When Mrs. Yael Zelinger came to speak to Bais Yaakov’s eighth-grade girls, last January, she surprised them with her “bag of tricks.” Although the girls’ teacher, Mrs. Rochelle Goldberg, has been teaching an annual unit on disabilities for 15 years, this is the first time she enlisted Mrs. Zelinger, an associate for Disability and Inclusion Services at the Macks Center for Jewish Education to give one of her tailor-made “B’More Inclusive” disability awareness “experiences” to the girls.
To kick off the month-long unit, the 70 students in the three parallel English classes read “Flowers for Algernon,” a short story about a mentally-challenged man, and The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller. At the same time, they were paired up to research a disability or disease of their choice from an approved list. The girls spent about two-and-a-half weeks on research, including the biology of the disability and possible future cures. They then put it all together in a PowerPoint presentation, which they shared with their classmates.
Prior to Mrs. Zelinger’s visit, Mrs. Goldberg asked the students to fill out the B’More Inclusive survey. They had to answer “agree,’ “disagree,” or “undecided” to such questions as 1) If I had a sibling with Down syndrome, I would not tell anyone; 2) I would invite a person with a disability to a party/to my house; and 3) I think people with disabilities should have their own schools. They filled out the survey again after Mrs. Zelinger presented her workshop.
“No Artist Like Hashem”
“I started off by saying, ‘My name is Mrs. Zelinger; I am good at teaching sign language, but I’m not so good at shooting hoops,’” said Mrs. Zelinger. “Next, I asked the girls to volunteer something that they are good at and something that they are not so good at, and wrote their answers on either side of the board. Between the lists, I wrote the pasuk, ‘Ein Tzur k’Elokeinu – There is no Rock like our Hashem.’ In my conversation with Rabbi Mordechai Shuchatowitz, Rav of Agudath Israel Greenspring, he stated that it can be read, ‘Ein Tzayar k’Elokeinu – There is no Artist like our Hashem.’ He explained it to mean that, not only do we all look different but we all have different strengths, weaknesses, opinions, and perspectives. And just as we appreciate the fact that we have different hair, eyes, shapes, and coloring, so, too, should we appreciate the fact that we don’t all see things exactly the same way or have the same talents or weaknesses.”
In order to highlight the beauty of our diversity, Mrs. Zelinger pointed out how the U.S. government mints millions of identical quarters, yet Hashem creates millions of people, and no two look or think alike. That is part of our beauty – that we are all different and we complement each other!
For the rest of the period the girls participated in activities that made them more aware that each person has something to contribute to the class, to society, and to the world, despite having a visible or invisible disability. They were given opportunities to think about their circle of friends – whom they let into their inner circle and why. They briefly explored how and why they, as middle schoolers who are campers, counselors, and babysitters, have the power to include kids with disabilities and to affect the attitudes of typical kids, as well.
Toward the end of the period, Mrs. Zelinger gave each girl a pretty square of paper and said, “Hashem gave us an imagination. What if you woke up and found out you had a disability? How do you think your family and friends would react?” They wrote their thoughts on one side of the paper without sharing them. On the other side, they answered the question, what would you do differently because of this workshop?
“I got beautiful thank you notes from Mrs. Goldberg’s classes,” said Mrs. Zelinger. “They said the workshop had a real effect on them, because they had never thought of disabilities in terms of interacting with people who have that disability – of possibly having a relationship with them! My goal is to bring these B’More Inclusive experiences to the schools, because I don’t think that the typical lessons taught on Ve’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha – Love your neighbor as yourself – necessarily encompass this idea: showing that someone with a disability can be a friend and that the way you can interact with that person is really just the way you would want someone to act with you. My message is always empowering, never pathetic or patronizing.
“Before I left, I asked, ‘What do you do if you see someone in the park or in a mall who has a disability?’ The answer I wanted to hear was something like, ‘smile,’ just as you would want someone to smile if they passed you in the mall. Because underneath, a person with a disability is a person first. I am hoping to bring this message to all Baltimore’s schools – staff and students alike.”
