Archives before March 2018

Coach As Personal Trainer

By Beth Crastnopol, Director of Professional Development Initiatives
January 31, 2018

Personal trainer t-shirtI began personal training with trepidation. After all, I’d always exercised even if it was a ‘light’ version. Sure, I was hesitant to push myself and I never seemed to make any gains but I also did not get hurt. I decided I would give this a try in an attempt to get a little stronger and stave off age related injuries. The first thing my trainer asked me was, “So what are your goals? What do you want to accomplish?” I had no clear idea but slowly, through questioning and discussion, we were able to come up with a plan for improving my fitness. Over time, we would refer back to those goals and Audrey, my brilliant trainer, would carefully guide and coax me to try things that were out of my comfort zone, always meeting me where I was at the moment by listening to my thoughts and monitoring my progress. As it turns out, this was life changing for me. I found myself willing to take risks and grow beyond what I would have imagined.

Teachers and school leaders have complex and demanding jobs. Frequently, they do not have job-alike peers to consult or collaborate with on a regular basis. It is easy to get stuck in familiar patterns and resist change. Even a motivated school leader may not have the time or bandwidth to devote to self-improvement. Conflicts with board members, parents, or teachers can become overwhelming and it then is easy to lose track of our main priority, the students. They don’t necessarily need someone to tell them what to do. But, a leader can benefit from another professional who can listen with an objective lens and guide a process of self-reflection and planning. A coach can provide that lens while offering support and expertise.

As I worked with my trainer, she started each session checking in with me to see how I was progressing and what aches and pains were impeding progress. As a coach, I always start sessions in the same mode. The coaching sessions need to be guided by the participant. Where I often started with concerns about a sore muscle keeping me from exercising, teachers I work with will talk about the problem they may experience in their own work with a colleague or a student. Just as my trainer watched me performing exercises and guided me to improve my form, a good coach can listen to the problems encountered, ask probing questions to promote self-reflection, and come up with plans for improving ‘form’ to enhance progress.

Teaching or leading teachers is extremely challenging work that can be frustrating. Working with a coach can be a priceless gift for self-reflection and learning. 


A Tradition of Creating Meaningful Rituals

By Gateways: Access to Jewish Education
December 12, 2017

Mother and three children lighting Shabbat candlesCindy Kaplan of Newton is raising a daughter with significant special needs. Now a young adult, Mira has become a driving force behind her family’s Shabbat observance. It’s a celebration infused with ritual that Mira has embraced through her participation at Boston-based Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. As a student in the organization’s Sunday school for over 10 years, Mira has become a bat mitzvah and thriving member of the Jewish community. Like Mira, all of Gateways’ students are nurtured to become full-fledged participants in Judaism.

Judy Elkin is a life coach and educator who teaches a popular class in the Boston area called “Parenting Through a Jewish Lens.” She observes that Mira’s rituals work so well because of their intentionality. “Shabbat is a main ritual where we create a sense of belonging, a sense of comfort,” she says.

Rituals have been an important touchstone for Mira and her family. The rituals associated with the Shabbat Friday night meal have brought meaning to the Kaplan family. “Shabbat dinner is a grounding presence for us,” says Kaplan. “It provides a sense of predictability. It also allows Mira to experience at home what she has learned about Shabbat. She shows tremendous joy at the blessings. She loves music. But what she really loves best is challah. Because of her physical, cognitive and emotional limitations, what she is capable of doing is taking off the challah cover, and that has become her role at the table.”

One of the main objectives of a ritual is to provide comfort. A key example is a goodbye ritual. But Elkin asserts that even taking medicine can also be attached to a ritual. “The ritual has to create connection,” she says. “When you don’t do rituals, something is missing.” Kaplan notes that “various rituals in our family have been planned or integrated. Others have evolved and found us. All of them are very important to us. For Mira, it has provided a sense of predictability. She knows what is happening, and she gets excited about it. It signals to her that she is an important member of the family, and she has a special role in it.”

Elkin says ritual also conveys caring. “Connection is connection forever,” she says. “At dinner time, take a few minutes to note what was good or even bad about the day. Rituals screen out noise and distraction. There should be no phones during dinner or any ritual. Kids don’t always like that, but they don’t have to like everything. If it helps to make the connection powerful, it’s working.”

