, but do it in a way that would equalize not only the learning process but the pleasure of sharing a Seder.

We will be using this Haggadah in many different ways during our “all school and parent Passover program.” I have purchased enough Haggadot for each student to have their own to use during their model Seders. We will begin the morning with classes divided into 3 grade levels: K/1/2, 3 and 4, and 5 and 6. Each grade level will have their own hour long “model” Seder utilizing this Haggadah. The teachers will be choosing some of the questions that are posed throughout the Haggadah for discussion during the Seder. Each section of the Haggadah is almost its own lesson plan! Simultaneously, there will be a parent program, “How to Have a Family Friendly Seder.” Again, the Gateways Haggadah will be the basis of this presentation. Both activities will end at the same time, and will then be followed by interactive activities with parents joining their children. There will be 3 stations that the students will rotate through: (1) the four children, (2) the ten plagues, and (3) a Passover song session.

Our Cantor, immediately, was thrilled to see how the songs were presented in this Haggadah. We would NOT have to print out separate song sheets; the songs that are included in the Haggadah are presented so beautifully - but most importantly - accessible for a “teachable moment!” The Rabbis teaching the other two segments will also be using those specific parts of the Haggadah. The ten plagues section will also include “edible plagues.”

 As some students require repetition, it will be interesting to see how much the students remember the plagues and the different types of children once they are in the rotated activities. They will have just experienced their model Seder and will then continue in these more interactive sessions.  

 I truly believe that when material is presented using all modalities that it benefits ALL students. Each student has their own individual strengths and weaknesses in an educational environment and it’s our responsibility, as educators, to be sure that material is presented that is accessible to all.

 The language used in this Haggadah is exceptional in its simplicity of words to teach high level concepts. As educators (adults) we can absolutely appreciate that we have been exposed to explanation of holidays we do not completely understand, and have even gone through the movements of tradition that could have even been experiential still without a true understanding of what we were doing. I see this Gateways Haggadah experience as a way to embrace both students and adults and leave them with a sense of understanding of the importance of what a Seder is, the meaning of the story, the ability to share in the music…all with the beautiful goal of inclusion.

I look forward to updating you with a review and pictures from our Gateways Haggadah experience. I know my clergy, my staff and I now truly have a reason to look forward to Passover. This is what creating exceptional Jewish memories is within a religious school. I wish you all a wonder, inclusive, Passover holiday and urge you to explore this Gateways Haggadah. 

Category: Educational Practices

Tagged under: gateways, haggadah, special needs, passover, seder


Gateways Publishes First of Its Kind Haggadah

By Rachel Fadlon, Director of Marketing and Communications
January 20, 2015

January 5, 2015 Gateways: Access to Jewish Education teamed up with Behrman House Publishers to publish a haggadah for children with special needs. The haggadah utilizes over 150 picture communication symbols developed by Mayer-Johnson™, the leading creator of symbol-adapted special education materials that assist individuals in overcoming speech, language and learning challenges. 

The haggadah began several years earlier as an in-house learning tool for Gateways’ Sunday Program students. “I created the haggadah to help students at Gateways, who have a range of disabilities, understand and participate in Passover Seders with their families,” explains the book’s author, Rebecca Redner.

 Redner, a curriculum specialist and educator at Gateways was delighted when conversations to publish the book with Behrman House began. “If this haggadah had only been used to enrich the Passover celebrations of our Gateways students and their families, dayeinu, it would have been enough,” says Redner. “But now we have the incredible opportunity to share our haggadah with families and educators everywhere, giving them the chance to make Passover accessible and meaningful for their own children.  It's overwhelming to imagine the impact our haggadah could have on students and their families across the country.”

In addition to picture symbols for blessings and songs, step-by-step photographs are also used to illustrate what to do throughout the Seder. “We were excited to be able to work with a local photographer (Jordyn Rozensky) and use students in our programs for the photos,” says Nancy Mager, Gateways Director of Jewish Education Programs. “We wanted to show children in the photos with and without visible disabilities – just like how any Jewish family might look. We especially wanted to give families who have children with disabilities a haggadah that they felt was a representation of their family.”

Binny, one of the models in the photo shoot, is a student at Striar Hebrew Academy of Sharon. A student with down syndrome, Binny receives support from a team comprised of day school staff and Gateways professionals. When asked to be part of the photo shoot for the haggadah, Binny was elated. Recollecting his experience, he says “I didn't really like this, but I had to smell the horseradish.” When asked why he did not enjoy posing for his shot with the horseradish, he explained: “You know, the horseradish is like the saltwater and it reminds us of being a slave.  And it's gross.” The editorial team decided to include a shot in the haggadah of Binny’s reaction to the strong smell – with the assumption that most children could identify with that. 

