Friday, October 12, 2007

Update Machon: Something New in Religious Ed

As some of you know, we have had some great difficulties with the Machon program of religious education at our synagogue. In the past few years, there were several big problems that finally caused us to take N. out of the program for the second semester last year.

But we were not totally comfortable with having him out of the program, either. As members of a minority religion, one important aspect of keeping him in a program is to continue to instill the culture and values of Judaism in a social environment. It is true that we are more committed than many families to the practice of Judaism in the home, but at its best, Judaism is a social religion, meant to be practiced within a community of Jews, and handed-down from generation to generation from a community. Although there is a strong home-based component, Jewish sensibilities are best handed on through the group.

So with a certain hope in my heart, I went to the parent meeting about the program for this year. Now, given the difficulties we have had in the past, and sense of being marginalized due to N.'s disability, that hope was a little guarded. But it was definitely a choice of giving it a try or looking for another synagogue. The latter might be easy in New York, Chicago, L.A. or Houston, but it is not so easy here near Cowtown, U.S.A.

This time, I was not disappointed. I had been told by the rabbi early last summer that special needs would not be addressed for the kids any time soon. It was just too much. But when I arrived at the meeting in September, I was introduced to the new "special needs coordinator," who happened to be a person who worked extensively with N. through the Hebrew School years, and really knows what she is doing.

Secondly, the congregation has brought in a consultant for the Religious Education program. He is Joel Lurie Grishaver of Torah Aura Publications, a respected expert in Jewish Education, and IMHO, someone who understands teens better than they understand themselves. With his help, the Education committee and teachers have done much more work on the Teen Program--Machon--than they had originally thought they would do.

Here is how the program is being organized this year. Machon covers grades 7 - 10. With the exception of grade 10, the confirmation program, all of the classes have been split up so that there are 12 - 15 students in a group. Each class will rotate through four 8-week units of study, each with a different teacher. They will alternate two units in the fall and two in the spring, so that teachers only teach their units twice and then are done for the year. That prevents teacher burn-out. This year, N., who is enrolled in 8th grade, is currently studying ethics with Morah D. through a program called Ma La'Asot: What Should I Do? During the second eight weeks of this semester, his group will trade with the other half of the eight grade, and study Comparitive Judaism with Morah H. In the spring, the two groups with alternate studying the Shoah (Holocaust) and Medinat Yisrael ( the modern Israeli state) with two new teachers.

For N. there are several benefits to this schedule. The first is that the groups are small, and the teachers will have a better chance to interact with each child. Also, there is a defined unit of study for each session with materials provided. This provides a definitative structure so that N. knows exactly what will happen each week and can be prepared for it. The materials are age appropriate and provide differentiation for different learners. The teachers will not be relying on lecture only, and do not have to re-invent the wheel each week. Also, if there is a poor fit between teacher and student, Morah C., the special needs coordinator is there to help.

Of course, there are also some problem areas with this schedule. One is that neither of the two boys that N. is closest to are in his group. I have heard some minor grousing about that! It is nice to know that he has some friends that he'd like to be with in Machon--that's the positive side. We are now hoping that he will make friends with one or two other kids who are in his present group. And we carpool with the first two boys every week, so he sees them even if he is not in class with them. The second problem will be with transitions between one teacher and subject and the next. N. gets enormously attached to situations--even bad ones. For him, "the devil you know" is the best of two evils. Still, we will work with the teachers and Morah C. to smooth out the difficulty that changes like this represent.

So far, after two classes--the Holy Days plays havoc with the Machon Schedule, too!--it's looking good. I sent the Interim Education Coordinator a detailed discussion of Aspergers and N.'s particular needs and strengths. She shared that with Morah D., his first teacher. I received a phone call from the teacher, in which she asked me to tell her what my goals for N. were for the year and how best to accommodate his difficulties. N. has come home energetic (last year it was melt-downs and tears) and he was able to discuss with me the particular issue and ethical consideration that they had learned and discussed in class. So he is learning! Last year, he could not articulate what was lectured about at all.

I am still nervous about how the transitions will go. I also have concerns about how the other teachers will handle N.'s almost absolute refusal to write at Machon. Last year the students were required to take detailed, handwritten notes and were then tested on them the next week. The lectures were fast paced, and N. could not keep up with taking notes. Since he also has difficulty with auditory processing he got nothing from the notes and could not pick up on the powerpoint since he was too busy trying to take notes. Needless to say, he did poorly on every test. This was one reason for the melt-downs and tears. He was put in a no-win situation, andd he has responded by an outright refusal to write down anything for Machon. He writes NOTHING. Not even his name. Morah D., his current teacher understands this and does not ask him to write. I hope all of the rest of his teachers will be as cooperative. Perhaps, as he sees that he will not be forced to write or placed in a no-win situation, he will come around. At least a little. We'll see.

However, all-in-all, I feel like progress has been made. After being told we would not be listened to at all, the parents of the special needs kids got a surprise. We do have a special needs coordinator. There is an accessible curriculum. And after years of sending in modifications sheets and detailed explanations of our children's needs, they are actually being read and followed. We are being consulted. This is progress. Great progress.

Maybe the rabbi finally "got it" that this is a matter of ethics and morality. One does not put a stumbling block in front of the blind. Rather, according to Jewish law, one must smooth the way and provide help to all kids in accessing their Judaism. In the Hagaddah of Passover we are taught how to teach four kinds of kids: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.

Maybe the rabbi finally sat down and read Ma La'Asot:What Should I Do?


Frankie said...

Wow, what an improvement! I'm excited that things are moving in the right direction and I am hopeful that the transitions will work out well for N.

Very encouraging.

Amie said...

I hope things go well this year. It seems like a very academic environment, I know my oldest would struggle in a situation like that.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


Friday night after services I had the chance to mention to N.'s teacher that he was already starting to obsess about the transitions. At first she did not get what I was implying and said, "Well, there's not a whole lot I can do about it."
"Yes, there is," I replied. "You can start preparing him for the transition now. Talk to the kids about it in general, drop little comments about it. He knows Morah C. and likes her very much, he is just obsessing over the change because it's change."
The teacher brightened considerably when she understood that I was not asking her to fix the fact that there is a transition, rather I wanted her to help N. work through it.


It is a very academic program and in the past, that is what did us in. The teacher N. has now gets it that teaching kids that their religious instruction can be fun is more than half the battle. Currently, we Jews are not very good at looking at this as a spiritual path, as faith, or as something joyful. As my teacher, Rabbi Paul C. says: "Hitler had many more victims than the 6 million he murdered. The faith of the Jewish people has been severely shaken."