April 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

I few weeks ago I visited the settlement of Gevaot in the Gush Etzion area, not far from Jerusalem. The settlement of Gevaot was founded in 1984 as a Nachal army outpost in the hills descending from Gush Etzion. In 2012 with the support and assistance of the Gush Etzion Regional Council it was populated by the community of Sadnat Shiluv.

Sadnat Shiluv (Integration Workshop) was founded as an educational initiative in 1997 whose ideal is to integrate children and young adults with special needs into the community. Through the years a community was formed around the Sadna of those who sought to further this way of life. The community grew around the school and housing for those with special needs. After several years in temporary venues, the families and Sadna settled in Gevaot.

Today there are 40 families living in Gevaot, with a day care center, kindergarten, youth movement, synagogue and mikvah. The school-age children learn in Gush Etzion. In addition, there are three apartments for young men with special needs; a special education school; and employment, including an animal farm. The residents of the special needs housing work and study during the day in the Sadna, and afterwards have a rich and varied social life within the community. They visit families and participate in organizing prayer services and communal activities.

The amazing Noa Mandelbaum is the founder and educational program director. Her story of how she started this enterprise is worthy of a feature film. There are about 60 staff members including teachers, counselors, social workers, paramedical therapists, occupational therapists and technical and support staff. The staff is joined by National Service (Sherut Leumi) volunteers. The project includes a school; occupational training; community living; a kindergarten; community apartments for residents age 16-30; stables to house horses for therapeutic riding; a winepress, threshing floor, baking oven, clay pools, kiln, olive press and agricultural projects; an animal center for rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, parrots, chinchillas and reptiles; a dairy to manufacture cheese and milk from their goats; carpentry, paper recycling, basket-weaving and ceramics workshops; a kitchen; and sports, music, drama and photography enrichment activities.

They receive funding from the government and municipalities, insurance, grants, development projects and private donations. They plan to develop a music center, environment center, hydrotherapy clinic, their own transportation, staff workshops, offices and a permanent campus (since all current structures are pre-fabricated).

Sadnat Shiluv has established a therapeutic environment containing all the elements needed by a special person and also a feeling of belonging to a normative community. There is an enriching and flexible framework that can adapt to the needs of a special person throughout his life and an emphasis on creative labor.

These activities are appropriate for people with assorted difficulties and levels of functioning, who can benefit from agricultural labor and integration into the community. On Chol Hamoed Sukkot 2014, after 18 months of work, the Café opened. In the café, students practice baking cakes and cookies, and they practice preparing salads and toasted sandwiches. The sales team practice making coffee, receiving money, and registering payments, while the waiters practice taking orders and serving. There is a therapeutic riding stable on site, where students feed, clean and even train the horses. They graze the herd of goats, milk them and prepare yogurt and cheeses from the milk.

In the petting zoo, each child is personally responsible for one of the animals. Regular care helps the child develop empathy for others and discover other abilities and talents. There is also a greenhouse and workshops for learning photography, ceramics, woodworking and paper recycling. The work helps students learn about responsibility, and provides training towards their lives as adults.

Sadnat Shiluv’s first apartment opened in 2009 in Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim for graduates of the school who sought a residential community. Over time, additional apartments opened in Rosh Tzurim and an apartment for girls opened in Kibbutz Migdal Oz. In 2012 the residents moved to the communal residence in Gvaot.

The community apartments of the Sadna were designed to provide the tools for living in a normative society for people who want to integrate into the community. Each resident has an adoptive family in the community that hosts them for meals on weekdays, holidays and Shabbat. Residents take part in cultural activities and are active partners in the synagogue. The gabbai is a personable young man with Down Syndrome. The apartments are run by a warm and dedicated staff of coordinators, assistants, paramedical practitioners, activity instructors and volunteers.

In addition to the population of students in need of special education services for their emotional well-being and progress in all areas, there is a population of children who could integrate into the regular educational system if only they had the help and support they needed. Many of these children suffer from ADHD. They are often smart, warm and creative, and have a good sense of humor and a love for nature and open space. Frenetic and impulsive, they find it difficult to accept authority, often getting into fights with friends and suffering from learning disabilities that interfere with their functioning in the classroom. The program offered by the formal educational system currently highlights their weaknesses, and provides insufficient opportunities to develop their strengths. This reality creates a great degree of friction and disappointment. The reality in school is difficult but the option of special education is also difficult.

Sadnat Shiluv offers these children an activity day in a therapeutic space (“integrating space”). On that day, they come to Gevaot and work with a group doing crafts, carpentry, carving, basket weaving and research in nature. They participate in a program to develop better interpersonal skills, and a therapeutic riding program that has been designed especially for children with attention deficit disorder. Some children also receive remedial instruction. This program offers them a break from the pressure they face in their regular environment, in an informal framework where they can demonstrate talents and abilities with a working plan that will help them cope with their difficulties.

The Continuing Education Center offers advice and assistance for parents and teachers to create work plans for struggling children, preparation of educational materials adapted for children with various disabilities who are integrated into mainstream education settings and courses for teachers in the following topics: promotion of children with ADHD, sexual social education for people with special needs, movement as a therapeutic educational tool, creating a curriculum adapted for people with special needs and more.

According to Noa Mandelbaum, school is first and foremost a socialization machine. It is the place where society trains the next generation to function as citizens that obey the social rules. For many children this experience is confusing, depressing and frightening. Many children enter the system when they are curious and enthusiastic and depart when they are bored and cynical.

In order for students to advance in school, for the school values to be internalized and the dream to be preserved, you need a good atmosphere in the classroom. The most important talent of the teacher is to create a good atmosphere. Like all art, no exact recipe exists for how to do this, but there are important elements to take into account. After we build our dream school we can proceed towards setting goals. What is even more special about Sadnat Shiluv is that a unique and individualized path toward self-development is created for each employee, not just the students.

In order to establish a high-quality group looking to study Torah, work the land and promote social ideals, the Sadnat together with the Mekor Chaim Yeshiva has established the Regavim project. The students are ninth graders who choose to integrate agricultural work into their regular schedule. Ulpanat Uriah, a regional ulpana whose educational mission is to accept all girls who want to join, came together for two projects this year: the Lavi project and a dance project. The Lavi project is an ulpana project in which ninth graders go out to volunteer once a week. Some remain in the ulpana and wait for the Sadna girls to arrive and work on art together. For the dance project, girls from the ulpana’s 10th grade dance class welcomed the girls from the Sadna.

Integration is a complex issue, but the concept of a society where everyone has a place is a very important value in Judaism. God created the world with varied and complex populations and our role as teachers and parents is to teach our children the truth and beauty of creation, and integration is the essence of God’s creation.

Bergen County has no communities such as Gevaot on its hillsides. But we are a caring community, a community of chesed, and we have the resources to help those with developmental and learning differences. That’s why I started the Sinai Schools in 1980. I had to raise the operating budget a year in advance, which necessitated many face-to-face solicitations in many homes and offices. When one donor wrote a very generous check, his wife exclaimed “Why so much? We have no children or grandchildren who need these services.” He replied “That’s why.”

The Sinai Annual Dinner is February 26.

By Wallace Greene

 Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene is the founder of The Sinai Schools.

 

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