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by Vanessa Friedman

Related: bar mitzvah for kids with special needs, bat mitzvah for kids with special needs, jewish education for kids, jewish education for children with special needs,

The late Susanna E. Heiman of Temple B’nai Torah Religious School believed that every Jewish child was entitled to a Jewish education. With that mission in mind, she began Special Ungraded (SU) about 30 years ago. It is a unique program at the synagogue for children with special needs, and Rabbi Deanna Pasternak, current director of religious education at the Susanna E. Heiman Religious School, who has been at the school for 18 years, says that it remains in demand today.

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The program accepts 10 children at one time, beginning in second grade. The class meets on 20 Sunday mornings throughout the year, and is taught by two special education teachers and one student aide, resulting in a 1:3 staff to student ratio. The class does not have any requirements for what the students’ special needs are, and there is often a range, from students with Tourette’s, ADD, or Asperger’s to children who “literally do not have the ability to speak, but are able to express themselves in other ways,” Rabbi Pasternak says. The class is conducted in one contained classroom, and students are taught to feel at home in the synagogue. “I want them to have a connection to Jewish life in a synagogue,” Rabbi Pasternak says. “This is their synagogue as much as anyone else’s.”

The SU class works together until the children are in seventh grade. All children in the program are able to have a single-child Saturday morning bar or bat mitzvah service, and the SU team works to make sure the ceremony is geared to the specific child. Rabbi Pasternak says children in the program have used many different methods to make ceremonies comfortable and happy occasions: One child had a sibling speak for him, and another performed the entire ceremony in sign language—an interpreter spoke the words to the congregation as the child signed. “When we have a bar or bat mitzvah with any of these children, there’s not a dry eye in the house,” Rabbi Pasternak says. “It’s something that their parents could previously only dream about.”

Families do not have to belong to Temple B’nai Torah to enroll a child in the Special Ungraded class; all children are welcome, whether the family belongs to another temple or is completely unaffiliated. No child will be turned away from the program.

Temple B’nai Torah is located at 2900 Jerusalem Ave., Wantagh. For more information about Special Ungraded, call 516-221-2374 x24.

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