As featured speaker for its Annual Meeting and Campaign Kick-Off, Combined Jewish Philanthropies could have chosen a superstar to wow their hundreds of supporters with erudition, charm and power.
But instead the person CJP selected to address the crowd from the dais at New Bridge on the Charles Sept. 21 was a mom whose life, family and future have been transformed in deep and lasting ways by one of the smaller agencies CJP supports: Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.
“When I walk into Gateways on Sunday mornings, it does not feel simply like a program that is trying to accept various children with special needs,” Cindy Kaplan of Newton told the audience, in a voice both soft and strong. “It feels like a place where truly every special child belongs and deserves their Jewish education.”
Cindy spoke of her daughter Mira who, at nearly 9, is beginning her third year in Gateways’ Sunday program. “When we first learned about Gateways several years ago, I was a bit hesitant to send Mira at first because everything in Mira’s world was integrated and Gateways was specifically for children with special needs.”
Mira has cerebral palsy, she explained. “And, while she continues to make progress in many areas, on her own timeline, she is not yet walking on her own and is non-verbal. Vocal? yes. Verbal, no,” she added with a grin as the crowd sat in rapt attention to hear every one of Cindy’s words and watch the photos of Mira in her Gateways classroom flash on the screen.
“When Mira was about to enter first grade, a time when many children start attending Sunday school, I thought to myself, ‘This kid loves her Judaism!’ She beams when we sing Bim Bam as we welcome Shabbat into our home, she bounces with joy as we sing the blessings and she takes pride in her role of removing the challah cover. Enrolling her in a typical Sunday school program would be difficult, if not impossible, so we decided to give Gateways a try.”
Cindy recalls well the Sunday she took the plunge — and brought Mira in. “I remember handing her over to her high school volunteer her first morning at Gateways and being struck by the fact that I told this young woman less about my child than any other caregiver we have had, yet somehow I felt incredibly secure, trusting and relaxed. .. While Mira does not speak, she is very expressive and we know that she loves going to Sunday school every week. She enters and leaves with a smile on her face.
What Mira learns in the classroom with her peers, blessings, songs, holidays and rituals, she carries over to our home, our synagogue, and beyond … Gateways has helped Mira learn that Judaism belongs to her, each member of her family and the larger community.” This feeling of community works in another way as well, she added. “When Gateways held its Purim carnival this past year, my older son helped out with both set up and running a station. He did not want to leave. It is a great feeling knowing that all three of my children are very comfortable and welcomed at Gateways.”
Cindy mentioned another Gateways benefit as well. “Rather than taking an existing curriculum and adapting it for the kids, the Gateways curriculum has been developed from the very start in a way that figures out how to provide access for each child in the program. We even brought one ritual from Gateways to Mira’s public school.”
“This year we will start to prepare my son for becoming a Bar Mitzvah. I also know with complete confidence that in a few years, with the support and education of Gateways, we will begin planning for Mira to become a Bat Mitzvah as well.”
To learn more about how Gateways helps children get the Jewish education that’s right for them, contact Jewish Education Programs Coordinator Nancy Mager at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617.630.9010, ext. 104.
Watch Mira in her Gateways Class!
This video featuring Mira and her classmates was made last spring for Rachel, a fellow student who was in the hospital.