Confirmation Class Blazes New Trail

By Lauren Appelbaum

Published August 13, 2004, issue of August 13, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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 Vavnikss 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.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.