Almost 10 summers have passed since Meredith Englander last saw Josh, but she still remembers him clearly. At that time, Englander was working as a counselor at a Jewish camp and he was her camper. Josh, then only 8 years old, was asked to leave the camp because of behavioral issues.
Ever since the indelible image of a young child struggling but failing to adapt ingrained itself in her mind, Englander has worked on behalf of those nearly 35,000 American Jewish children like Josh, who have “special needs.” She received master’s degrees in social work and special education. And she co-founded Matan, an organization with the explicit purpose of providing special education in the Jewish community.
Beginning this fall, Matan — a Hebrew word meaning gift — will attempt to nip in the bud the problems that usually plague special-needs kids. Through a preschool inclusion program to be offered at the Town and Village Synagogue in New York City, Matan will create an educational environment for the youngest Jews with special needs.
“We’re launching a beginning phase of this, which is a Mommy-and-me program,” Englander said. This program will be geared to children in the age range of 18 to 24 months, and is slated to kick off after the High Holy Days. Mothers will be present in the classrooms for weekly sessions, which should last about an hour and a half. Englander hopes that it will act as a precursor to a more fully realized preschool that could begin in either 2005 or 2006, depending on funding.
She envisions a preschool markedly different from the norm. “The class sizes will be smaller, which tends to work better for all kids,” she explained. “There will be extra staff in the room.” Many specialists will be available, too. But these features will not be just for special-needs students; parents of children without special needs will be encouraged to enroll their children, as well.
The benefits of combining students with and without special needs in the same classes, according to Englander, are twofold: “First of all, I think it’s an important concept that not everyone is exactly like them,” she said. By interacting from an early age with those who may be different, students will be better prepared “to accept others’ strengths and weaknesses.” Second, she said, because the participating students will be so young, teachers may recognize previously unidentified special needs in time to provide early assistance.
Merely increasing the identification of special needs would be an accomplishment in itself, since the Jewish educational community tends to push those students to the side. As a result, many students fall behind and, according to Englander, eventually leave Jewish education altogether. “We think it’s an unfair predicament for parents to be in, to either choose an education that is appropriate for their child, or a Jewish education,” she said. “We think that children should definitely be able to have both.”
Since its inception in 2000, Matan has been engaged in efforts to link up members of the Jewish special- needs community from across the nation, as well as to provide unique programming to Jewish and Hebrew schools. This past year, several hundred students took part in Matan programs, which included multiple classes and workshops in the New York area. Although the reach of the direct Matan programming does not extend beyond the East Coast, Matan has been successful in connecting people as far away as Los Angeles.
The absence of a prominent national organization advocating for Jewish special education may explain the greatest obstacle facing Englander and like-minded individuals: a lack of funding. “There are certainly a lot of well-meaning synagogues out there, but because as a Jewish community we haven’t made special needs a priority, there hasn’t been a source that’s come forward to make it a priority,” she said. Matan may be able to fill that role, and Englander is quite upfront about this ambition: “We really want to be a resource for kids across the country.”
Even as she oversees Matan’s expansion into new areas, Englander strongly believes that more degree programs regarding special education, particularly Jewish special education, need to be established.
“Our main goal,” Englander said, “is to have any child who wants to be part of the Jewish community be able to do so.”