Exclusive NYC School Opens Doors to Jewish Special-ed Kids

While parents of learning disabled youngsters welcome the new Shefa School, some claim that regular, inclusive Jewish day schools should help such kids.

Gila Cohen

NEW YORK – It was on a family vacation last summer that Ilan’s reading problems became incontrovertibly clear to Gila Cohen. They had just sat down at an Italian restaurant when her son, 10, asked: “What can I eat?” “I said ‘look at the menu,’” Cohen recalled. “And he couldn’t.”

Cohen knew that Ilan, now in fourth grade, was dyslexic. But she didn’t realize that the assistance his school – the modern Orthodox yeshiva Yavneh Academy in Paramus, N.J. – was giving him was inadequate.

“He’s managed to get through and they continue to say they can accommodate him,” Cohen said, but added, “it’s not clicking for him and he’s still stuck at a second-grade reading level.”

Next fall, Ilan will be enrolled in The Shefa School, a new Jewish day school created specifically for students with language-based learning disabilities. Shefa (which means “abundance” in Hebrew) will open its doors in September, in space rented from Lincoln Square Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

At the moment the school is just empty white rooms, with small, colorful plastic chairs stacked under a drop cloth on the synagogue’s second floor. But Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, the founder and head of Shefa, is excited as she shows a visitor the large balcony that looks over traffic rushing up Amsterdam Avenue and will soon host playground equipment and the congregation’s sukkah.

The school will open with two mixed-age classes of 10 to 12 students each who are in the second to fifth grades. Each class will have two special educators teaching as well as help from a speech-language pathologist and occupational therapist. The plan, Ruskay-Kidd says, is to grow into a school spanning kindergarten through eighth grade.

Tuition for next year is $48,500, which “is a big number, but on the low end for special ed schools,” Ruskay-Kidd explains. She is quick to add that the school is working to raise money so it can provide financial aid.

Despite the steep cost, about 50 families have requested applications, she says, and Shefa has offered spots so far to about a dozen pupils. Many of their families are suing the New York Department of Education in an effort to get reimbursed for the cost of tuition.

Leah Weingarten is eight and currently a second-grader at Torah Academy for Girls in Far Rockaway, Queens. Though she is “a social butterfly,” according to her mother Chedva, she is being moved to Shefa because her dyslexia is severely impacting her ability to learn, and in turn is affecting Leah’s self-esteem. Torah Academy is “a mainstream school and she is not able to keep up with her peers no matter how much help they give her, and they give her plenty,” notes Weingarten.

Though the family is Haredi and lives 90 minutes away from Shefa, Weingarten was feeling so desperate to get Leah the education she needs that she applied to a private secular, special-ed school, where her daughter was accepted. “To put her in a non-Jewish school weighed very hard on our hearts,” the mother says. Finding Shefa “was a light at the end of a dark tunnel, a glimmer of hope.”

Though a pluralistic Jewish day school, as Shefa bills itself, is not something she would ordinarily consider for any of her four children, “We are commanded to teach our children ... how to learn.”

Maya Meyiri, a 7-year-old second-grader at Public School 24, near her home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, also has dyslexia. “Maya cannot read, so she has trouble writing. She thrives in everything else. She’s great in most things, has a high IQ, and is able to do a lot but when it comes to reading and writing – she’s stuck,” said her mother, Robin Meyiri.

Maya’s school, which has “zero supports” for her, assigned her to a class with children with low IQs who are emotionally disturbed; her mother had her moved to a class of children with normal IQs. But while her classmates’ reading comprehension grows stronger each day, Maya’s “reading has not moved in two years,” Meyiri says. “You feel as a parent that you’re stuck.”

Maya used to be confident in class but no longer raises her hand. “I am losing my daughter. This is the child who was the most sociable little girl. Then she starts having anxieties, and comes home and says ‘Mommy, I’m so stupid.’ She doesn’t want to go to school anymore,” her mother says. “A school like Shefa opening up is like the best thing that could happen.”

When Ruskay-Kidd and her staff visit the classrooms of children who have applied to go to Shefa to observe them – they see children struggling to understand their teachers’ lessons and to complete assignments. They “look lost,” says Ruskay-Kidd.

For all the relief the parents of new Shefa students will feel, some people committed to helping children with disabilities get a Jewish education say that inclusion – not segregation – should be the goal. The Ruderman Family Foundation, based in Newton, MA, has spent $10 million over the past decade working to make Jewish day schools in Boston inclusive and supportive of students with learning disabilities.

'Elitest community'

“While I applaud the opportunity The Shefa School will offer to Jewish children with disabilities in New York to engage in a Jewish education, it would have been better if the existing Jewish day schools in the New York area had worked to make their schools fully inclusive for children with disabilities,” Jay Ruderman, president of the foundation, told Haaretz.

“The Greater New York area happens to be one of the wealthiest Jewish communities in the world and has great Jewish day schools. It baffles me that none have become more inclusive.”

While some of these schools do help youngsters in need of remedial support, Ruskay-Kidd says, Ruderman “is correct [in saying] that if the New York Jewish day schools were adequately serving children with special needs there would have been no need to create The Shefa School."

She adds: “We can all agree that our goal is productive inclusion in society, but that doesn’t mean that every aspect of the process is optimally done in an inclusive setting. Given the outcomes of the special-ed schools we are modeling on and the way kids report feeling about themselves when they are in their own school – our model ... may serve inclusion better in the long run than leaving them in an environment where the ‘supports’ become overwhelming and discouraging.”

But Ruderman counters that this is a matter of collective will. “Almost every child can be included in schools with the proper supports,” he said in an interview soon after arriving in New York from Israel, where he now lives. The American Jewish community finds it easier to segregate the learning disabled than to integrate them: “The community is obsessed with continuity and keeping our community Jewish. We tend to run off after people who are well educated and upwardly mobile. We’re creating an elitist community.”

For their part, the parents of the new Shefa students are more concerned that their children learn to read and write than they are about whether that happens in a special-ed or mainstream school.

As for Gila Cohen, realizing that Ilan was incapable of reading the menu at the restaurant last summer “was a total wake-up call,” she said. Cohen worries about how a new, unproven and very small school may affect her son: about how maybe there will not be enough kids there for his social life to thrive, and about whether he will be invited to the bar mitzvahs of his former Yavneh friends and be able to continue to play extracurricular soccer that gives him so much pleasure. But if he can learn to read and write well, it will all be worth it, Cohen said: “I want him to eventually get to a place where he can look at a menu with enthusiasm [about] all the possibilities out there for him ... on the menu and in the world of print.”