When Tamar Davis was appointed CEO of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education last June, she was described as the “perfect person to lead Gateways.” Davis comes to her new position after serving on the organization’s Board of Trustees. As a person with a disability, she brings a deep awareness and understanding of Gateways’s mission to the job.

Davis came to Gateways from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, where she was the chief development officer. A resident of Brookline and a mother and stepmother to five children, Davis spoke to JewishBoston about her expansive vision for Gateways, leading the organization during a pandemic and other issues affecting the disability community.

The Gateways mission statement pledges to give students with diverse needs access to a meaningful Jewish education. What is your vision for the organization?

Tamar Davis
Tamar Davis (Courtesy photo)

My personal vision revolves around the movement for inclusion, where no child gets left behind. Every child, no matter what their ability, no matter what challenges they have, must have access to Jewish education and to Jewish life and learning. Gateways’s mission includes giving a child the tools they need to become a meaningful participant in the Jewish community. Part of that vision includes working more closely with other organizations and forging partnerships. We can’t do it alone. Our resources are too limited, so how can we join together to advance the movement for inclusion?

We’re also embarking on strategic planning to define opportunities that advance our inclusion work; some of it is COVID-related. But others present opportunities we haven’t yet tapped into. Mental health is such a rising concern, and there are many more people starting to understand what it means to have a mental illness or a mental health challenge. We’ve done quite a bit of work over the last few years in de-stigmatizing mental health. COVID has exacerbated, lifted up and elevated some of the key mental health challenges. But those challenges were there before, and they won’t go away after COVID.

How does addressing mental health figure into Gateways’ strategic planning?

We have grant-funded initiatives focused on mental health, and I’m looking to see where our strategic planning takes us. How can we address mental health needs?  How can we meet them in a very holistic stance? This involves looking at the needs of the community, the needs of the children who are coming up against barriers to their success, as well as to accessing Jewish life and learning because of mental health challenges. How are we partnering with other organizations and other funders who also want to meet that need in a way that taps into every resource and accounts for every need possible in an ideal world?

What was the impact for Gateways as the organization pivoted to online learning and other activities?

All of our professional development and educational programs in Jewish day schools, preschools, early education centers and after-school programs are online. Our stand-alone Sunday program and b’nai mitzvah program with higher need are also remote. In some cases, when Zoom wasn’t quite right for us, we found other online technological tools for our population. We’ve had to be nimble and responsive to an ever-changing environment.

Our staff has also been amazing at rethinking every lesson plan. Not only do they customize lessons for every child’s needs, but they’re customizing those lessons for an online experience, which is very different. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our teen volunteer program. These teenagers get up at the crack of dawn—at least for a teenager—on a Sunday morning, and it’s the highlight of their week. I’ve heard them express this. We have 40 teens participating in our volunteer program and have had a 100% return rate.

Our work with Jewish day schools is a mix of online and in-person. Most schools are in-person or have some hybrid of in-person and remote learning. But even for those that are in-person, some schools want the therapists to do their sessions remotely; they don’t want anyone coming in from outside of a cohort or classroom. Some schools want therapists meeting with their kids in person, and we abide by COVID protocols.

What is your personal experience with disability?

I have severe hearing loss. Without my hearing aids, I’m essentially deaf, so I rely on my hearing aids tremendously. The COVID protocol of wearing masks has been very challenging for me; it severely impairs my ability to move around in the world. I wear a big pin on my mask that says I am hearing impaired, and I read lips to communicate. People peer at the mask and nod that they understand why I don’t want to engage in conversation. Or if I have to converse, I respect the six-foot distance while I try to lean in as much as I can to hear the muffled mask speech.

I never spoke about my disability when I was a teenager. I just wanted to be normal. I would rather miss things than bring attention to my disability. I have an advantage in some ways and a disadvantage in others, where it’s more of a hidden disability. Someone wouldn’t necessarily know from looking at me that I could easily miss half the conversation if I don’t sit in a certain way or have access to see a person’s mouth when I’m talking to someone. One of my first weeks as Gateways’s CEO, I made a video post sharing that the first time I spoke publicly about my disability was nine years ago.

You shared a beautiful observation from the Torah at your son’s brit milah about stumbling blocks. Can you share a bit of your speech?

That dvar is something that sits deeply with me and is done at the brit milah, when the baby is placed on the kisse shel Eliyahu, on Elijah’s chair. The actual quote is from Psalms: “Those who love Your Torah have abounding peace, and there is no stumbling for them.” We, the stakeholders at Gateways, firmly believe there should be no mikh’shol, no stumbling block and no obstacle to Jewish education, no matter what our ability. We cherish our Jewish tradition, we are proud of our Jewish heritage and we prioritize Jewish education for our children.

What has it been like to lead Gateways in a pandemic?

It’s been an experience not to meet in-person with the people who work for the organization, our board members, the people who give so generously to the organization, our constituents and our students, who cannot be in an actual classroom right now. That’s been very challenging, but at the same time, Zoom has been so helpful. It’s been incredible to see how having a shared passion creates a connection made even over Zoom.

I’ve been given this extraordinary opportunity in the middle of a pandemic when many people are not getting these kinds of opportunities, and I feel very blessed to have that. Even with all the challenges in a pandemic, it’s incredible how many people involved with this magnificent organization are looking ahead to the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed.