“Is today Hebrew School?” Mendel Mann asks hopefully each Sunday morning. For the last three years on Sunday mornings, Mendel’s mother Devorah Leah has made the fifty-mile drive from South Beach to Kendall, Florida so the twelve-year-old can be part of the Kulanu Circle. Mendel attends a public school due to additional needs, but each Sunday he joins a mainstream Hebrew School along with other kids his age. “His excitement, and the way he is greeted as one of the gang, make the long drives and the early Sunday mornings worth it,” Devorah Leah shares.
Harrison Margulies and Jason Arjuo test some shofars at the Sholem Epelbaum Chabad Hebrew School
Nechama Harlig and her husband, Rabbi Yossi, had already been directors of the Sholem Epelbaum Chabad Hebrew School when they began the Kulanu Circle. They started by opening a local branch of Friendship Circle, which provides support and social interaction for children with special needs, but noticed that the children participating were missing out on their Jewish schooling. When a mother of a boy on the autistic spectrum asked if she could enroll her son in the Hebrew School, Nechama knew she needed to make it possible. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught us that every child deserves a Jewish education and we needed to find a way to give these children access, too,” Nechama explained.
It took time. Nechama first secured a grant from the Ruderman Foundation, then she was able to hire ABA and music therapists and from there started the Kulanu Circle. During the upcoming academic year, the Kulanu Circle will enable ten children, like Mendel, to join their mainstream peers as they explore their Jewish heritage. For some, the circle will provide the support they need to learn in a mainstream classroom, while others will join the Kulanu Circle class to receive more individualized instruction.
Jason Margulies has a son with special needs, “He has a tendency to be disruptive and run away, but we still wanted him to learn to read Hebrew and be exposed to Judaism in a meaningful way.” His son attended Kulanu Circle where he learned prayers and Jewish songs, celebrated the holidays and mastered reading and writing in Hebrew—so well, in fact, that he recently read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah celebration.
Nechama is thankful for the Ruderman Family Foundation: “Their grant ensures that we can include the Kulanu Circle kids without having to bill their parents. Additional support for these children can be expensive.”
Talia Tzanani and Mendel Mann