There’s a tradition at Tufts Hillel that when we say the motzi on Friday nights, everyone reaches their arm toward the center of the table and puts a hand on the challah.  Last Friday night, for the first time, several of those hands belonged to young adults with special needs.  As I looked around the room at students, professors, Hillel staff and even the university’s President connected to one another and reciting the motzi in unison, I realized that, at that moment, no one could really tell who had special needs and who did not.

 created at: 2011-03-02That was a highlight for me, watching the vision that has lived only in my mind for quite some time come to fruition before my eyes.  I grew up with a younger brother who is hard of hearing, and it only took witnessing one teasing comment from another kid, a family friend who called my brother “ear boy” because of his hearing aids, to ignite my passion for advocating for people with special needs at a very young age.  Fortunately, in high school I found a program that provided me with a deeper understanding of the special needs population through a combination of formal education and hands-on experience.  The Gateways Sunday Program (then called Etgar L’Noar) provides a Jewish education to children with a wide range of special needs, and trains 50 to 60 teen volunteers each year to be one-to-one aides for the students.  I wrote my college essay about my experience in this program, and went on to study Child Development at Tufts University, graduating in 2009.

 So, after graduating and exploring the desolate job market for a few months, my next move was to call Arlene Remz, Executive Director of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, to ask if she would please let me intern in her office, hoping that I had made an impression as a teen volunteer.  Graciously she complied, and my internship quickly turned into a real job, as Program Associate.  During one of my first days on the job, I attended a meeting with a group of parents who wanted Gateways to design a Jewish education program for their young adult children with special needs, who were all about my age.  I was thinking about the role Judaism had played in my life for the past few years and realized that, like most young Jewish adults in the US, my campus Hillel had shaped my Jewish identity as a young adult, providing a forum to explore Judaism through education, socialization, volunteerism and spirituality.  Then it occurred to me that people with special needs were simply not a part of this experience, and that if I had not found a way to incorporate this population into my definition of my Jewish community since I left high school, then most other people probably hadn’t either.

 The idea came barreling into my head: to design a program that incorporates fundamental elements of the Gateways Sunday Program, like using one-to-one peer aids, but to adjust everything — content, structure, location — to be appropriate for young adults.  The program would have to take place on a college campus, I imagined, and be designed to include young adults with special needs in existing programming at the respective Hillel with the support of undergraduate volunteers, who would also participate in a concurrent training program.  In addition to providing necessary Jewish engagement for young adults with special needs, this program would leave an impression the greater Hillel community, thereby influencing the standards of future Jewish leaders around inclusion.

Lucky for me, Tufts University, my alma mater, was poised and ready to take on this mission. Tufts Hillel, through their Repair the World initiative, partnered with Gateways, Boston’s central agency for Jewish special education, to pilot this innovative new program that aims to challenge — and change — the way we view, treat and interact with people with special needs in our community.  Now, the greater goal is to develop emerging adults who are not only aware of people with special needs, but who value and expect a community that is inclusive of all Jewish people.

With the support of Gateways and CJP’s PresenTense Boston Fellowship, and with the partnership of Tufts Hillel, I was able to launch this brand new program last week. And, it was a huge success. Everyone in the program — the volunteers and the young adults with special needs — had a fabulous evening.  “The best part,” according to Marie, a bright young woman with Down Syndrome who is enrolled in the program, “was when we did the Kiddush together. The whole table and the whole room, it was like one big community and I felt part of it.”

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The next installment of this pilot program is slated for March 11 at Tufts Hillel.  For more information on this or any Gateways program, please contact me, Sonni Bendetson at 617-630-9010, ext. 109 or at sonni@jgateways.org.

PS- Did I mention that my brother is going to Tufts next year?  That makes it really full circle!