And what about the ritual that isn’t working or the child who doesn’t want to participate? Elkin suggests that a parent can revisit and revise a ritual that is no longer effective. In her estimation, a parent instituting a ritual has to be extremely clear about his or her values. She points out that “values can change over time because we keep changing. Throughout, you have to intentionally ask yourself, ‘What are we about?’” The child who rejects a family ritual should not be forced to join in. She recalls an example of a teenager who refused to partake in Shabbat with his family. The family kept engaging in Shabbat rituals. Now a rabbinical student, the young man came to realize that his family’s rituals began to take on as much meaning for him as they did for his family.

Rituals can evolve as children get older. A younger child may rely on reading together every night to signal that it’s time to wind down and go to sleep. But this ritual need not be permanent. As that child ages, the ritual may naturally fade out.  But others can grow in its place. Rituals have many functions and purposes to give a child or teen identity, comfort and grounding. For example, high school kids can eat a light snack after homework is done. Elkin calls this “a ‘joining point.’ Grown children can engage in holiday rituals or institute adult behaviors like family happy hours. The point is to be open to myriad rituals that can work for the family.”

Both Elkin and Kaplan agree that imbuing a ritual with meaning distinguishes it from routine or habit. Meaning can be emotional, and it can also be tradition-based. Elkin encourages parents to “involve children in the process of doing a ritual or even inventing a ritual. How do we want to do Hanukkah or the first day of school? This teaches children that there is intentionality in the things that we do. Marking and pausing says this matters. These are ways to connect ritual to our hearts.”

This article originally appeared on Jewish Boston.


The Meaning of Difference

By David Farbman, Director, Gateways Center for Professional Learning
December 7, 2017

Stop rjecting, start recognizing that people are people no matter whatIt is no secret that human beings are conditioned to focus on the differences between themselves and others. Regardless of whether these dissimilarities are rooted in culture or belief or physical characteristics, we are biologically driven to take notice of them. Too often, unfortunately, the fact that others might seem very different can stand in the way of really getting to know a person, rather than as an opportunity to learn about them and from them and, in doing so, expand our own horizons. And what is true for adults is sometimes exaggerated for children, who are still trying to grasp so much about the world around them.

When an “able-bodied” child meets a person who is Deaf or on the autism spectrum or in a wheelchair, for example, what differs among that “disabled person” and that child’s own experience may dominate the interaction. How can we change the equation? What if instead we furnished children with opportunities for true dialogue with the person who appears or act different? The result becomes a valuable life lesson.

Fostering such encounters is the ambition for the Ambassadors for Inclusion (AFI) program that Gateways has pioneered with the generous support of the Ruderman Family Foundation. AFI is an experiential disability awareness initiative targeted to students in grades K–12 that teaches children and teens about an array of differences, from diabetes to food allergies to deafness to intellectual disabilities. Each curriculum unit focuses on a single topic, and, once students have the chance to experience what this particular difference might mean for individuals in living their daily lives, they then have the opportunity to dialogue with invited speakers who live with these so-called “disabilities” and ask questions about those individuals’ life experiences. In a short time, the differences that children and teens initially can’t help but notice fade away as they come to appreciate everyone as fellow human beings. After all, every single person faces some level of adversity, and must find ways to overcome fears or physical or mental limitations or even disinterest to live a fuller life. When students come to see that shared experience in others, no matter how different they seem at first, they can more easily come to appreciate how others are much like themselves.

AFI builds off of an award-winning program called Understanding Our Differences, which has for decades worked in grades 3–5 in public school settings. Gateways has adapted this program to Jewish environments and has expanded it to reach all students in grades K-12. In keeping with our organizational mission, Gateways frames the entirety of the curriculum and its focus on connecting with other human beings as a Jewish value. As the final verse in the Book of Psalms declares, “Every living soul will praise God.” In other words, though each of us is uniquely created in the image of God, no matter our differences, each of us shares the capacity to be grateful and to appreciate our value in the broader world.


Understanding Our Differences: My Story

By Gary Alpert, Education Specialist, Gateways
December 7, 2017

Nearly one out of every five people in the United States—or roughly 20 percent of the population—has a disability, and I count myself among them because I am Deaf. When I was young, I distinctly remember what it was like trying to find my place in school among all my hearing classmates. Honestly, there were times I did not feel I belonged. Fortunately, my school had a program called Understanding Our Differences (UOD) that taught us about various disabilities and fostered a community of allies for me and for my peers who were also among the 20 percent.

