May 30, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Surfing the Summer Before Shefa School

For several years I have observed my happy child live care free over the summer, enjoying the long evenings free of homework. Then his world comes crashing down when the school day begins and he arrives at home after a long day, feeling depleted and beaten. He goes to school every day smiling, willing to try again. He’s a fighter, but every day shouldn’t be a battle.

This year summer ended differently. We were on an extended family trip, swimming in ocean waves famous for surfing. My sons and I were falling down from the crashing waves so I rented two boogie boards. Ilan quickly took the second one and followed me in. With my Southern California upbringing, I took out the boogie board and without thought to a need to teach got on and rode a few waves. Ilan was knocked down, frightened, angry, and discouraged. Despite cajoling and encouragement, he retreated to sand while I contemplated how to teach skills I didn’t really feel I possessed, although I stayed afloat on top of the board. Eventually, completely exhausted, I came out to rest. Ilan came up to me and said, “Take me again I want to try.” I praised his determination, and explained that I would try to teach him again (exhaustion aside), but if I couldn’t and he got knocked down again, it didn’t mean he wasn’t capable of learning to ride a boogie board. We would try together, but if he falls, then next time, he needs to go out with his cousins or uncle from California. We tried, he fell, and we discovered together that I don’t possess the skills to teach him. I made it very clear that it’s not his inability to learn. Only so many times can one get slammed into the sand before they feel ready to give up on the ocean and prefer the shallow waters of a calm swimming pool.

Days of summer have come to an end and Ilan will have to wait another year before he gets back on a surf board. But for the first time he is starting a school called Shefa with an optimistic smile. He hates reading. It brings out a dormant evil monster, which looms large at even the mention of books. But he enters this school year with hope that Shefa can teach him the things with which he struggles. He is neither returning to familiar territory with friends, nor entering familiar walls and passing former teachers who liked him, but he is happy because he will be at a place that can teach him how to read pages of books, surf the Internet, and effectively ride the waves without feeling beaten. Ilan is so ripe with anticipation. He is old enough and mature enough to understand that he is different and he needs something different to do what most find easy. He is ready to face the crashing waves. What he wants most is mastery and success at what he has been struggling with for so long. Ilan is bright, but he has dyslexia and reading is beyond challenging. Ilan is proud. When he was accepted to Shefa, he told his peers, “I’m going to Shefa. It’s for kids with dyslexia,” the same way one would say, “I’m going to Juilliard; I play the piano.” No stigma, no shame.

Seven Bergen County students left their local yeshivot and commute together to Lincoln Square Synagogue, which houses the first Jewish school for language-based learning disabilities. Among the students, parents, teachers, and administrators there is warmth, a commitment to growth, and an unquestionable determination for success. The people who work there are amazing. I can’t say I know all the details on how the school intends to accomplish its mission, but I encourage those interested to learn more directly from them. Comprising an extremely impressive group of people, it includes, most notably, Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, who is Founder and Head of School; Yoni Schwab, Ph.D and Assistant Head of School; and Rebecca Rohr-Ritter, Director of Academic Programs.

It began in a conversation I had a year ago with Rebecca when I was inquiring about placing Ilan at Shefa…She understood right away. She spoke in general about students like my son and I hung up the phone and thought, she understands and will know what to do; that’s where Ilan needs to be. I had to make sure doors opened for Ilan and he could enter this one. We enrolled before there was a building, teachers, or classmates–so much growth since then.

Last weekend a few Bergen County Shefa boys went apple picking. Their class is called the Bikkurim class, or first fruits. We picked the apples together and I reminded Ilan that if you slice the apple a little differently and leave the core, a star emerges. That’s my hope for Shefa, teaching differently and bringing out the star in my child.

By Gila Cohen, LCSW

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