For most Jewish children, learning about the High Holidays is a natural component of their education; preparing for this special time of year has long been a traditional part of day schools and Sunday-school programs throughout the world. But for children with special needs and their families, like most aspects of their lives, the holiday season is not so simple. Many of these children attend public schools in order to receive necessary special-education services, and most Sunday or after-school programs are geared towards children with mainstream learning styles and abilities.

The Efshar Circle, a program of Friendship Circle of Michigan and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, fills the gap by providing a Jewish and Judaic program developed especially for students with a variety of special needs. Curricula are designed to meet each student’s current level and learning style, from beginners to those who have had previous Jewish education. Quite fittingly, the Hebrew word efshar means “possible.”

“The teachers focus on engaging the child’s sense of Jewish identity through exciting, hands-on learning,” says Sarah Schectman, director of Efshar Circle.

What makes this program different is that each child is paired with a one-on-one volunteer, enabling students to learn at their own pace, and that the curriculums are individualized for each child.

Ellah Rosenzweig, 5, is looking forward to her second year at Efshar Circle. Ellah has been diagnosed with Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum, which means she is missing the main bundle of nerves between the right and left side of the brain. According to her mother, Sarah Rosenzweig, processing information for Ellah is like “having to use side streets instead of the freeway.” Efshar was a logical choice.

“It was a wonderful experience for her to be able to be in a Jewish environment outside of shul since she went to public preschool for her special needs,” says Sarah Rosenzweig. “Her volunteer was amazing and used the things Ellah loves to facilitate learning. For instance, she knew her aleph-bet because they taught her using the piano. Amazing!”

Esther Steinmetz works with Noah Tighe
Esther Steinmetz works with Noah Tighe

‘At Their Own Pace’

The Efshar Circle uses the Aleph Champ reading program, which breaks the material into manageable goals, identifies students’ strengths and challenges, and allows for multiple skill levels within one classroom. The Sunday-morning program currently serves about 25 students (ages 5 to 14) who comprise three classrooms. Each class has a special-education teacher and a group of volunteers from the local Chabad high school.

“It’s a good pairing because the teacher focuses on the whole group, and the assistant intervenes with individual students,” explains Schectman. “The girls [volunteers] have extensive knowledge of the curriculum, which allows us to teach students in their individual ways. They can go at their own pace and in their own style.”

Assistant consultants, who hold master’s degrees in special education, are part of the educational team, intervening with behavioral issues when necessary and helping to customize the lessons. Some of the adaptations include iPad games, Bingo, flashcards and folder activities with removable Velcro pieces. The older class, which is geared towards teenage students, focuses more on Judaic art, using creative projects to express their Judaism.

“Every single activity is hands-on,” says Schectman, citing honey dishes for Rosh Hashanah, and Shabbat kits with candlesticks and challah covers as examples. “When we learn about holidays, we give them practical things to take home and study. For instance, we break down the steps of the Passover seder into a visual schedule to make things understandable. We’ve made our own sukkah and let the kids go inside.”

Jennifer Lovy tried a traditional Hebrew-school program for her 10-year-old son, Evan, who has autism, but found that as he became older, the gaps between him and the other students grew larger.

“We were in shul last week, and he suddenly said ‘I know this song!’ when he recognized one of the prayers,” relates Lovy. “It’s so nice to see him learning, absorbing and applying what he’s learned.”

Carlie Suris, left, and Chana Shemtov: Each child is paired with a one-on-one volunteer, enabling students to learn at their own pace.
Carlie Suris, left, and Chana Shemtov: Each child is paired with a one-on-one volunteer, enabling students to learn at their own pace.

‘Vibrant and Alive’

Now in its seventh year, the Efshar program includes three components: prayer and incorporating those prayers children will hear in shul; a Hebrew-reading section, adapted to include hands-on tactile activities and a multisensory curriculum; and a Judaic section, with emphasis on the holidays, portions of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus), Jewish heroes, and mitzvahs such as washing hands before meals and putting mezuzahs on the doorposts of Jewish homes. Holidays usually include a program for families to attend along with the students.

“Efshar Circle was a huge relief for our family,” says Renee Tighe, whose son, Noah, now 13, had unsuccessfully tried a traditional Sunday-school program when he was younger. “Once he started, he enjoyed going; he looked forward especially to learning the Torah portion each week and teaching it to the rest of the family—and he was learning Hebrew.”

While bar and bat mitzvah preparation is not a specific part of the Efshar program, Schectman notes that teachers and volunteers will work with those families who choose to help their children participate in this life-cycle milestone, offering guidance and referring them to outside tutors when needed.

“Judaism should be vibrant and alive,” emphasizes Schectman. “We want them to enjoy their time, and also connect with their Judaism and have it be an ongoing positive part of their lives. When they have moved forward and had a positive experience, we consider it progress.”

Schectman is especially touched by the impact the program has had on families who never considered Hebrew school for their children with special needs. “It’s been phenomenal as the years have gone by, just to watch some of the kids who came in without any kind of background who now are reading Hebrew, know about Jewish holidays, and most of all, have a sense of Jewish identity and pride.”

Students in the Gimmel class stand near a sukkah they built, a hands-on approach to special education.
Students in the Gimmel class stand near a sukkah they built, a hands-on approach to special education.