“Behrman House has published over a dozen haggadahs in the firm’s 95-year history – all of them different, yet this is our first one specifically designed to include children with disabilities,” said David Behrman, President of Behrman House.
“We were delighted when Arlene Remz and the Gateways organization approached us to collaborate with them in publishing The Gateways Haggadah, thus advancing their mission and ours in providing high quality materials for diverse learners to participate meaningfully in Jewish life. ” 

While created with children with special needs in mind, the haggadah is also useful for families with young children. When Gateways students took their haggadahs home for Passover, staff received feedback that the entire families had benefitted from it, from grandparents who never understood the Hebrew words that they had read all their lives, to younger siblings who were still learning how to read. Redner explains “It was designed to be appropriate for students with a wide range of abilities, including students who are not able to read. The photographs and symbols that make the haggadah accessible to students with disabilities also make it appealing for younger pre-readers who are preparing for their first Seders – and for anyone who is not familiar with Hebrew.” The haggadah is also ideal for visual thinkers because the illustrations are just as important as the text.  Every action of the Seder is illustrated with a photograph, and the meaning of each prayer is illuminated with Mayer Johnson Picture Communication symbols.  This combination of photographs and picture symbols engages children, helps them to participate in the Seder, and increases their understanding of what's going on. 

The haggadah also explains the process of the Seder, including tips for children throughout the book.  

The executive director of Gateways, Arlene Remz explains that “just as our organization aims to make Jewish education accessible for all Jewish students, we also wanted to create a haggadah that would make everyone feel like they have a place at the Passover table. The Gateways Haggadah truly is a Seder for the whole family.”  

The haggadah is available to order online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble and can be ordered directly from Behrman House at:


A Place for Julia

By Rachel Fadlon, Director of Marketing and Communications
December 15, 2014


'Why couldn't our own tribe - our own people - offer something for our child?"

Michelle and Ron Herzlinger

“Our four year-old daughter Julia was attending a Jewish Day School in New York City with her brothers when her world crashed," relates Michelle Herzlinger. "Julia started what would become a journey into the frightening world of epilepsy. So many dreams we had for her vanished in a moment, including attending a Jewish Day School. There was no Jewish place for Julia in New York City, not during school hours - or after.”

After many years of struggling to find the right school for Julia in New York, the Herzlingers relocated to Newton so that Julia could attend the Ward School. They enrolled their two older sons in a Jewish day school. While they were delighted with Julia’s new school, they were heartbroken that there still wasn’t a Jewish option for her. Little did they know that they were about to discover Gateways, which prides itself on supporting every child who wishes to receive a Jewish education.

Following a tip from a former Ward parent – who was also a parent of a Gateways student and three teen volunteers – Michelle visited the Sunday Program and quickly enrolled Julia.

“From the first day that Julia walked in to the Gateways Sunday Program, our broken dream was repaired. She now has her own place in the Jewish community, where she is truly honored and respected. Thanks to Gateways, our dream of a Jewish education for our daughter Julia has become a reality.”

Julia is currently enrolled in her second year in Gateways’ Sunday Program and will begin planning for her Bat Mitzvah in a few short years. The Herzlingers look forward to celebrating this upcoming simcha thanks to the support of their Gateways family.

Category: Reflections & Perspectives


New Social-Emotional Curriculum in Jewish Preschools, Day Schools

By Rachel Fadlon, Director of Marketing and Communications
July 25, 2014

Children at Alef-Bet Childcare in Cambridge learn about “Turtle Time”, where they pretend to go into their shells and take a break to self-regulate.Recently, there have been a multitude of articles in the media discussing what it takes to get a job at Google and other cutting-edge, future-minded companies. One of the qualities that comes up again and again is the ability to collaborate – to work in a team. In addition, with the ease of availability of information today, companies are less interested in what people know, and more interested in what we are able to do with that knowledge. This new focus has led to the creation of new initiatives in schools to help students prepare themselves for this new reality.

Jewish institutions of learning are no exception. With a generous grant from the Lebovitz Family Charitable Trust and allocation funds from CJP, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education teamed up with the Social Thinking Boston office to introduce a new curriculum this past year called Social Thinking©. Together, they trained educators from 16 area Jewish preschools (with one more joining this year) and 3 day schools (with 2 more joining this year) to help develop the social-emotional health and wellbeing of their students.

