Gateways NewsBlog Feed

Voice at the Gates: Rachel Murphy

April 5, 2011

Rachel holding the Torah with a smileThis year the Murphy family is looking forward to celebrating the Seder in their Milford home. Which will be a huge improvement over last year.

Last year Frank and Elisa, their younger daughter Hannah, a family friend and an on-duty Jewish nurse had Seder on aluminum trays at the nurses’ station at Children’s Hospital. A few feet away, 11-year-old Rachel was attached to multiple machines all working hard to stabilize her seizures and keep her vitals strong.

Seizures are just one result of a stroke Rachel suffered at 18 months. Brain, muscle and nerve damage also confine Rachel, now 12, to a wheelchair and restrict her speech, movements and eyesight.

But despite her challenges, this is shaping up to be the year when Rachel gets to participate in her family Seder in brand new ways. Thanks to Gateways and Rachel’s DynaVox – a computerized device providing dynamic voice output for people with speech and communication impairments.

Now in her fifth year in Gateways’ Sunday morning Jewish Education Program, Rachel is able to follow along in class with her trusty DynaVox. There the user-friendly visuals her dad downloads from Gateways' online Resource Center circumnavigate the visual and speech challenges that used to prevent her from participating in class. The device literally gives her a voice. “She’s able to connect with what she sees on the screen and what it means,” says her dad. “And that opens up infinite possibilities.”

What’s more, over and above the technology that’s allowing her to learn in new ways, just being in class on Sunday mornings presents Rachel with a new world to inhabit, says Frank. “It takes time to figure her out and see the real Rachel inside,” he adds. “Gateways teachers and teen volunteers are gifted and caring and being with her buddies gives Rachel a sense of community.” The family will also long remember the video Rachel’s Gateways classmates made for her when she was in the hospital.

“Gateways provides that key part of her Jewishness she would never otherwise have,” he adds. “Now when you show her the picture of the Sh’ma, Rachel covers her eyes. It means something to her. And that’s huge.”

Something else that means a lot to Rachel is music, specifically Jewish music.

Murphy family at Gateways trip to Lookout FarmIndeed, recognizing and responding to music “may be the most profound way she interacts with her world,” says her dad. Every Sunday morning she wakes up singing the Gateways welcome song, The Week is Here. "And now we sing Gateways songs at our holiday events. They’re very much part of our family.”

Compared to last year when she wasn’t able to sing or even know it was Passover, Rachel and her family are hoping for a joyous celebration. “Last year we were like the refugees in the Passover story,” says Murphy. “Now we pray everyone is healthy so we are free to celebrate together in our own home.”

The Murphys are ready: They’ve got a CD of Uncle Eli's Passover songs, a box o' plagues they filled with plastic cows sporting “boils” and some cheap sunglasses signifying darkness – along with the digitalized version of Gateways’ hagaddah Rachel’s dad has downloaded onto her DynaVox. (Click here for Gateways’ Seven Strategies for a Successful Seder for ALL Learners.)

“If we weren’t part of Gateways, Rachel would have a DynaVox but there would be nothing Jewish on it,” says Frank. “Now she has prayers, stories, and a hagaddah that she can understand -- pieces of the puzzle that make up the whole of her Jewish experience. It’s as if Gateways, connecting us to other families and tapping us into the reservoir of Gateways talent, is the hub with our families and temples the spokes.”

Rachel and a teen volunteer at the Gateways Sunday ProgramJust a few months ago, the Murphys set the date for Rachel’s bat mitzvah: May 5, 2013. “Sometimes I have to laugh at what a multi-cultural undertaking Rachel’s Jewish education is,” muses her dad. “The gentile software engineer father at the kitchen table struggling with the Indian software on Chinese hardware, all working together to make this bat mitzvah happen.”

But none of it would be possible without Gateways, Frank insists. “There would be no alef-bet, no holiday symbols, no prayers, no path to a meaningful bat mitzvah. There would just be a gaping hole in our daughter’s identity.”

“For a child with disabilities there’s a lot of brokenness and, by making Judaism accessible, Gateways brings about a wholeness for her and for us.”

Category: Profiles


Profiles in Inclusion: Marie Strazzulla

February 8, 2011

Marie Strazzulla is a 25-year-old who loves her job. Mostly because no two days are ever the same.

Some days find Marie in the Gateways: Access to Jewish Education office, stamping, filing, collating or her favorite task: shredding (“It’s heavy work but it’s fun.”).

Marie pushing the snack cartOther days she’s at Gateways Sunday program, where she’s responsible for serving dozens of students their mid- morning snack.  “I like the kids,” she says. “I know a lot of the teen volunteers from Camp Ramah.”

Like so many other young adults in their first real job, Marie is proud of the new skills she’s learning every day.  And, because she has Down syndrome and lives in the Boston area, Marie was able to receive the kind of community support that both trained the Norwood resident and placed her in the job she now loves.

After high school, Marie enrolled in CHAI Works, a program of Jewish Family & Children’s Service designed to give adults with disabilities the kind of grounding in real-life work settings needed for jobs in either volunteer or paid positions. Then they make the match, finding just the right person for the job.

