When a concerned mother of three approached Rabbi Yossi and Esty Marcus of Chabad of S. Mateo, California, with a dilemma, they had no idea what big things were about to transpire. The mother of two Hebrew School children, she was thrilled with the Jewish enrichment her children were experiencing. But her third was unable to take part. This child was special with special needs and unable to be accommodated in a typical classroom setting. For lack of access to Jewish knowledge this child could not share in the joy and excitement of the holidays or join the family in prayer at Synagogue.
The Marcuss, who opened their mainstream Hebrew School shortly after moving to the Bay Area in September 2001, hadn’t considered the possibility of introducing a new concept in Jewish education: Sunday school for children with special needs. After meeting several parents who expressed the same frustrations over the lack of Jewish education and cultural enrichment for their special needs children, the Marcuss decided to respond. In September 2004, they opened the Sunday School for Special Needs, becoming pioneers in Jewish education on the west coast.
It’s a small handful of children, but the school makes a world of difference to the parents and these children, who, for the first time, can experience religious school in an appropriate environment. With a curriculum created for them by special ed teacher Tina Dress and Mrs. Esty Marcus M.S.E.D., they enter a world of Jewish holidays, Torah lessons and stories, prayer and Hebrew reading—so much of which was previously inaccessible to them. Every Tuesday children with autism, PDD, Down’s Syndrome and other emotional and mental challenges arrive at Chabad’s doorstep eager and ready to learn.
In a more recent development, pre-teens and teenagers in the community are acting as buddies to the special needs students. Each week Middle School volunteers from the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School and from local public schools join the class. They help the students complete their work and engage the children in conversation. Parents are delighted for their children to be able to contribute to others. Abbe Braitman has chose this for her son’s Bar Mitzvah “Tikkun Olam” project.
“Here’s an opportunity for the students to actually put into practice the ideals of caring for others, especially fellow children,” says
Mervyn Danker, Principal of the Wornick Jewish Day School.
The school, which draws children ages 10-14 from the San Francisco Bay area, will add another class next year for 6-9 year olds.
“It’s great that my daughter can now go to religious school every week and experience the joy of her heritage,” says Barbara Engler, whose daughter Maya attends the new school.
“We’ve had a ‘mainstream’ Sunday School for a few years and we’ve seen the need for something for special kids,” says Sheva Wolf, one of the teachers at the school. “Our philosophy is that ‘special’ is not just a euphemism. They really are special and they connect to Judaism in a way that is in some sense more profound than the average person.”
The children learn about Jewish holidays, prayers, and Hebrew by listening to stories and by participating in arts and crafts, singing, music, and dance activities. In an effort to reach every Jewish child, a tutor visits the homes of children who have chronic medical conditions restricting them from leaving their homes.
In addition to individual tuitions, the school’s expenses are underwritten by Chabad, local grants and fundraising projects. Two of the school’s teachers, Sheva Wolf and Yudit Goodman thought of doing a concert benefit as a fundraiser for the special needs branch. On Sunday, March 6th, at the College of S. Mateo the “Chasidic Ramblers”, featuring Rabbi Marcus and his five brothers, will play live in concert to benefit the first ever Sunday school for Special needs children on the west coast.
“Jewish music has the power to uplift the soul and rejuvenate the heart,” says Goodman, a Melbourne native, who is spending the year in San Mateo teaching at the Wornick Jewish Day School, and volunteering at the Special Needs School and the North Peninsula Bat Mitzvah Club. “We hope the concert will entertain while it inspires with the joy we try to bring to our school.”
For tickets call 650 341 4510 or visit www.chabadnp.com.