The workshop Mrs. Zelinger did in Bais Yaakov is part of a pilot program in her research study, conducted with Towson University, on the effects of intentional disabilities awareness instruction on the attitudes and behaviors of Jewish middle school students.
“We plan to administer a pre-survey to all the sixth-grade students this spring,” notes Mrs. Zelinger. “We will then provide three free B’More Inclusive experiences to some of the seventh grade classes in 2016-2017, and then administer a post-survey in spring, 2017.” Middle school classes that want to join the research project should contact Mrs. Zelinger, at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
A Teacher Reflects
A couple of months after the presentations, I met with Mrs. Goldberg and several of the girls. Mrs. Goldberg said that one of the purposes of the unit is to teach the girls how to do research, and explained why she chose disabilities/diseases as the topic. “I feel that children this age are very sensitive. They are just turning from it’s-all-about-me thinking to an awareness of what other people are feeling. This is the age when they stop thinking, ‘I don’t like my hair, I’m too short, I wish I had freckles, I wish I didn’t have freckles, I wish I had curly hair, I wish I didn’t have curly hair.’ The teenage angst is slowly being replaced with an appreciation for what they do have and noticing other people’s situations.
“A disability just means that you can’t do something as easily as someone else can do it,” said Mrs. Goldberg. “We all have disabilities – every single human being. If you are shy, that can be a disability; if you are loud, that can be a disability. Anything that makes you stand out or different is a disability, because everyone wants to fit in, blend in, be the same.”
I turned next to the students and asked what they had learned from this unit. From their replies, it was obvious that they got the point, and gained tremendously from the combination of their research and Mrs. Zelinger’s visit. Some 20 to 25 disabilities or diseases were studied, including Crohn’s, dyslexia, ADHD, diabetes, Tourette’s syndrome, and hemophilia. These are just some of the thoughts the girls shared with me:
Shoshana Meisler researched Crohn’s disease, since it is so common among Jews, and she and her partner know so many people who suffer from it. “Before I studied Crohn’s, I felt uncomfortable and wasn’t really sure how to act around my friend. Now, I see there is nothing really different about those who have it, except that they have to eat differently. I wouldn’t eat junk food or gluten products in front of her anymore. Just as Mrs. Zelinger said, everyone has weaknesses. With some people you can see the disability; in other people, you can’t.”
Sara Kruger and her partner Shalva Rishe researched dyslexia. “I learned a lot,” said Sara. “I used to be scared of someone who has a disability, and now I am totally not. I understand that Hashem put people in the world to be different; if everyone were the same, life would be very boring. You should be friends with all kinds of people – people who are really smart, people who are different, people who come from different backgrounds, people who have challenges in life. I feel you should just be nice to everyone and not think that you should only be friends with certain people.”
Aviva Graber and Devorah Leah Neuberger researched Down syndrome. “It gave me a new perspective on people who have disabilities and how they view themselves,” says Aviva, “not just how we view them. When you have knowledge, it helps you to understand and accept people for who they are.”
“It gave me more understanding of a relative who has Down syndrome,” added Devorah Leah. “I learned that she really wants to do things but isn’t able to. Knowing that gives me more patience. Before we did our research, when I saw people with different types of disabilities, I didn’t necessarily say hi or smile. Now I realize that they are not doing anything wrong and that there isn’t anything wrong with them. This is just how Hashem made them.”
Rina Lipsky researched deafness with her partners Tirtzah Sondhelm and Shira Rochel Bloom. “I always felt distant from people who have disabilities, but now I feel connected, even if I am not with them or talking to them,” said Rina, “because I know more about their disability and I know where they are coming from.
“We learned that people who are deaf are proud of who they are, proud they are deaf,” said Tirtzah. “It was really cool to see how, even though they are impaired, they are still happy with who they are and are so confident.”
