We are delighted to be kicking off Jewish Disability Awareness Month…with a twist. While most of our programs at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education focus on making Jewish education accessible to students with special learning needs, we would like to introduce you to our teen youth initiative – Mitzvah Mensches – an inclusive teen youth group fostering young philanthropists.

At Mitzvah Mensches, we create a social life through social action. Teens join Mitzvah Mensches for a variety of reasons, but one thing is for sure: they all think it is fun, they all feel like they belong, and they all have a voice that is heard and counted.

The Mitzvah Mensches program evolved for the students of Gateways several years ago. After their b’nei mitzvah, they wanted to continue their Jewish learning and engagement but also wanted to have fun and make friends with other Jewish teens.

The overt curriculum at Mitzvah Mensches is about philanthropy and social action. Teens tell us what they are interested in and we find charities that are aligned with their interests. As a group, we learn about the charities in fun and creative ways. Sometimes, it looks like formal learning (reading and writing, or watching a video about an organization), but often we incorporate games and team challenges into the evening. The games have a secondary (covert) purpose: through them, we work on social skills and building relationships among the participants.

In this short video, some of our Mitzvah Mensches explain in their own words what the program is and what it means to them:

As an inclusive program, some of the Mensches have special needs; others do not. A diagnosis of the special need is not so important. What is important is that the teens make connections with one another. In the beginning of the year, the teens may feel they do not share interests or have much in common, but as the year progresses and the program creates unique shared experiences, the teens bond and have things to talk about…eventually those connections grow stronger and friendships are forged.

Now in its eighth year, the group meets twice a month during the school year and includes students with and without special education needs. We would love for your teen to join us!

So while Jewish Disability Awareness month is upon us and wonderful activities, posts and celebrations of awareness carry on,  the teens of Mitzvah Mensches will be celebrating a slightly different agenda: acceptance, individuality, and inclusion of all.   

Nancy Mager
Director, Jewish Education Programs

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