By Allison Magat
Imagine being a member of a culture that values the ability to play baseball. For generations, your community has produced outstanding baseball players. Your great-grandparents, upon arriving in this country, made sacrifices so that their children would have the opportunity to play in the finest stadiums. Your culture is known and recognized throughout the world for its outstanding achievement in baseball. And now, imagine you have trouble holding the bat. You can run the bases, but have trouble lacing your cleats. You can catch, but struggle to put on your glove. How valuable would you feel in your own community? Would you feel good even among your own siblings, who have been recruited by some of the best teams? What effect would this have on your feeling of belonging in this society?
Now, consider our own Jewish community. We are part of a culture that, for thousands of years, has valued studying, learning and being part of an academic community. Generations before us sacrificed so their children could study both Torah and secular studies at the best institutions. But there are children in our community whose learning styles make it difficult for them to study the way others in our community – in their own classes – do. This affects their feelings of connection to the community, and it also has the potential to divide them from their peers. In many communities, these children are forgotten and never receive a Jewish education.
SHEMESH, a program of THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, exists so that Jewish children with learning differences can meet their full intellectual, academic, emotional and social potential in a Jewish setting. While there have been several models in our community over the last 30 years to address special education in Jewish schools, these have typically required one stand-alone facility or accommodations made by the individual schools. The burden on families was often unmanageable. Finding a school that would accept their children was an arduous task.
In 2008, THE ASSOCIATED formed a Special Education Task Force to examine the systems then in place for educating children with learning differences and to make recommendations for future models. City and state officials, Jewish communal professionals and community leaders worked together to examine existing structures including Weinberg Academy, day school resource rooms, learning centers and technology assistance. THE ASSOCIATED leadership quickly came to the conclusion that we weren’t doing our best, that every Jewish child, regardless of his or her learning style, is entitled to a Jewish education and that ensuring that he or she receives one is the responsibility not only of each child’s individual family, but of the whole community.
THE ASSOCIATED foresaw what the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study would tell us two years later – that 21 percent of families with children have sought help for a child with a learning difference. THE ASSOCIATED saw that we had to provide an answer for these children. In 2009, THE ASSOCIATED formed SHEMESH.
Through partnerships with the local day schools, SHEMESH provides a range of services such as early childhood intervention, reading intervention, day school learning centers, speech, language and occupational therapy, executive function coaching and social skills. In its first year, SHEMESH provided services to students in three schools. In 2011, SHEMESH will operate in seven schools, ranging from Torah Institute to Krieger Schechter Day School.
All of the students and faculty at our day schools benefit from the professional development opportunities and differentiated instruction coaching provided by SHEMESH. Students who were just getting by before are now thriving in the classroom. Students who would have been forced out of our day school system because of their learning difficulties are now immersed in a Jewish environment.
“V’shinantem l’vanekha – you shall diligently teach your children.” THE ASSOCIATED has made Jewish education a top priority for our community. Together with SHEMESH, our community is lighting a new way for Jewish education.