Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Volunteer Eric Martz of Teaneck, a “shadow” at the Friendship Circle of Bergen County’s Hebrew school, works with a student during a Sunday morning session.

Leora Wolff of Paramus, a volunteer classroom assistant, helps a student with a hands-on project.

A student at the Friendship Circle of Bergen County Hebrew school works on an alef bet assignment.

The first year of the Friendship Circle of Bergen County’s Hebrew school has ended but the learning, growth and personal rewards for everyone involved have just begun.

“It is so rewarding to see they are learning, that the kids are comfortable enough to participate at shul or in school,” said Zeesy Grossbaum, executive director of the nonprofit organization that launched the area’s only special needs religious school last fall—a first for Friendship Circle of Bergen County. Forty-five students attended the Sunday morning program this year, which ended on May 22; Grossbaum expects enrollment to be in the 50-student range next term. The program is hosted at the Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, NJ.

The Hebrew school idea was a natural outgrowth of the Friendship Circle’s mission, which is to provide outreach, programs and support to families of special needs children. Its broad program offerings provide socialization and enrichment for clients and respite and support for parents or caregivers, and inspires area teens to share their talents and experiences with differently abled children. The Bergen County chapter helps more than 200 families through programs for younger children and teens through age 21.

The school draws students from throughout Bergen County and beyond, with many from Passaic County as well as Monsey, New York. The seven classes accommodate ages 5 through 21, and are divided along age and ability criteria. At around age 11, the students are split into boys’ and girls’ classes. The student body includes some from public schools and others who attend the SINAI Special Needs Institute and require additional learning reinforcement over the weekend.

Education director, Shternie Litzman, created the fully customizable curriculum and hired, in Grossbaum’s words, “the most amazing Hebrew school teachers.” A behaviorist, who is also a special education teacher, floats among the classes to troubleshoot any issues that may arise, and each classroom has teacher’s aides who are all college students studying special education.

The school also uses high school volunteers in the classroom to help provide the attention that many of the students need, including, for some students, one-to-one assistance. Grossbaum noted that on several occasions, when the Yeshiva of North Jersey held a Sunday school session, several of its students stayed after class to volunteer in the Friendship Circle Hebrew School.

Throughout the academic year, the students learn the brachot and alef bet; study Jewish history, holidays and culture; have lessons in the weekly parshiot and Pirkei Avot and give and learn the value of tzedakah. There is also an hour of music, art and sports to give the children a well-rounded and fun experience every week as well as a chance to enjoy interacting with the Friendship Circle volunteers.

“Everything is customized so that everyone can thrive here,” noted Grossbaum. “Some students enjoy hands-on experiential learning exercises while others are comfortable taking on more Hebrew reading and synagogue skills. Each student makes strides in his or her own way.” For nonverbal students, the iPad talker app is loaded to help them learn the blessings and in one class of mostly non-verbal boys, the teacher plays guitar and uses music to reach his students.

Grossbaum added that for Pesach, students brought home their own haggadot that they’d made and families reported that this was the first year their children ever participated in the seder.

“To get that kind of feedback and see what happens here every week is exactly why we do what we do,” said Grossbaum.

For more information about Friendship Circle of Bergen County’s Hebrew School for special needs children, or to find out more about the organization’s programs for children and their families, visit www.BCFriendship.com.