Last summer, when Gateways approached CHAI Works to help them find someone to work in their Newton office, Marie was ready and the “shidduch” was quickly made.  To help with the adjustment, her job coach came along the first couple of times.

These days, Marie takes care of the office tasks that used to pile up, those chores the staff was always too busy to get around to. And each Sunday the students know Marie will appear in their classroom with a cart laden with tantalizing snacks.   

Marie’s presence has also had a positive impact on Gateways’ staff, reports Executive Director Arlene Remz. “What we didn’t realize in the beginning was that, in order to help Marie be successful, we needed to structure the work and be clear in our expectations, breaking things down step-by-step and making sure we were communicating well. It turned out that this is a skill that makes things better in all the work we do.”

In addition, she adds, “Marie’s success is a very real reminder of Gateways’ goals, the hopes and dreams for independence that we have for our students too.”

Indeed, things have gone so well in the office that, early last fall, Marie was asked to add Sunday program responsibilities to her schedule.

But, as much as Marie’s loves her job, another topic that never fails to elicit unbounded enthusiasm is “I Love Lucy.” It turns out that, not only does Marie own DVDs containing every episode of the 195s hit series (the ones that make her laugh the loudest:Lucy’s grape-stomping, cupcake-manufacturing and candy-testing misadventures), but she’s also a storehouse of little-known Lucy trivia. A sampling:The exterior of the house used in the show was the star’s actual home, on Beverly Hills’ Lexington Street. Sonni and Marie

Surprisingly, Marie says her favorite part of her job isn’t serving snack to the children or even the shredding, but just spending time with the Gateways staff. “It’s seeing all you guys and feeling sort of comfortable,” she says with a shy smile. “Everyone here helps me a lot.”

To learn more about CHAI Works, contact Doreen Cummings at (781) 693-5638 or or visit

Category: Profiles


She Wouldn't Take 'No' for an Answer: Sue Schweber

November 2, 2010

As a freshman at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Sue Schweber and a few other students convinced the university to give credits for Jewish history classes. But that was just a beginning. Sue later worked with student and faculty groups to establish the Judaic Studies department. Along the way, she helped organize the school’s kosher kitchen in the student union.

That’s who Sue Schweber is, someone who thrives on making things happen against all odds. 

"Maybe I'm stubborn or won't take ‘no’ for an answer, but somehow I always come into something when people are ready to give up," she says with a trademark grin. "Every time someone says it can't be done that spurs me on." 

And those lessons from her UMass Amherst years live on. "What I learned in college is that, to create change, you need to take small steps, be patient and bring the right people together who share the same passion to make it happen."

Though her hard-of-hearing mom dreamed of her daughter going into audiology, Sue chose to pursue the related fields of linguistics, speech and language, education and psychology, with Jewish Studies added when it was finally a department. After finishing up at UMass and completing a graduate degree in Speech and Language Pathology and later a certificate in Language Learning Disabilities, Sue spent a decade creating preschool and early screening programs and working with students of all ages with special needs in the Walpole Public Schools. Later as a key player in creating the mission, philosophy and curriculum of the South Area Solomon Schechter Day School, it was important to her that "the school begin with a strong philosophy of appreciating learning differences."

Sue with her cake at retirement celebrationIn 1991 Sue received the phone call that would give her the greatest challenge of her career. It was a Sharon dad named Joel Wine saying he and a few other parents were hoping she’d help them get something pretty ambitious off the ground. They’d heard from Jane Cohen at Schechter that Sue was a speech- language pathologist who loves students with special needs and the challenge of turning vision into reality. What they had in mind:weaving a supportive web to enable kids with special needs to attend Jewish day schools.

 "I love to solve problems," Sue says. "And I loved the idea of helping students get a day school education who wouldn’t have otherwise had that chance."

Meeting with the heads of the three South Area schools, Sue asked them what they were missing to serve every child who comes to them. "The expertise," they answered.

"I said, ‘If we provided you the expertise, do you want it?’ They all said ‘yes.’ I gulped. I had just promised that there would be a program up and running in September."

Though the start-up Jewish Special Education Collaborative (JSEC)’s first goal was to enable at-risk students to remain at their day schools, everyone involved soon realized their special education techniques "could help students who were struggling and maybe even help others attend who would never have had the chance before."

By the time JSEC joined with Etgar L’Noar to form Gateways in 2006, it had doubled to six schools. Now, 165 children in 11 area day schools receive the special education support they need to be able to thrive there.   

"What amazed me from the first was the trust the parents had in us," Sue recalls. "We had their collaboration every step of the way."

One of Sue’s first rules for administering the growing program was to spend time in the schools.  "I knew I had to be there to really understand their culture and their students, their teachers and their needs." Which is why for most of her years as an administrator Sue insisted on carrying her own speech and language caseload.

"It’s about working as a team," she adds. "When change belongs to everyone involved, everyone’s excited about it and it’s not just us forcing the change but everyone working together and really wanting it."    

