A pilot program that provides religious instruction to Jewish children with special needs, launched last school year as a partnership between the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach and the Lawrence School District, will be expanded to cover the entire school year beginning this month.
Shaar Lev — combining the Hebrew words shaar, meaning gateway, and lev, for heart — began last October, and was the brainchild of Richard Altabe, HALB’s executive vice president for institutional ad-vancement, principal of its lower school and an educator with more than 30 years of experience. The eight-month after-school program was so successful last school year, Altabe said, that it was expanded into June.
“We were able to do it due to the interest of some people,” said Altabe, a Far Rockaway resident. “The parent had a kid in public school — first grade — and wanted to get his child up to speed on religious instruction, and was paying for it at his house. The father said if [we were] able to get the resources, he would pay for religious instruction for all the people in public school and open something here” — HALB in Woodmere, the former Number Six School.
The father has declined to be identified, but his gesture has spawned a program that included roughly 15 children, mostly from Lawrence and a few from Hewlett-Woodmere, last year. It focused on Jewish law, the holidays and the Torah. The primary goal is to help special-needs children share the religion and culture with their siblings, other family members and general-education friends.
There were four teachers and two assistants. At press time, Altabe said that 18 children, from kindergarten to third grade, were registered for the new school year. Their disabilities range from difficulty focusing on time and task issues to Down syndrome.
Altabe said the program is structured around the children’s levels of learning. “We’re gearing to teach to the needs of the children and how they learn,” he said, adding that having access to their individualized education programs helps. “The teachers here are experienced and matched to the needs of the kids.”
Dr. Ann Pedersen, superintendent of the Lawrence School District and a former principal of the Number Four School, noted that the federal Every Child Succeeds Act calls for public schools to be “culturally responsive.” “We are certainly culturally aware and sensitive, but there are instruction topics covered in yeshiva education that are not appropriate for public schools,” Pedersen said. “The HALB program gives families an opportunity to have their children receive instruction toward academic and social goals during the traditional school day in public school, and then receive Judaic studies after school.”
Highlighting the district’s slogan of being a “cultural mosaic,” Pedersen recalled interactions between Jewish and non-Jewish students at the Number Four School. “We had quite a few [Jewish] students who attended for intervention and then returned to what I refer to as the ‘family school,’ where their siblings go,” she said. “The other students were so sweet to watch at snack time. They would look at the packages of food and find the kosher symbol and say, ‘You can eat this.’”
Altabe’s Shaar Lev program also had the strong support of HALB’s board and its co-presidents, Mitch Kirschner and Nathaniel Rogoff. Kirschner, a board member for more than 20 years, said the program not only helps special-needs children connect to their community and be a part of a school that is interested in their educational and spiritual needs, but also offers general-education HALB students an opportunity to “develop more positive attitudes and less anxiety when interacting with special-needs children.”
“As for the children this program serves,” Kirschner added, “the benefits are obvious, and have allowed them to actively participate at the Shabbos table, and at so many other Jewish holidays, that they are, in many instances, learning about for the first time. It has given them the confidence to interact with their siblings and other family members with a sense of pride in their knowledge. This has been a program that our entire board has endorsed, and the results have and continue to excite us.”