Many years later, while working at a local Boston area Jewish day school, I wondered how we could bring UOD to my community and to other day schools. After all, in day schools too, about one in five students presents with some disability, and these children and their classmates should have the same opportunity that I and my peers had to develop that powerful sense of mutual understanding and support.

Fortunately, the Ruderman Family Foundation felt similarly and generously funded a pilot of the UOD curriculum in Grade 3 classrooms at two day schools, in partnership with Gateways. The program was so successful that we continued to build upon it. After three years of presenting the UOD curriculum in Boston area Jewish day schools, we began to think about how we could bring developmentally-appropriate disability awareness education to students in other grades. Gateways and the Ruderman Family Foundation formally expanded the program to grades K–12 and created Ambassadors For Inclusion (AFI) with the goal of reaching more Jewish schools in Massachusetts and beyond.

I have been privileged to coordinate this effort. Each time I watch a group of students learn about people with disabilities by engaging in Jewish text study, participating in presentations and hands-on activities and interacting with guest speakers, I am reminded of what I felt when I went through UOD when I was young. I can see these students begin to truly comprehend the daily realities and lived experiences of people who are part of their community. They walk away better able to understand how a Deaf person communicates with friends, a Blind person cooks dinner or a person with diabetes balances their food intake—and so much more. With this newfound awareness, we are empowering a new generation of allies.

We have made tremendous progress toward meeting our expansion goals. In the last year, we have brought AFI to West Hartford, Connecticut; Westchester and Port Chester, New York and have launched our disability awareness programming for students across the grade spectrum. In grades 6–8, AFI engages students in facilitated discussions with people with disabilities about topics such as bullying, representation of disabilities in the media, and mental health. To reach children in grades K–2, AFI has partnered with PJ Library to develop a curriculum based around age-appropriate disability awareness books, each of which is paired with a teaching guide and activity suggestions. At the other end of the age spectrum, AFI is collaborating with Boston-based Urban Improv to bring hands-on disability awareness programming to high school students, using drama and improvisational activities.

Nearly 40 years ago, a program in my school made me feel less alone and more accepted because it helped my peers understand what life was like for me as a Deaf individual. Today, the work of Ambassadors For Inclusion remains essential for our children. We are imbuing them with the core Jewish value of caring for our fellow human beings. Our children will all be connected with family members, classmates, teachers, coaches, administrators, or community members with a disability, and it is our responsibility to teach them how to act with integrity, respect, curiosity, and humility when they meet people who are different from themselves. I can’t wait to see where we go from here.


A Lesson in Empathy

By Rabbi Jaymee Alpert, Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel, Port Chester, New York
December 7, 2017

Girl using sign language in classroomIn the spring of 2017, Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel (KTI) in Port Chester, New York, was privileged to bring Gary Alpert to our Religious School through the Gateways Ambassadors for Inclusion program. 

Ambassadors for Inclusion and Understanding our Differences help children understand the people around them, by allowing them to engage in honest and candid conversations.  As a Jewish community, we talk a lot about how everyone is created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image; but I fear that too often, we limit ourselves to thinking about people who look, move, and sound like we do.  Gary’s presentation focused on people who are hard of hearing and/or deaf; however, he started a much broader conversation among the Religious School students about what it means to have differences. 

By telling his own story, and by infusing it with humor, Gary put KTI’s students at ease, and they were able to ask their questions without feeling self-conscious. They wanted to know what it felt like to be deaf, if Gary had a hard time making friends when he was younger, what it was like to be raised in a hearing family, and whether or not he liked Hebrew School when he was their age.

During the session, students engaged in a learning activity where they were asked to communicate with each other without speaking.  Through this brief exercise, the students began to understand the challenges that people who are deaf face in school, at home, walking down the street, and, yes, in the synagogue.

The children had fun learning to sign the Hebrew letters and their own names, and they left with a greater appreciation for members of the deaf community and for people who experience life differently than they do. I believe that the power of Ambassadors for Inclusion comes from the empathy the program fosters in children.

Congregation KTI is planning another Ambassadors for Inclusion program this winter, and we know it will undoubtedly enhance the Jewish education we provide.  My hope is that our Religious School students will share their experience with the rest of the congregation, to help us take one step closer to becoming the inclusive, welcoming synagogue I believe KTI can be.