Throughout the years, "When someone says this child can’t learn, it lights a fire under me. There'salways a way, we just haven’t found it yet. We can never say, ‘oh well, we tried.’"

Now, as she retires from her role as Gateways Day School Program Director, supervising two coordinators and 19 therapists, Sue says she has every confidence the programs she helped build will continue to grow and make all the difference in children’s lives. And she promises to stay on part-time as a consultant.

"Our first students are in high school now, and many still use our strategies but don’t need us with them anymore," she says. "Watching our students be successful is one of the most incredible thrills you could imagine."

Category: Profiles


Their Rite of Passage

By Peter Schworm, Boston Globe Staff
January 27, 2008

child wearing tallit and adaptive aids, with tefillin; tutor with hearing aidsphoto by Erik Jacobs/Jacobs Photographic

NEWTON - Tracing his finger across the laminated page, his eyes scanning the Hebrew script, young Noah Bittner chanted a passage from the Torah. He sang softly and slowly, rarely straying from a monotone, but was able to recite an entire Genesis verse without pause, drawing praise from his tutor.

"That was so good, Noah," said Silvia Golijov, raising her hand for a high-five. "I knew you could do it."

Bittner, a 12-year-old with autism, glanced up and gently tapped her hand without a smile, then silently looked back down at the page.

Across the room at Hebrew College, about a dozen children with a range of developmental disabilities worked with individual tutors in preparation for their bar and bat mitzvahs. Students with autism and intellectual impairments learn, to the best of their ability, to read in Hebrew from the Torah and lead the congregation in prayer, and to grasp the principles of their faith and their commitment to it.

Founded in 1999 by parents for children who had trouble attending regular Hebrew school, the weekly hour-long class is the only program in New England that prepares special-needs students to participate in the coming-of-age ceremony. Some practice for two years, painstakingly memorizing the Hebrew alphabet and endlessly reciting verses, for the moment they are called to the Torah.

"For any religious practice to be credible, it has to be accessible to everyone," said Erik Bittner, Noah's father, who created the program for his other son Nathan, a 15-year-old with autism.

The program, which includes a Sunday school for 45 children with special needs, has grown steadily and now draws students across Massachusetts. Twenty students have celebrated bar and bat mitzvahs, and another six plan to take part in the rite of passage this year. Ceremonies vary depending on observances and students' abilities - some students give a brief speech and answer questions from a rabbi, while others read just a short passage.

Arlene Remz, executive director of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, a Newton nonprofit group that runs the program, said the classes give students with special needs the chance to achieve a milestone extremely rare among children with disabilities.

"Their parents just assumed they wouldn't participate in Jewish education," she said. "This fills that void."

Nationally, synagogues and Jewish organizations are increasingly reaching out to children with intellectual impairments, said Becca Hornstein, executive director of The Council For Jews With Special Needs and a national expert on the topic.

"It's been exponential," she said.

Synagogues were traditionally reluctant to skirt strict rabbinical rules to make accommodations for children who could not read or recite prayers. But beginning in the 1970s, parents who fought for inclusion in public schools began pressing for expanded opportunities in Jewish education, she said.

But many synagogues remain skeptical, said Scott Sokol, who directs Hebrew College's special education program. "There's a lot of resistance," he said.

"There are a lot of sad stories of parents of children with special needs feeling disenfranchised from their synagogue." With a patient, flexible approach, students with cognitive impairments can learn about faith and find ways to express it, Sokol said.

Bittner said that many people wrongly assume that children like Nathan and Noah are not only unable to prepare for bar mitzvah, they don't want to. But he said both of his sons, who learned Hebrew at a young age, have found comfort and meaning in the classes.

"We have found Nathan and Noah very much want to learn, if it's made accessible and meaningful to them," Bittner said.

Hebrew College is the only college in the country that offers a program in Jewish special education, and several of its students are tutors. Others are volunteers like Rachel Chafetz, a 36-year-old who said introducing special-needs students to the Jewish faith has strengthened her own.

"I learned that everything is possible," she said. She recalled telling a student the Biblical parable of a talking donkey who can see an angel that its master cannot. The student, who has Down syndrome and had his bat mitzvah in June, replied that it was just like the talking donkey in the "Shrek" movies.

Students with special needs, excluded from many everyday experiences, cherish the sense of belonging and kinship that runs through the class, tutors, and parents said.

Josh Beshansky, a 12-year-old with autism, fidgets as he reads aloud from flash cards of Hebrew letters. He then slowly recited a Torah verse, retracing his steps when he realized his mistakes, and celebrating when he finished. "I did it, I did it!" he exclaimed. At the end of the class, students read their Torah portions to the group to practice speaking before a crowd. When it was Noah's turn, he shyly walked to the center of the room, and began to sing.

Leaning over the text, he sang more fully than in practice, with a wider range. After singing the last line, "And Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord," he remained still, his eyes down. When he heard people clapping, he looked up, scanned the crowd, and softly smiled.

Category: News

Tagged under: b'nei mitzvah, Boston Globe