First yeshiva day school for students with language-based learning differences to open this fall in Paramus.
(Courtesy of Yeshivat Shalshelet) Yeshivat Shalshelet is set to open its doors at 80 West Century Road in Paramus this September, adding a much-needed option to the local yeshiva day school landscape. Shalshelet is the first yeshiva day school for children with language-based learning differences, where learning differently is celebrated and personal strengths are cultivated, so students can reach their full potential.
Every child has innate talents that deserve to be nurtured, but not every child can thrive in a typical classroom. “For children with language-based learning differences, the way their brains learn and process information is different, so the way they need to be taught is highly specialized,” explained Shulamit Roth, Shalshelet’s head of school.
While there are several schools in the greater area that are geared entirely toward fostering the gifts of children with language-based learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, never before has there been a yeshiva day school expressly for these children. Parents of children with these learning challenges have been faced with the difficult decision to choose between a yeshiva day school education and the right educational fit for their child. Until now.
“The incredible thing is that there are research- and evidence-based models that have proven effective in helping these kids reach their full potential. Using language-supportive strategies across a dual curriculum in a yeshiva day school setting provides these students the opportunity to celebrate their gifts while strengthening their vulnerabilities,” Roth added.
Rabbi Yaacov Neuburger, rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield and Shalshelet’s posek, seconds this need. “Our present yeshiva day schools do a remarkable job in making special education accommodations to help our students. Nevertheless, we’ve identified learning patterns in certain children, and we can serve them so much better with a program that caters to them, which is especially important in our heavily text-based culture.”
Batya Paul, executive vice president of Shalshelet’s board of directors, knows this need intimately. Her daughter, Sophia, was diagnosed in second grade with a language-based learning disability. Their yeshiva day school did so much to support her, adding small-group and one-on-one instruction outside of the classroom, however, by fourth grade Sophia felt isolated from her classmates and still felt poorly about herself as a learner.
The Pauls made the difficult decision to send Sophia to a new school specifically geared toward children with her learning profile. In her specialized learning environment, “her academic work grew by leaps and bounds. Her attitude shifted in a short amount of time. She went from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can,’” Paul recalled.
Sophia thrived in her new school and successfully transitioned to a mainstream yeshiva high school where she is a straight-A student, but it was not always easy. For example, having to travel a great distance to school at a young age means you get home too late to join your friends for extracurricular activities. “The message received is that there isn’t a place for you here, which is hard for both the child and their parents,” Paul explained. “The idea of having a specialized school in our backyard means that not only will these kids have an understanding of Chumash and Nach and Mishnah and pre-Gemara through Shalshelet’s dual special education curriculum, but they can feel a part of their local community. They will know that just because you’re different in the way you need to be educated, you’re the same as everyone else when you’re davening, at your bar or bat mitzvah, or during holidays. And that’s what we want them to feel—proud of being Jewish and accepting of what Hashem has given them. They will know they have the tools within them to be successful, even though their road might look a little different.”
Dr. Yocheved Bensinger Brody, secretary of Shalshelet’s board of directors, echoes these sentiments. According to the International Dyslexia Association, approximately 20% of the population struggles with some form of dyslexia. “There are many children within the larger religious community who are desperately underserved. I’m just so excited for all of the children who are going to be able to get the support they need and recognize everything that’s within them. It’s life altering. And when a child’s life changes, a whole family’s life changes.”
News about Shalshelet’s opening has rippled. “The feedback we’ve gotten since we announced has been unbelievable,” said Dov Adler, president of the Shalshelet board of directors. “People stop me in the street to tell me how much Shalshelet is needed.
“We have a culture of identifying and helping needs,” he continued. “If someone is hungry, we have organizations within the community to feed them. If someone loses their job, the community helps them. It should be no different for us to rally around children who think and learn differently, and give them the tools to thrive while staying close to home. It’s a communal responsibility to create this space so everyone can have their needs met.”
Miriam and Dan Michael are community members whose children have already graduated from the yeshiva school system. Their children don’t have language-based learning disabilities, yet they supported Shalshelet from the start. “We see this as vital as having a shul and a mikvah and a butcher in the community. We have to educate and support all of our kids to be successful, and that’s why we’re involved. We love that Shalshelet is working with the other day schools. It’s not a competition, it’s an enhancement to our educational landscape. We encourage anyone who has the ability to step forward to help the school in any way, whether or not they have a connection to someone with language-based learning differences themselves.”
As a Shalshelet board member and rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, Rabbi Andrew Markowitz agrees that the school is vital. “Reading and language is your gateway into the Jewish community. Without those building blocks and foundation it is so difficult to navigate—for a young boy to lein for his bar mitzvah, for a young girl to daven and connect and to really be involved. I’ve seen a great need to establish a school in Bergen County that addresses these learning differences. Because these kids will become leaders of the Jewish people. They will be involved in the future. We see this mission as a communal responsibility to ensure that we have a place for students with these challenges.”
As Shalshelet’s opening approaches, its team is growing. “In addition to the educational model, you need to have people who have the warmth and the passion to be all in, and I know Shulamit is that,” Dr. Brody remarked “From the administration to the faculty to the support staff, these qualities are a priority in each member of the team.”
Shalshelet’s leadership is thrilled to have their director of speech and language, Alisa Salamon; their curriculum coordinator, Miriam Schulman; and their school psychologist, Dr. Bracha Katz, on board. Each individual involved with Shalshelet is invested in educating the students’ minds and souls, which reflects the core values of the school.
Rabbi Markowitz added, “It’s so clear that Shulamit and our growing team have so much wisdom and vision for helping children with these challenges—Shalshelet is going to change so many lives forever.”