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Isabella's Bat Mitzvah: A Mother's Reflections

By Cara Coller
February 6, 2020

Child, mother and father dressed in fancy clothingAs I sat down to write this, for once in my life I was at a loss. Not at what to say, but how to express what it means to be Isabella’s mother and to share her bat mitzvah day with her and her community. I reflect on the last 13 years and all she has endured, experienced, accomplished and how much she amazes us each and every day.

Isabella’s bat mitzvah day was one that I never expected to experience, a day that as a mom, I hoped and prayed for, but knew that the odds were against us. To be on the bimah, reading Torah with my daughter, I can only say, “Well, my Izzy Bee, you proved those odds wrong, as you have done so many times.”

When Izzy was just 48 hours old, we learned her life would not be as easy as we had pictured it. At only 4 ½ pounds, we handed her over for lifesaving heart surgery, not knowing how someone so small could endure that. A surgery that, at the time, saved her, but handed her challenges that would last a lifetime. But those are challenges that she takes on with strength and perseverance.

Isabella has forever changed my husband’s and my views on life, on what is most important, and how we view the world around us. She has taught us that people and who they are matter so much more than appearance, objects, places, or items. We know that differences and challenges make us more beautiful, more alive than we thought possible. Isabella has taught me what it means to be strong: that to be scared and to still be able to accomplish things or do something you never thought you could do or survive is the bravest of all.

They say that G-d gives you what you can handle, and that there is a reason for everything. Well, I sometimes have trouble understanding that or why things had to happen the way they did.  What I do know is that before Izzy, Boston was never even a thought in our minds. We came here from Miami for her, and because of her, we have connected with all of the incredible people who surround us—family, friends, and an entire community, true “warriors” that I am honored to know.

That community is full of people who every day wake up and choose to make a difference in someone else’s life, to make sure that everyone feels included. That is the world of Perkins School for the Blind, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, Children’s Hospital Boston, and Temple Emanuel. They say it takes a village. When a child is medically complex, you learn who your village truly is. And what an amazing village we have.

In Miami, we always felt loved by our clergy, but we never felt we could attend services, and we were unable to find Isabella a Hebrew school. But here in Boston, we have found Gateways, which has helped Isabella learn to love Judaism. And the Gateways staff led us to Temple Emanuel, where on our first visit to tour the preschool, although Izzy spent most of the time running circles on the bimah, it did not faze our guide, Lisa Hills, one bit. Nor did it startle the congregation when we were called for an aliyah as a new family, and my son, who did not like crowds, stood up and announced to the entire congregation he did not like reading Hebrew and Izzy ran off the bimah.

I still recall that one night, when we chose to come to Temple Emanuel’s Shabbat Alive service, Isabella decided to sing as loud as possible with the Rabbi and Cantor. No one was upset or discouraged; instead, they embraced it. At the end Izzy ran up and hugged Rabbi Michelle, and people came up to us tell us how amazing she is. No, judgment, no looks, no whispers, just love! I knew at that moment we were home.

Over the last year, I watched Izzy study prayers and work so hard every week with her Gateways teacher, Rebecca, and her aide, Nathan, because she wanted to become a bat mitzvah. Isabella has taught us to be patient and that even if we may take different paths, we can still end up where we need to be. Time does not define what we can accomplish, only our actions do. She has taught us what it means to be strong and see the world from not only one view, but many. She has taught us to appreciate every milestone and every occasion. And how proud we, her family and her community, are that she has accomplished one of the greatest honors in a Jewish woman’s life, reading from the Torah.

Isabella’s Hebrew name, Chaya Yitzchaka, is such a reflection of who she is. We named her Chaya, which means life, when she was in the NICU, and we were not sure where this road would lead us. We then added Yitzchaka when she was three, after her great grandpa, Irving, which means laughter. “Life of laugher”: Isabella stands true to her name. She lights up a room with her love of life, her singing, dancing, and delight in music. Each day she brings us laughter, joy, and life, so much life! She has taught us to appreciate every milestone and every occasion, to open our eyes and see a world that we may not have seen so beautifully, if it weren’t for her. For this, we are forever grateful.

