Religious school students at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha have found that reaching beyond one’s comfort zone often can lead to big rewards.
For the last three years, teacher Anita Kornblit, along with Director of Education Shelly Schapiro, have been taking a dozen students once a month to Poale Zedeck to learn and socialize with a group of teens and adults with special needs.
The program began when the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha students were in the third and fourth grades, and has continued for the last three years, with the same students. The children, who are now in sixth and seventh grades, look forward to their trips to Poale Zedeck, Kornblit said.
“Initially, they weren’t sure what to expect,” she recalled. “But once we started going, the PZ students and our children began to bond together, so we decided to take the same children each year.”
A typical visit includes the two groups of students joining together in song and working on an art project. Schapiro reads a story to the combined group.
There is also time for socializing.
The visits were the idea of Kornblit, who is a member of Poale Zedeck. She had been looking for a mitzva project for her students, and was familiar with Poale Zedeck’s special needs group, which has been run by teacher Harold Goldwasser for the past 40 years.
“I spoke to Harold, and he said that no one had ever asked to visit his group,” Kornblit said.
After gaining approval from Poale Zedeck’s rabbi at the time, Yisroel Miller, the visits from the religious school students began.
“The visits have been very successful,” Kornblit said. “Now, we are at a point where they look forward to our coming, and our children enjoy it also.”
While Kornblit still teaches third and fourth grades at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, she nevertheless travels with the now sixth- and seventh-graders to Poale Zedeck each month. A teacher from the sixth and seventh grades also accompanies the group.
The children have learned to see those with special needs in a different light, said Goldwasser.
“The Tree of Life kids can see for later in life that these are real people, and that they shouldn’t be avoided,” he said. “They aren’t just a chesed (kindness) project. You can have conversations with them.”
The visits to Poale Zedeck have even inspired some of the Tree of Life kids to seek out other opportunities to be involved in the special needs community.
“Many of our children now go to Friendship Circle as a result, and one of the seventh-graders thinks she wants to work with people with special needs as a career,” Kornblit said.
“It has definitely helped sensitize them and give them an understanding of people with special needs,” Schapiro said. “They were hesitant at the beginning, but now they love it. They’ve grown up with it.”
And the students at Poale Zedeck love the visits as well.
“Our students look forward to their coming,” said Goldwasser. “It’s a party atmosphere. It’s a fun morning for them.”
Goldwasser’s group receives funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and is open to anyone in the Jewish community. Most participants in the program are not members of Poale Zedeck.
The special needs group is usually divided into one section for those in their teens and 20s, and one for those in their 40s through 60s. The two sections come together when the children from Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha visit.
The group meets every Sunday throughout the year for morning services, arts and crafts, stories, and a lesson in Torah, said Goldwasser.
“We have general conversations about being good citizens, and talk about mitzvas we are all able to do,” he said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)