Jews may be the “chosen people,” but when it comes to Jewish education, adults with disabilities have often been left out.
Coinciding with Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, the Marcus JCC of Atlanta’s Lisa F. Brill Institute for Jewish Learning offers inclusive education classes through the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning virtually via Zoom.
The second series of “Members of the Tribe” classes is now underway, with more than double the number of students participating. Rabbi Steven Rau of Atlanta’s The Temple taught the first class, and instructor Devorah Lowenstein of Atlanta Education Associates leads the second.
“There isn’t anything like it out there right now for this community of adults. They need to be served and connected Jewishly and we can’t forget about them,” said Talya Gorsetman, director of the Lisa F. Brill Institute. “This is the first series of Melton classes that is inclusive of people of all abilities and types of learners. We have a couple of people who were diagnosed with Down syndrome, others with congenital disabilities and intellectual disabilities,” she said.
“The curriculum and pace of the class has been modified to allow additional time for questions, clarification and repetition and to accommodate the needs of the class, such as if someone is vision or hearing impaired. We had a great discussion and mix of ideas, with everyone learning from each other.”
Encompassing Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, rabbinical writings and contemporary material, the classes cover two or three texts each week. “We did a lot of discussion, engaging and making the texts relevant. We just needed to slow it down and chop it up a bit,” Gorsetman said. “It’s also a class on Jewish values, reestablishing those values and sharing experiences and thoughts,” she added. “The Melton curriculum is all about listening to each other.”
Although Melton adult education classes usually cost several hundred dollars, this series is underwritten and offered at steeply reduced rates. The first semester had nine students enrolled, many participating with a parent or caregiver, and 17 signed up for the current classes, which are offered in the evening to accommodate students who work during the day.
Kyle Simon, 24, who has a job at a honey-producing bee farm, has an invisible intellectual learning disability and attended special schools growing up. He attended the fall semester and re-enrolled for the spring class. “It just takes me more time. I need more patience. Some things are a little harder for me than for other people,” he said. “When you’re studying with a disability it’s always hard to focus. I tried hard to pay attention and it got easier the second time around. I’ve enjoyed this semester even more.”
“This has been an amazing thing to do, to get together as a community and talk about Judaism, keeping kosher and what it means to be Jewish,” continued Simon, who was raised Reform. “We study the Torah. We talk about the holidays and what they mean, like lighting the candles on Hanukkah. I love how it brings the community together, even though it’s on Zoom.”
Born in New York, Gorsetman attended Jewish day and high schools, majored in Jewish studies at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, and studied in Israel before and after she married her husband, Rabbi Adam Starr. She is now in her sixth year at Melton, and is looking forward to expanding the adult disability education program.
“We’re at the beginning stages. We’re in talks with the Florence Melton School to develop a curriculum for this community of adults and a faculty guide to train Melton teachers to teach these classes, and get other Melton directors to offer this to their communities all around the world,” she said. “We have not even begun.”
At one JCC, new classes make it easy for adults with disabilities to tune in