 Read Gateways Teen Volunteer alumna Shoshana Cohen's companion article here.

This article originally appeared on JewishBoston.com.

 

An Invitation to Opened Gates

By Shoshana Cohen
February 6, 2020

Two girls, one in Gateways shirt, work together on projectI returned to my dorm room with a piece of mail in my hand. This wasn’t just any piece of mail; it was the invitation to my Gateways student Izzy’s bat mitzvah. This invitation felt like so much more than a few slips of paper because my connection to Izzy changed the course of my life.

Every Sunday morning for two years, I would jump out of bed, eager and ecstatic to go to Gateways: Access to Jewish Education’s Sunday Program to tutor Izzy, a student with learning differences. Together, we began slowly learning the Shema, one of Judaism’s most important prayers. We practiced and sang, month after month, until one Sunday morning, Izzy recited the whole prayer by herself without any assistance. It was her hard work and her accomplishment, but I remember coming home that day and telling my parents and my friends about how proud I was and how incredible it felt to have been a part of Izzy’s breakthrough.

After that, she started picking up prayers more quickly, and towards the end of our first year working together, Izzy’s parents decided it was time for her to begin preparing for her bat mitzvah. By the end of that year, Izzy had started learning the first of three parts of her Torah portion. The following year was filled with Sundays spent together, learning most of Izzy’s Torah portion and the majority of the prayers in her binder.

Through our time spent together, Izzy and I formed a strong connection. There are many goodbyes that I had to say when I graduated from high school and went off to college, but leaving Izzy (who said, “Bye, Shoshana. See you in a minute!”) was one of the hardest.

And when I walked into Temple Emanuel on her bat mitzvah day, I was overcome with emotion.

It felt like it was just yesterday that Izzy was working on mastering the Shema, and now she was getting ready to stand in front of her community and become a Bat Mitzvah. I found a seat as the room started to fill up with Izzy’s family and friends, her kehillah. Soon the room filled to capacity and extra chairs had to be brought in.

As Izzy entered, the room became silent. We all stopped humming the niggun (a wordless melody) and watched Izzy make her way up to the bimah. Izzy expertly led the prayers that we had studied together, and I thought of those Sundays spent learning every syllable, every phrase. And all through the service, she remained true to herself, waving to the audience and adding her own comments. I could not have been prouder. Izzy’s bat mitzvah was a huge milestone for her and her family, and I feel so honored to have played a role. And although it was her day, her bat mitzvah was also a reflection of the community and the love that surrounds Izzy and her family.

Working with Izzy through Gateways helped me decide what I want to do with my life. Seeing how happy music makes her inspired me to attend Ithaca College and major in Recreational Therapy. I can’t wait to spend my life working with and teaching others like Izzy, people who do things in their own unique ways. Even though we no longer see each other every Sunday, Izzy continues to motivate me to learn more and to pursue opportunities to find the unique strengths in everyone I encounter.

 

 This article originally appeared on JewishBoston.com.

 

 

Digging Deeper into Behavior Challenges

By David Farbman, Senior Director of Education
April 16, 2019

Time and again we are approached by educators with the same question: “can you help me with a student’s behavior?” Students who are disruptive during class make learning difficult, not just for themselves, but for all their fellow students. Many times, they behave inappropriately to gain the attention of the teacher or peers and are deliberately trying to disrupt the class. There are other times when a child suffers a chemical imbalance or other psychological condition that makes sitting still physically difficult, or a psychological challenge limits a child’s ability to process instructions or find comfort in a formal learning setting. Teacher and student reading

Regardless of the reason behind the child’s seemingly uncontrolled or defiant behavior, the challenge to a teacher who has such students in his or her classroom can be intense. We probably all have experienced or heard of disruptions that have become so frequent or so serious that school administrators feel they have no choice but to arrange for that student to leave the school. For Gateways, an organization with a mission to ensure that all students have access to a quality Jewish education, the removal of any child from a Jewish school—for whatever reason—is nothing short of heartbreaking.

