This fall, as happens every fall, students in Hebrew schools around the country will begin their confirmation studies. But at Old York Road Temple Beth Am, this year will be a little different. Next spring, when the confirmation class conducts the service on Shavuot, five students with physical, cognitive and verbal disabilities will lead it.
“Parents think these children will never be part of the community or become bar mitzvah. We made it happen,” said Mimi Ferraro, director of education at the Reform congregation in suburban Philadelphia. “Now we will make confirmation happen.”
The synagogue’s mission to educate students with special needs dates back to 1989, when Bruce and Hilbi Sham started a “resource room” program so that their daughter, who has cognitive disabilities, would have the opportunity to attend Hebrew school. A resource room is one in which special education children spend either part or all of their Hebrew school time, learning from trained special-needs teachers who instruct on the students’ level, often with one-on-one assistance.
The next step came in 1995, when Joanne Levin called Beth Am with a request for her 6-year-old physically and verbally handicapped daughter, Joy, to attend Hebrew school. While many of the resource-room children are able to function in day-to-day life, Levin described her daughter as unable to take care of herself. But Ferraro welcomed her into Beth Am, and seven years later, Joy became bat mitzvah by activating her speaker box with her foot to recite the programmed Shema, blessings before and after the Torah reading, and a verse from the Torah itself.
Joy’s bat mitzvah marked the culmination of the synagogue’s program for kids with special needs — which prompted Ferraro to think about devising a new program. “I was sitting in the service, saying to myself, ‘Well now what am I going to do with these kids?’” Ferraro told the Forward. “We can’t not keep them here. This is their home.”
The next year, Lamed Vavniks was born. Bruce Sham returned to play a leading role in executing the program, and Betsy Gamberg joined the team as a volunteer teacher. The name Lamed Vavniks refers to the legend of the 36 righteous persons said to exist in each generation, unknown to the rest of the world, whose piety, compassion and acts of holiness sustain the entire world. Asked why she chose the name for her program, Ferraro explained: “These kids have really pushed this community to be sensitive to every human being. They are so proud of their Judaism, and they teach us more than we could ever teach them.”
For the past two years, the Lamed Vavniks have attended weekly hour-and-a-half Sunday study sessions and monthly after-school hands-on social activities. The program’s five special needs teenagers have learned about holidays, Torah and Jewish ethics while baking brownies for a fund-raiser, going to museums, having Israel- and holiday-themed programming or even playing wheelchair ice hockey.
Levin said that Joy, confined to a wheelchair, is unable to go over to a friend’s house to play like other children, but the program gives her daughter social opportunities. Levin enjoys watching Joy’s face light up when she sees the other students. “They take care of my daughter,” Levin said. “All of the kids are very close, bonded.”
This year, in preparation for the Lamed Vavniks’s first confirmation ceremony, the students will devote part of their weekly time to community service projects and to helping younger children.
Levin believes that the mitzvah projects are very important: “Just because someone is disabled does not mean that someone cannot do mitzvahs.”
Because the Lamed Vavniks receive federation funding, the program — as well as the special- needs program leading up to bar and bat mitzvah — is open to the entire community. While a family is not required to join the synagogue, Ferraro believes that when parents come to visit the school, they feel welcome and often will join.
Ferraro said that the Lamed Vavniks have no plans beyond confirmation next spring, but added: “We will do whatever we need to do to keep them here and keep them involved. Every year is a new challenge.”
Levin hopes for a continuation of the program, both for the current and new students. While at this time there currently is no new group of students entering as Lamed Vavniks, Levin is hopeful that with more recognition, the program will grow.
As for her daughter and the rest of the pupils, Levin said: “This program enabled them to know who they are. They are so proud of themselves when they participate.”