“We were excited about the opportunity to partner with Social Thinking Boston to bring their curriculum to Jewish preschools and day schools,” says Sharon Goldstein, Director of the Day School Program at Gateways. “In our role as the Jewish central agency for special education in Boston, we have a unique vantage point from which we are able to see themes and trends across the Jewish day schools in our area. Challenging social dynamics (including bullying) is a national concern - and is also prevalent within the Jewish day schools. We are seeing more and more students lacking appropriate social skills who do not have the self-awareness or possess the strategies to navigate social situations. Many day school teachers have shared that they are not equipped with language and strategies necessary to support their students with these challenges and, therefore, are unable to intervene effectively in the moment.”

As defined on their website, social thinking is “what we do when we interact with people: we think about them... Most of us have developed our communications sense from birth onwards, steadily observing and acquiring social information and learning how to respond to people. Because social thinking is an intuitive process, we usually take it for granted. But for many individuals, this process is anything but natural. And this often has nothing to do with conventional measures of intelligence. In fact, many people score high on IQ and standardized tests, yet do not intuitively learn the nuances of social communication and interaction. Social Thinking…offers a range of strategies that address individual strengths and weaknesses in processing social information.”

In addition to helping to prepare students for future jobs, Jewish educational institutions also have a moral imperative for introducing this curriculum. Goldstein says that “Jewish preschools and day schools want to instill a sense of Jewish morals and values in their students. Being a mensch (a kind, caring person to others) is a concept that is introduced from an early age. In addition to preparing students for successful careers, Social Thinking also helps reinforce these Jewish values.”

“Jewish schools also define derech eretz as a value,” adds Sherry Grossman, Director of Community Services at Gateways. “The idea behind Social Thinking is to explicitly teach what that means – just like we teach math and science. With an increasing expectation of adults to collaborate, there is less tolerance for rigidity in thinking. This means that educators must teach complex social skills if they want their students to succeed in life – and be good Jews, and human beings!”

“Jewish values are very much in line with what is now being called social-emotional learning,” explains Nancy Tarshis, MA, MS, CCC-SLP, a trainer at Social Thinking. “Social thinking teaches the thought process behind social skills which is the outgrowth of social emotional learning core principles. The Social Thinking vocabulary breaks down and concretizes the concepts and attendant thought processes underlying these skills for all students but most especially for our students with social cognitive learning challenges.”

“At all grade levels, Social Thinking teaches self-awareness,” says Grossman. “When you combine the core concepts, they provide you with skills that you can use throughout your life.” The curriculum gives teachers and students a common language for encouraging self-regulation and the idea that what you

 say, how you say it and what you do affect how people perceive and respond to you.

Core concepts focus on self-regulation, impulse control, problem solving, realistic views, perspective-taking and positive self-esteem. These concepts are explored and taught in developmentally appropriate ways at each grade level. In the preschool classes, lessons

 focus on being part of a group and following a “group plan”. In early elementary school, students learn about thinking flexibly, not letting intrusive thoughts get in the way of social interactions and getting along with peers and adults. From the 4th grade on, lessons are about perspective taking as it relates to peers and adults and classroom materials (like understanding characters in stories).

Response to the curriculum has been positive from both staff and students. Barbara Davis, director of Temple Beth Sholom’s preschool in Framingham, reported that her students have begun to use language from Social Thinking in their interactions with their

 peers. “During one student’s play this year, we consistently heard about the “group plan” or the “me plan”. One day, he was very frustrated with another child and said very loudly, “It is time to take your body out of the group!””

Dina Feldman, Director of Student Achievement at Torah Academy in Brookline responded enthusiastically about the program: “Both our teachers and students alike have benefited outstandingly from the Social Thinking curriculum. We found that the students naturally respond to the curriculum's clear and exciting language just as easily as the teachers learn to apply it. We are so thankful to Gateways and Social Thinking Boston for including Torah Academy in the pilot program this past year.”consistently heard about the “group plan” or the “me plan”. One day, he was very frustrated with another child and said very loudly, “It is time to take your body out of the group!””

Gateways and Social Thinking Boston plan to work together to infuse the curriculum with Jewish values and expand the program to include more Jewish educational institutions throughout Greater Boston and beyond.Students at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston (Newton) practice using “Turtle Time”, a tool to take a break and calm down.