Chana Frieda Berger researched ADHD with Sara Trout. “Mrs. Zelinger gave me and my classmates a new perspective about disabilities,” remarked Chana Freida. Sara, who has relatives with ADHD, added, “I’m learning better ways to deal with them. I try to think that they are like a gift from Hashem. I think it is very important to learn about disabilities at our age. It is before going out into the real world, yet we are old enough to take it seriously. Whatever you do in life, you will always meet people who are different and have disabilities. You will know how to deal with them and help them.”
Tova Bracha Bazelon and Devorah Schapiro, who also researched ADHD, said that now, when they see kids in school who are impulsive or restless, they have more patience, understanding that maybe they don’t really want to be that way but can’t help it.”
Rochel Shira Bloom, a new Bais Yaakov student who recently moved from Israel, also researched deafness. “We didn’t just learn about the disease or disability. Mrs. Zelinger gave us a feeling of what it would be like to have a limitation that is beyond your control.”
Shulamis Seidel researched Alzheimer’s disease with her partner Aliza Abraham. “I had a cousin who had this disease. He used to always talk funny and say random things. I was so scared. I never wanted to go there. But when we were looking into the disease, we learned that Alzheimer’s patients are not scary; they just can’t help what they are doing. They don’t want to do any harm. And, it’s interesting that the caretakers of Alzheimer’s patients have to be up 24/7. They are always watching the person, because they don’t know where they are going. It’s also hard on the person’s family, because, for example, your mother can forget who you are.”
Shayna Krupp, who researched diabetes, said, “If someone has a disability or disease, it might change the person physically and sometimes mentally, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are still people. You shouldn’t treat them differently. If someone has blond hair, you shouldn’t treat her differently from someone who has brown hair, or if someone has smaller eyes or bigger eyes, it shouldn’t matter in how you treat them. It’s not their fault; that’s how they were created. I think that if we could have learned about this last year, in seventh grade, it could have been even more helpful. We would have had a full year’s worth of knowledge of what a disability is.”
Leah Jakobovits, who researched diabetes with Shayna, shared, “We all have differences; we are all different. They’re just like us. They have feelings. Everyone has their challenges and disabilities.”
Tamari Tendler and Leah Flamm studied Parkinson’s disease. According to Tamari, “Everyone who has a disability wants to be the same as everybody. They have feelings and also personalities and can be cute. Some of them may have something that affects their brain, but deep inside they are totally normal, so you really need to treat them the same.”
Daniella Bondi, who researched OCD, noted that she had not realized it was such a major, detailed disability. “Having researched it, I saw that it is a real disability. It was very useful to see how we can treat those who have it better.”
Living the Lesson
One student, Ahuva Lopin, got especially deep insight from studying this unit. Each Shabbos for the past two years, she and her neighbor would visit and play games with Rochel Zayon, a”h, in the group home where she lived. The conclusion of Mrs. Goldberg’s unit coincided closely with the petira (death) of their friend Rochel.
“I thought I was just doing something nice,” said Ahuva. But, according to Mrs. Goldberg, after Mrs. Zelinger did her workshop, Ahuva realized how very important her visits to Rochel were. “She understood that those with disabilities want people to be their friends and don’t want to be treated like a rachmanus case. She came over to me after Rochel was nifteres and told me that she felt so good that she had made those visits.”
From Workshop to Book
The B’More Inclusive workshops, in which children engage in activities that spark reflection and discussion related to disabilities, have been an inspiration for renowned children’s author Bracha Goetz to write a book.
“My book is based on Yael Zelinger’s workshops,” said Mrs. Goetz. “I also included helpful tips for more effectively interacting with children with special needs. The book emphasizes recognizing that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and training children to focus on each person’s strengths enhances relationships. From my work coordinating a Jewish Big Brother Big Sister program at JCS, I became much more aware of the loneliness of children with a certain level of special needs, and how important it is for them to feel more understood, appreciated, and included with other children who do not have the same disabilities.” Mrs. Goetz’s book, Let’s Appreciate Everyone (Judaica Press), is due out soon.
ã Margie Pensak-2016