When she was a new bride, Michelle Alkon had a dream: celebrating Shabbat with her husband and their future children, complete with candles, challah and wine. But things didn’t turn out as Alkon had envisioned. On Friday nights, her son, who is on the autism spectrum, would sing Happy Birthday, blow out the Shabbat candles and run off with the challah. “Pretty soon I decided a family Shabbat was just another dream I had to give up,” she says.
But her son’s Gateways experience gave the Newton family their Shabbat back. Seeing her son in his class reciting the blessing over the candles, Alkon realized that he could do this at home too. “I dusted off my candles and tried again,” she says. “This time it meant something to him – and it worked.”
Cindy Kaplan has also seen the impact of her daughter’s Sunday morning Gateways class at their Shabbat table. “She beams when we sing Bim Bam as we welcome Shabbat into our home,” says Kaplan. “She bounces with joy as we sing the blessings and she takes pride in her role of removing the challah cover.”
The value of a child with special needs making Shabbat their own is also brought home for Laurie Gershkowitz each time her son pores over his Shabbat book – a project Gateways Sunday school students create as part of his class’ Shabbat unit. “The book is something he can hold in his hands, a real connection to all the Shabbat symbols, blessings and the music he loves,” she says. “It reinforces what he’s learning and makes Shabbat his own.”
Creating their own Shabbat book is just one way Gateways educators have of conveying the magic of Shabbat, enriching and enlivening the Sabbath experience for students and their families. Others include a selection of “social stories” and “file folder activities,” tasks designed to divide Shabbat rituals into clear, easy-to-understand and sequential pieces. At the end of the unit, a Temple Book prepares the students for the multiple joys – and potentially overwhelming stimulations — of a synagogue visit.
“Our students come to Gateways to learn, but also for a rich Jewish experience each week,” says Gateways’ Jewish Education Program Coordinator Nancy Mager. “Since each child learns differently, we make sure ours is a multi-sensory environment. By the time they leave on a Sunday, they’ve sung it, heard it, tasted it, felt it and seen it – all our activities are designed to reach them at a level that is meaningful to them.”
It’s a philosophy that helps the students at varying ages and stages (they span the ages 4-18) engage in everything from simple recognition of the symbols to learning the blessings to the deeper meanings of Shabbat. In addition, in the bar/bat mitzvah class, a greater emphasis is placed on the Shabbat service and Torah reading.
Mager reports her teachers continually adapt and refine the materials to work for each student. An unexpected bonus: parents and educators alike are finding “Gateways’ user-friendly materials help all children relate to Jewish traditions.”
In addition to strengthening a child’s personal relationship with Shabbat and enriching a family’s Shabbat rituals, Gateways also works to build the kind of strong Jewish community that’s kept Shabbat alive for generations of Jews. Snack time, for instance, naturally facilitates social interaction. “When you learn and eat with friends – a time-honored Jewish tradition — you automatically build community,” says Mager.
That’s something Cindy Kaplan is learning from her daughter’s Gateways experience. “What our daughter learns in the classroom with her peers — blessings, songs, holidays and rituals — she carries over to our home, our synagogue, and beyond,” she says. “Gateways has helped our daughter learn that Judaism belongs to her, each member of her family and the larger community.”
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