Opening next fall, The Shefa School in New York City is a Jewish day school with a twist. All the young learners making up the school’s first classes have special learning needs.
As Manhattan’s first special-needs Jewish school, the school hopes to fill in the void for learning styles that are not easily accommodated in mainstream Jewish classrooms, leaving young learners struggling.
One such learner is Leah Weingarten, a second-grader at a Jewish school for girls in Queens. Her mother, Chedva, said that even though her school has been supportive, Leah simply cannot keep up.
“She is not able to keep up with her peers no matter how much help they give her, and they give her plenty,” Leah’s mom said.
“We are commanded to teach our children … how to learn,” Leah’s mom stressed, pointing out that Shefa gives her family new hope Leah can be successful in the classroom after a long time of trying to get by.
During Shefa’s first year of operation, Leah will be joined by 20 other elementary students who will form two mixed-age classes. Each class will have the support of two teachers and occupational and speech therapists at Shefa’s Upper West Side accommodations, which are currently being rented from Lincoln Square Synagogue.
This specialized learning environment, though, is not without controversy.
Tuition for Shefa has been set at $48,500, a price that puts it out of range of many families of more moderate means, and support has not yet been raised for financial aid to make it more affordable.
Disability advocate and chair of the Ruderman Foundation, Jay Ruderman, also worries that a separate school like Shefa, while certainly good for the select few it caters to, may be letting Jewish day schools off the hook when it comes to accommodating unique learning needs of all young Jewish learners.
“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,” Ruderman said.
“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.”
Leah’s mom, however, is just grateful Leah has someplace to learn, calling the school, “a light at the end of a dark tunnel, a glimmer of hope.”