In reality, however, teachers might have opportunities within the classroom to manage the disruptive behavior effectively. All that teacher needs is the know-how to channel a student’s acting-out into more productive displays of energy.

To harness those opportunities, Gateways coaches tend to begin by guiding teachers to shift their focus away from the child’s behavior and examine instead whether the classroom setting might be structured in ways that fail to account for the student’s psychological or physical state. The first step in promoting this mind shift is to help teachers examine the immediate causes of the misbehavior to see if there may be patterns in the circumstances when the child’s behavior is negatively stimulated (e.g., during transitions, when s/he is struggling academically, when interacting socially, etc.). With such data in hand, we then try to help teachers embed specific instructional strategies in their classroom that might help to mitigate these immediate causes. 

For example, for students who are anxious and might experience moments in school of feeling of out control—a feeling which, in turn, leads them to act out—we look for ways to increase predictability in the classroom. Integrating techniques like visual schedules helps to communicate what students should expect.  And once students gain clarity about what is to come, they are less likely to be anxious.

Beyond specific strategies, we also press educators to understand that challenging behavior can often have deep roots. In other words, dismissing any instance of acting out as a child’s “resistance” or simply being “bad,” might miss other more complex causes that make it difficult for the student to be in control. Consequently, helping students regulate such outbursts typically extends well beyond telling the student to “shape up.” Instead, teachers can view themselves and, in turn, position themselves as partners with each student in finding those conditions that are optimal for learning. Simply put, just as each student must become responsible for his or her own learning, teachers, too, must structure their classrooms in ways that help students succeed.

The Torah teaches us not to “put a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14) Perhaps when it comes to behavior in school, we can take this commandment to mean that we, as educators, are obligated to help our students—no matter how they may be blind to the negative consequences of their behavior—to avert those stumbling blocks that lay in their path.

 

The Challenge of “I Can’t”: Rethinking Our Assumptions

By Beth Steinberg, co-founder of Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem
April 15, 2019

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can't...you're right.” Henry Ford

Counselor and campers

We’ve all heard the refrain, either personally as parents or in our work lives as formal and informal educators: “I don’t want to do that.” or “She won’t be able to do that.” or “He just can’t.” We may apply this to a participant, student or loved one who doesn’t seem willing to try or to whom we feel is not making a “real” effort to do what we have asked of them.

Whether this perception is the individual’s or our own, the “I can’t, s/he can’t” position stands as a  non-starter. Too often, this expression of inability to accomplish a task presents itself as a behavioral challenge because “I can’t,” leads a potential participant to stand on the sidelines, seemingly bored or to create trouble by behaving in a challenging fashion. However the refusal takes shape, it results in increased stress for both participant and staff.

It’s a nasty cycle, right? And it all started by a simple negative statement, creating what we at Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem call a “negative-energy-loop.” (Learn more here)

Just the other day, a Shutaf staffer was navigating this situation with a teen participant during a training for our summer camp. The Junior Counselor training, which involves personal development, leadership, and learning how to work with kids and a team of counselors and to accept criticism, can be challenging. One of the teens, whose go-to response when presented with something new is, “I don’t want to,” or “I can’t do that,” reacted as anticipated. The staffer, in turn, responded, “He won’t be able to work at camp.”

The staffer brought this to the attention of our Program Director, Marci Tirschwell, who said “If that’s what you say, that’s what will be”, knowing full well that the staffer wanted this participant to succeed in camp. All the staffer needed was some assistance and encouragement in order to think it through differently.

Marci spent some time observing the participant, the staff and the rest of the group during an evening of activities noting that while the participant struggles to take in new information auditorily, the teen is great with visual information, usually waiting to see what the rest of the group does before feeling brave enough to try it out on his own. In the process, the teen often discovers, “I can!”

