Waiting for his teacher to begin his first bar mitzvah lesson, 12-year-old Jacob Mussen made handprints in a special bed of movable metal pins and then watched colored droplets creep down the sides of a liquid motion toy.
Jacob, who has graphomotor dyslexia as well as obsessive- compulsive disorder, is taking private classes with Aliya Cheskis-Cotel, a New York Jewish educator who provides bar and bat mitzvah lessons to students who might otherwise opt out of this rite of passage. After working full time at a Jewish day school, Cheskis-Cotel first tutored a child with Asperger’s syndrome 17 years ago, and from then on began working individually with special needs students, reluctant adults and overachieving tweens. Cheskis-Cotel is by no means alone in her efforts, as educators focus more and more on accommodating special needs in Jewish communities all over the country. In New York, tutors like Cheskis-Cotel and institutions like the JCC in Manhattan, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun and Congregation Habonim are among a growing number of resources for special-needs youngsters seeking a Jewish education.
Nonetheless, the beginning of the school year, when other parents face an array of choices, can be a particularly challenging time for parents of special-needs children, who frequently are turned away from Jewish day schools and congregational schools that lack the resources to serve them properly.
While awareness of special populations’ needs has grown, particularly with recent films like “Praying With Lior” about the bar mitzvah of a Down’s syndrome boy, supply of appropriate programs is a long way from satisfying the increasing demand, experts say.
“There is a big proliferation of kids with Asperger’s and learning disabilities,” Cheskis-Cotel said. “Twenty years ago people just told those kids that they should just sit in the back of the classroom, and nobody helped them.”
“I [have seen] so many kids to whom people said, ‘You can’t do that, you can’t do that,’” she continued. “And somehow with me they could ‘do that.’”
While the Jewish community, like other religious communities, still has a long way to go on the road to inclusion, disabilities specialists agree that educators have made significant strides in the past couple decades.
“We are all sort of in this together. The Jewish community has the double struggle of having a bilingual religion,” said Becca Hornstein, executive director of the Council for Jews with Special Needs in Phoenix and member of the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities steering committee for the past 20 years. “The success rate on including people is how willing are the individual clergy to accommodate according to special needs,” she added.
One setback may come from a simple lack of awareness among spiritual leaders and educators, according to Dori Kirshner, executive director of Matan: Jewish Learning is for Every Children, an organization that helps existing Jewish institutions include children with disabilities.
“Too often there is not enough information available to children, parents and families or even to educators and clergy in place already, and there are amazing things that are happening,” Kirshner said. “But they are happening in isolation.”
Right after his first lesson just a couple of weeks ago, Jacob Mussen said that playing with the toys on Cheskis-Cotel’s coffee table helped relieve his anxiety, so that he was prepared to tackle his lesson with enthusiasm. And for Jacob’s dyslexia, singing in Hebrew is actually a bit of a relief.
“When I do Hebrew, to me it feels like just making sounds with my mouth, which I’m much better at,” said Jacob, who reads Hebrew faster than he does English.
Getting his own thoughts on paper is a bit of a challenge for Jacob, his mother Claudia Mussen said, but she is confident that the next year of training with Cheskis-Cotel will give him the energy to write a strong dvar Torah for his bar mitzvah ceremony.
“This energy that spilled out into the room immediately put Jacob at ease. He was very proudly singing to me the songs he was learning, all in the one day,” Mussen said. “He really said to me as we were leaving, ‘I’m really ready to go back.’”
Cheskis-Cotel’s strategies are all about tailoring her lesson plans according to the skills and interests of the individual student, rather than trying to fit her classes into one specific mold.
“There’s no cookie-cutter bar mitzvah here,” Mussen said. “I think that there’s a certain amount of flexibility that we’re going to build into his particular bar mitzvah.”
Flexibility is exactly what Elliot Jenner, now 26, remembers about his bar mitzvah training with Cheskis-Cotel. Though his social difficulties and attention-deficit issues landed him in a New York City special-education school, Jenner said he looked to his Hebrew class as an outlet for political discussions, explorations of Jewish science fiction and a safe place where he could express his intelligence.
“There wasn’t a constant attempt to talk about Judaism all the time,” Jenner said. “I could actually have a conversation with somebody who wasn’t trying to psychoanalyze you most of the time.”
“His mom said to me, ‘He can’t even say hello, how are you — but he’s into science fiction,” Cheskis-Cotel said, going on to teach Jenner through Jewish science fiction and Japanese animé. “Ultimately, he wrote an amazing dvar Torah about Korach. And who was Korach? He was a rebel.”
Another current student, Elani Hillman, learns from Cheskis-Cotel through creative means, by picturing himself as a character in the biblical stories he writes about and illustrates. Though he was diagnosed with borderline Attention Deficit Disorder and could not attend Jewish day school, Elani now prepares for his bar mitzvah and learns Hebrew conversation with Cheskis-Cotel.
“She takes what the kids like and then creates a program that teaches him what she wants to teach him in a way that is close to him,” said his mother,
Karin Hillman, who also sent her two older students for tutoring with Cheskis-Cotel.
Experts agree that this exact mechanism, molding lessons to match the students’ individual needs, is the key to success.
“In order to teach a child Jewish material and still tailor it to their unique skills you have to look not just at their areas of weakness or challenge — like reading, speaking, memorizing — but a good teacher looks at where their areas of strengths are,” said Hornstein, who also serves as co-chair of the Jewish Special Educators International Consortium, along with Shana Erenberg from the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago.
Erenberg remembers working with a particular autistic student who could not speak but instead painted five or six beautiful panels to illustrate his Torah portion.
“You can have one set of expectations for the day for that child, but you have to be fully aware that that might not happen. They might get up there and might not say a word,” she said, stressing the importance of tailoring the experience to the individual child’s strengths and interests. Erenberg has also served as the founding director of the Keshet Sunday School for students with disabilities in Northbrook, Ill., for the past 20 years.
Both Erenberg and Hornstein believe that all Jewish children deserve a Jewish education, be it with a private tutor like Cheskis-Cotel or in a congregational school. Hornstein has a son with disabilities, and 25 years ago she remembers calling every synagogue in Phoenix until she found Temple Chai, where she personally initiated an after-school Jewish special education program.
“I knew that he had a disability,” she said. “I didn’t know that he was invisible.”
And with Cheskis-Cotel’s help, New York Jewish parents say they are watching their children grow from invisible to vibrant and confident.
“Toward the end, [my son] was saying, ‘I want to do more, I want to do some of the Torah,’” said Cindy Golan, mother of now 20-year-old Ori Golon, who was unable to learn in a traditional Hebrew school setting. “We really went from ‘I don’t want to do this at all’ to becoming really involved.”
Miriam Levenstein, now 25, felt her confidence slipping when she had to leave her Jewish day school in the sixth grade due to a learning disability. Her
teachers told her she wouldn’t even be able to have a bat mitzvah — until she connected with Cheskis-Cotel.
“My Hebrew day school had pretty much said you can’t handle our course load anymore. What makes you think that you can achieve what our students can achieve?” Levenstein said. “Being told that I couldn’t do it was the motivator for doing it.”
Levenstein ended up covering twice as much bat mitzvah material as her former day school classmates, and she developed a strong sense of self-worth that enabled her to move forward with her life. Her perseverance is something that special-needs educators hope to cultivate in every Jewish child.
“We have a long way to go of course, but you have to keep going,” Erenberg said. “It’s exciting, it’s empowering, but I really feel that it’s a birthright.”