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Teaching Halachic Practice to the Child with Learning Differences

By: Shira Greenland Wiesenberg
Former Director, SINAI’s Karasick Shalem High School and the Nathan Miller SHELI Residence for Men

With her flowing blond hair, saddle boots, and tattoo, Brooke – a consulting Occupational Therapist – was probably not expecting the challenge I posed to her the day she arrived at our school. “Avi needs your help learning to put on his tefillin,” I said, handing her a mess of boxes and straps that Brooke might have wished came with arrows indicating “This Side Up.” Addressing her unspoken concerns, I continued. “The teacher will show you how they are supposed to go. What we need from you is to figure out why Avi cannot seem to make them work.” 

For Brooke, this was likely a first. For Avi, it was just another day in the life of a teenager with Developmental Disabilities.

Allow me to share an analogy to shed light on Avi’s experience as an Orthodox Jew with special needs. As someone who is left-handed, I find our righty-centric world fascinating. Did you ever notice that can openers are made for righties? Measuring cups? (Trust me – if you hold a measuring cup in your left hand, the lines and measurements will be on the wrong side. The same will be true of the picture on your coffee mug.) Car pedals? You get the idea. And if you happen to be any taller or shorter than the average person, you might also be able to relate. Simply put, the world is made for average people.

So what if you are not just left-handed, or short, or tall? What if your entire body works differently from other people’s? What if your mind and body are different?

For decades, the world of special education has been developing materials, curricula, and resources to address these challenges and help individuals with Developmental Disabilities learn to function in our complex and somewhat square-pegged world. We have programs to teach people everything from math and science to the activities of daily living, health and hygiene, and community skills.

But… a program for putting on tefillin? Lighting the menorah? Making brachot? That is another story altogether.

The challenges of integrating children and adults with special needs within the Jewish community exist on two distinct planes. First, we face the hard-wiring: issues with memory, cognition, body regulation, focusing, socialization, behavior management, or language processing. Then, on top of that, we must chart our own course in figuring out how to apply the best educational and therapeutic practices to the realm of Jewish education, halacha, and ritual life.  

Consider for a moment:

  • A girl who has a phobia of water but wishes she could wash netilat yadaim like everyone else
  • A teenager who cannot read but wants to be able to daven
  • A boy with severe sensory issues whose kippah and tzitzit drive him crazy
  • The child who is addicted to technological devices that he cannot use on Shabbat

More common scenarios involve students with poor impulse control, weak memory, and cognitive impairments. Individuals with Autism often are additionally challenged when it comes to “generalizing” information, or applying what they know from one situation to another. For example, a child might be a master at clearing his plate after dinner every night but has to be taught separately to clear his cereal bowl after breakfast. Within the realm of halacha, this child may require explicit instruction to understand that the general rule of making brachot before eating applies equally whether the food is being eaten at home, at school, on a shabbaton, at recess, or on the bus.

Then there is the concrete learner for whom rules are rigid, literal, and absolute. These children will have no problem understanding and accepting rules like “be honest,” and “do not speak lashon hara.” But what happens when being honest means hurting someone’s feelings? Or when a child fails to report abuse, G-d forbid, because he thinks it is lashon hara?

So how do we do it? How do we teach a child with poor memory the right bracha to make on every different food? How do we help the students with weaker cognition understand the nuanced complexity of when one should–and should not–tell the truth or speak lashon hara? How do we overcome the obstacles to educate, motivate, and get through to our children who are not average, and who don’t learn the same way as the average child?

Here is the formula:

  1. Start with good, solid special ed. Utilize research-tested strategies like multi-sensory teaching, formative assessment, and differentiated instruction. The world has come a long way from thinking that education means frontal lecturing and rote repetition. There are some real pedagogical gems out there, and the right approach truly can make all the difference.
  2. Teach to mastery. It is not enough to “teach” material. Teaching is only finished when each student learns and masters that material. To truly achieve mastery and independence, students with special needs often need to learn one lesson many different ways. This might mean that one concept will be taught and reinforced through a number of different modalities including everything from PowerPoint presentations, SmartBoard activities, and instructional videos to social stories, games, and role plays.
  3. Integrate your professionals. Get a team of knowledgeable, experienced therapists together all working toward the same goals. It is incredible what can be accomplished with a talented speech therapist, OT, PT, behaviorist, psychologist, educational technology expert, and special educator all in the same corner. 
  4. Make it real! We know that the best way to teach people how to shop, cook, use the bank, or do laundry is by providing hands-on instruction and making everything as real as possible. We do not teach students to count money using worksheets with pictures of coins on them, or even using plastic money. We use real coins. Real peelers, knives, and sponges. Real ATMs and washing machines. There is no reason why our approach should be any different when teaching our students to shake a lulav, get an aliyah, or find a kosher symbol on a box of cereal.

I do not know where Brooke is today. But I can tell you about Avi. Avi puts on his tefillin every morning. He draws parsha cartoons to help fellow students learn about the parsha. He reads books about middot tovot in his free time.

This June, Avi graduated SINAI Karasick Shalem High School, a school for teenagers with developmental disabilities. As he marched down the aisle in cap and gown, we took great pride in knowing that we have helped prepare Avi not only to enter the broad adult world, but to take his place within the Jewish community as well.

Shira (Greenland) Wiesenberg is the former Director of SINAI’s Karasick Shalem High School and the Nathan Miller SHELI Residence for Men, both serving Jewish individuals with developmental disabilities.  She continues to consult for SINAI Schools, and is the author of Chayei Olam: A Compendium of Practical Topics in Halacha for individuals with developmental disabilities, written for SINAI Schools. 

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Building Blocks: A Special Needs Magazine.