It's a rare child who insists on attending Hebrew school in the middle of a snow storm. But that's just what one mother had to deal with when her Jason, a student at the Sunday School for Special Needs at Chabad-Lubavitch of Brookville, N.Y., refused to stay home Dec. 2 while snow and sleet fell from above.

According to the mother, who wished to remain anonymous, Jason's attitude was a far cry from when he attended another nearby Hebrew school, which wasn't geared toward helping children with special needs. Jason, who was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, didn't accomplish much at the other school and hardly wanted to go to class.

Michael Weinbaum, 11, a classmate of Jason's at the Chabad-run school, has been attending since its inception in 2005. Described by his father as a "child who has autistic tendencies, [but is] very high functioning," Michael attends public school in Long Island's North Shore school system during the week. The father said that the Hebrew school has given Michael the confidence and ability to learn and understand more about Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, as well as Hebrew.

"Michael always says the blessing for the wine on Shabbat," beamed the father earlier this month. "Last night, he helped me say the blessing for the candles for Chanukah."

The Hebrew school, he continued, "has rounded him out."

Hebrew schools – traditionally, one- or two-day programs each week that teach basic elements of Jewish tradition and Hebrew language to students who do not attend a Jewish day school – geared specifically to teaching children with special needs are still so uncommon that no statistics on their prevalence are available. Two are operated by Chabad-Lubavitch centers.

According to a Centers for Disease Control study released in February of this year, autism spectrum disorders – a family of conditions characterized by deficits in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors or interests – affect anywhere from one in 500, to one in 150 children. These children frequently benefit from lower student-to-teacher ratios and one-on-one interactions with instructors.

Michae's father was grateful that he will be able to have a bar mitzvah, thanks to the help of his teachers, married couple Seth Brender, who has a degree in special education, and Aviva Brender, a kindergarten teacher during the week.

The teachers are "very wonderful, fantastic," said the father. The children are getting "one-on-one training with loving people who clearly have the patience and the ability to instill Judaism and to teach them the Hebrew language."

According to Seth Brender, one boy's parents enrolled him in the school when he started asking about other religions.

"This really motivated his parents to try to find a Hebrew School that would meet his needs, so he could learn about his heritage, his Judaism," explained the teacher. "What we try to bring home is, you should be proud to be a Jew; you should know your heritage."

But because of the challenges involved in teaching the students, who range from seven years of age to 11, the Brenders tailor-fit a widely-used Hebrew reading program called Aleph Champ for each individual child. Teenagers from the community assist the teachers in the instruction so that each student benefits from one-on-one attention.

In addition to Judaic studies, the Brenders help the children with their various special needs, such as auditory-processing difficulties, and in improving their social skills.

A Spiritual Child

Grant Stevens has fun with a foam etrog at the Chabad Hebrew School Special Needs in S. Mateo, Calif.
Grant Stevens has fun with a foam etrog at the Chabad Hebrew School Special Needs in S. Mateo, Calif.
In S. Mateo, Calif., parent Barbara Engler, whose 15-year-old daughter attends the Chabad Hebrew School Special Needs run by North Peninsula Chabad, said that an individualized curriculum allows children with special needs to enjoy all that Judaism has to offer.

"She really could not attend our congregation's religious-education program without having a one-on-one aid or attending with me," said Engler, who attends services at another synagogue in the area. "And I didn't want to go to Sunday school again."

Rabbi Mendy Heber, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Brookville, echoed Engler's sentiments.

"A parent called me this past week," he related. "They want their child to go to Hebrew school, so they try to fit him into something, but he's very frustrated."

The child walks around the room during class and the teachers "have to put him in place," recounted Heber. "They realize he has special needs, and they try to give him more attention, but he doesn't gain anything, so it's a no-win situation if he's placed in a regular setting."

Back in California, Engler attributed her daughter's achievements to the school's higher staffing ratio, specialized staff and the fact that the curriculum is geared towards individual advancement instead of classroom wide expectations based on age level.

"Maya likes all the ritual and everything related to religious studies," said Engler. "She's kind of spiritual, so I wanted her to have something."

Rabbi Yossi Marcus, co-director of North Peninsula Chabad, said that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, urged back in the 1970s that children with special needs be seen not as children with problems, but as able to contribute to society in their own unique ways.

The Rebbe said that "they have a very strong connection to Jewish rituals, Jewish teachings and traditions, even more than mainstream children, and that being exposed to Yiddishkeit is exciting for them," said Marcus.

Hebrew school serves "a dual purpose," he added. "It gives them a training in Judaism so they can participate more, and appreciate more of what's going on in their homes and synagogues. But it's also uplifting for them personally, because Judaism is uplifting."

Said Brender: "The main thing is we've never looked at the disabilities of the children. We've only looked at their abilities."