When Ellen Ashinoff, a social worker and parent of a special-needs son, moved from Atlanta to Monmouth County more than a year ago, she missed the support network provided by her former Jewish community.
Brett, six, was part of a program in which parents, students, and teachers in their synagogue’s religious school all provided support, and he was assigned a “shadow” when he attended JCC summer camps, synagogue summer programs, or even a Purim carnival.
His mother, who lives in Little Silver, decided to recreate the program in Monmouth.
Last year Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County provided funding to begin the Children’s Etgar (Challenge) Project of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Monmouth County. The goal is to coordinate special-needs services across the range of local synagogues and Jewish institutions.
“It would be amazing” to receate the approach used in Atlanta in Monmouth County, said Ashinoff. “To have children participate and feel a part of the Jewish experience is so important.”
On Sunday, April 18, Etgar will present its first program, Inclusion of Special Needs Children: Is it Really that Difficult? at the Ruth Hyman JCC in Deal. The panel discussion is being cosponsored by the Hand in Hand program for special-needs youngsters of the Chabad of the Shore in Elberon.
Ashinoff, a program consultant, said the panel grew out of a needs assessment of synagogues, religious schools, and other institutions.
“As we looked to start Etgar…we decided the best approach was to provide training and information to the community,” she said. “This is really a kick-off, something to build on.”
Ashinoff said the program is open to anyone from parents to professionals to those who work with children.
Rabbi Laibel Schapiro said the five-year-old Hand in Hand program sends high school volunteers to the homes of special-needs children and organizes activities and holiday events. Schapiro said he looked forward to working with Etgar on joint programming.
“We have many programs,” including organizing b’nei mitzva ceremonies for the youngsters, he said. “Every individual has a soul, and not every soul can express itself in the same manner, but these souls of special-needs children are possibly deeper and more beautiful than the average child.”
The panelists will include Rabbi Daniel Grossman of Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, whose synagogue has won numerous awards for its inclusion and accessibility.
The goal, he said, is to implement all kinds of programs and create an environment that makes “disabled people feel active and a part of the congregation.”