Marci wondered how to initiate what we at Shutaf term a “mindset shift.” How could she get the staff to believe in the participant’s abilities and help the teen modify his own self-assumptions? She began by reviewing her findings with the staff, sharing her thoughts about the participant’s abilities to be a great Junior Counselor. She slowly unpacked the default reaction of refusal, pointing out what the teen knows and can do as well as his individual learning style. She drew a Venn diagram, or multiple overlapping closed circles, to illustrate the participant, the staff and the intent of the training program.

The staff took the lesson forward using the diagram as a tool for understanding how to reach each participant. When our staff began to recognize that each participant exhibits their own learning style, they approached the situation differently. Their focus became, “I believe in you.”, “You can do this”, and “How can I help you find success?.” This is an approach that has always informed the way we work with every Shutaf participant, with and without disabilities. The participant’s peer group also helped show by example how to work past individual worries by sharing words of encouragement and showing by example how they could each be willing to try something new and find success.

We can all apply this lesson. So often, an individual may say “I can’t,” because that’s what people have always told them. We can begin to make a positive shift - for ourselves and for others - when we look differently at our assumptions about all people and their abilities, with a mindset shift that transforms “problems” into new opportunities for everyone involved. Thus we can see new challenges not as insurmountable, but as new opportunities for everyone involved.

Beth Steinberg is the co-founder of Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem, offering year-round, informal-education activities for children, teens and young adults with disabilities. At Shutaf day camps and evening programs, participants of all abilities and all cultural backgrounds are welcomed and included. Beth accepted the 2017 Sylvan Adams Nefesh B'Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize in the community-nonprofit category for creating and building Shutaf with co-founder Miriam Avraham. Beth teaches and writes about disability issues and the parenting experience, and is also the artistic director of Theater in the Rough, creating new kinds of theatrical experiences in Jerusalem.

 

Creating a Joyful and Respectful School Community

By Me’ir Sherer, Director of Congregational Learning, Temple Emunah, Lexington, MA
April 15, 2019

I love my job and I love my religious school! I love my students and my teachers! No matter whatTeacher greeting students as they enter the classroom. I am feeling on any given day of school, when teachers and students arrive, I receive them with a welcome and a smile. In Pirkei Avot (1:15) Shammai says: Receive [greet] every person with a “sever panim yafot,” pleasant countenance, a smile. This advice is a mantra for me, and I think that my attitude has been key to breeding a positive learning culture throughout the school.

I believe the way I welcome and treat people trickles down to the way teachers welcome and treat their students and the way students welcome and treat one another. We have one rule in my school. Respect! Everyone must work to respect one another. Janusz Korczak writes about respect for the child, “Children … have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect.”

How do we show this respect?  For starters, I know the name of every child in my school, and I see the happy look on a child’s face when I greet him or her by his/her name. The Israeli poet Zelda writes about the importance of names in her poem, “Each of us has a name.” Everyone in Israel knows Zelda and this poem. I think of it often.

Use of space is also a way to show respect. My office, for one, is open to all, and I have arranged it so that my desk faces the wall and not those entering. There is a sofa in my office and a table with toys and kinetic sand. There are action figures of Israeli leaders on the shelves and there are all kinds of tchotchkes conveying messages of what I care about. They help me connect with others and others to connect with me.

When folks think of my office, they don’t think of a scary place. They think of a place where they can go to unwind, to talk and be heard, to connect. A place where they matter!

There is a lot of joy and positive energy in my school. I believe this is another key component to our success. We believe in “shtick” and dressing in costume. This has become a hallmark of our school. There is a love for everything Jewish. Each day is exciting with surprises around every corner. There is no yelling. And, there is a place for everyone.

Of course, there are certainly the times when a serious conversation about behavior needs to take place. But these generally aren’t difficult conversations because they are rooted in the strong relationships we have built.