Feature Stories

All of God’s Children: Special Children/Special Needs

Jewish Ledger | Feb. 11, 2011

Israel is constantly in the news, and there are many iconic images that define and reflect certain aspects of the society and culture.
But there is a lot left out of mainstream media coverage. Over the past decade, the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford has worked to close the gap, mounting a series of photo exhibitions that highlight aspects of Israeli culture and society not usually seen outside the country. Each addresses a subject that reflects the diversity of Israel, as well as that of other countries with multi-religious populations.

An Israeli girl with Downs Syndrome at one of the country’s many schools for handicapped children.

This year’s exhibition, “All of God’s Children: Special Children and Special Needs,” explores the question of how we treat those least able to advocate on behalf of themselves. The collection of 22 photographs by award-winning West Hartford photographer Lena Stein portrays children from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist communities, with a wide spectrum of special needs. Over the course of summer 2010, Stein took thousands of photographs at 12 institutions and organizations in Israel, India, and Sri Lanka that work with children with a multiplicity of disabilities.
The exhibition will open on Sunday, Feb. 13 and is the culminating event in a day-long program addressing the topic of special education. A workshop for educators and a panel discussion for parents will precede the opening.
“I wanted to capture a part of Israel that showed something that Israelis are aware of, but that is less known or unknown outside Israel,” says Prof. Richard Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, who spearheaded the project. “‘Children with special needs’ is such a huge umbrella and doesn’t simply encompass people who have disabilities that can be seen. A lot of the kids have disabilities that can’t be seen – genetic diseases, growth diseases, autism, Asperger syndrome. We wanted to represent the whole spectrum of what we were witnessing: children permanently in institutions, those with disabilities that require 24-hour care, girls and boys, different age groups, different backgrounds. Whether the caregivers are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, all share the same desire to help a child achieve his or her maximum ability.”

An Israel Defense Forces soldier, a volunteer at Nitzanei Rishon, an after school center for children with special needs in Jerusalem, helps a young girl at the school develop computer skills.

Last summer, Freund invited Stein to participate in the Greenberg Center’s archeological excavations in Israel, teaching participating students how to photograph a dig. Freund, who directs the excavations for the university, wanted to enhance Stein’s experience with additional photography projects, and was inspired by her earlier work photographing street children in India and Nepal. The previous summer, Stein had taken photos for “Face of a Nation,” an exhibition sponsored by the Greenberg Center on the diverse populations of Israel.
Freund approached contacts at two Israeli organizations, and the project expanded from there. “The real challenge is, can you depict these children and their inner beauty in a photograph?” he says.
The exhibition features photographs of Israeli children and young adults from Kibbutz Kishorit in the Galilee, and six Jerusalem organizations: Hettena, a daycare center for the severely disabled; P’tach Israel, an organization which works with children with learning disabilities; Shutaf, a group with year-round “summer camp” inclusion programming for children with special needs; Shalva, the association for mentally and physically challenged children in Israel; Nitzanei Rishon, a volunteer program for people to work with special-needs children throughout the year; and the Feuerstein School at the International Center for Learning Potential.
In Sri Lanka, Stein photographed at the Sambodhi Home for the Physically and Mentally Disabled and at the Ahangama School for the Deaf and Blind in Galle. In India, she photographed at the Loreto Day School, Bodhir Bidya Bhavan in Uttarfpara, a school for the hearing-impaired near Calcutta, and the Asha Niketan Day Care Center in Calcutta.

Special needs children enjoy a music class at the Feuerstein School at the International Center for Learning Potential in Jerusalem.

Symie Liff is founder and director of P’TACH Israel (Parents for Torah for All Children, and the Hebrew word for “open up”), one of the institutions Stein visited, which provides programs for children with learning difficulties. The organization runs resource rooms for more than 400 children in 15 Jerusalem schools, and two afternoon clinics.
Liff studied with Prof. Regina Miller at the University of Hartford and earned her BA in special education. With Miller’s encouragement, Liff stayed on to complete her MA before making aliya in 1980 with her husband, Rabbi Eliezer Liff, and their two children. For more than 30 years, Miller taught Jewish education and elementary education at the University of Hartford, and created a unique joint degree combining elementary education and Judaic studies. The educational workshop component of the “All of God’s Children” program was created in her honor.
After working for several years in a school for boys with special needs, she started P’TACH in 1986 on the theory that, with the right support, children with learning disabilities could remain in regular classrooms.
“I agreed to participate in the photo project because I feel I owe a big thank-you to Regina for helping me finish school before making aliya,” she says. “I feel it is important for children with special needs to be presented in photos to educate the public. Our P’TACH children have hidden handicaps: they look just like regular children but have difficulty learning. People should understand that even though a child looks just like everyone else, there is something that is stopping them from learning via the regular route. Our theme song is based on the words of King Solomon: ‘Chanoch la-na’ar al pi darko,’ ‘Teach every child in the way and manner in which he is able.’”
Tom Falik connected Freund and Stein with Kibbutz Kishorit, a 13-year-old residential community of 150 Jewish adults with developmental disabilities and mental-health issues. The greater Hartford resident had helped the original Kishorit founders obtain control of the abandoned Kibbutz Kishor, when he served on the Jewish Agency For Israel (JAFI) board of governors from 1994 to 1999. He then founded American Friends of Kishorit, which he now heads.
With a mission to change the way that people with special needs are integrated into a community and cared for long-term, Kishorit recognizes the ability of every member to contribute to the community. The kibbutz offers members a full life, including work and leisure activities, opportunities for integration into the broader community, private living quarters, medical supervision, and nursing care for senior citizens.
“It’s a democratic society of people with disabilities,” Falik says.
Kishorit also runs the Ziv Getz Democratic School, a day school for Jewish and Arab teens who have experienced psychotic incidents. The kibbutz is developing Alfanara, a parallel community on its grounds for Israeli Arabs with special needs, who will work together with the Jewish residents.
Photographer Lena Stein, who is also an art teacher at the Montessori Magnet School in Hartford, says that the project was eye-opening. “This was a new reality because I never did this kind of work,” she says. “Atara was the first child with special needs I photographed, and it was such a different experience for me to observe her. She was constantly moving and touching everything, she had a sparkle in her eye, and she was such a beautiful girl with so much life inside. It made me realize that children with special needs live in a different world, and such a rich world.”

Elisheva Klein, a caregiver at the Hettena school in Jerusalem plays with a handicapped girl at the school.

The most emotional moment for Stein was at Hettena School, a daycare center in Jerusalem for children with severe multiple disabilities, both Jewish and Arab. “The women caregivers were showing me Joseph, a child in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, and they were hugging him and loving him, and he is Arab,” says Stein, who photographed the boy with caregiver Elisheva Klein, the daughter of a local rabbi.
Stein was visiting the Western Wall when a group of parents arrived with children in wheelchairs, and agreed to be photographed. “There was a mother with her son and she was so completely at peace with herself and her son,” Stein says. “She had the biggest smile, and she connected with the boy and loved the boy. I thought, ‘What are they lacking?’ They lacked nothing.”
The “All of God’s Children: Special Children and Special Needs” photo exhibition and educational workshops are part of the Greenberg Center’s 25th anniversary year community-wide programming. “This is a nice way to combine a beautiful exhibition with our efforts in engaging the Greater Hartford community,” says Prof. Avinoam Patt, the center’s assistant director and director of the George J. Sherman and Lottie K. Sherman Museum of Jewish Civilization, which will house the show through Mar. 21, 2011.
The exhibition opening will be preceded by the fourth annual Regina Miller Workshop on special education, held at the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford’s early childhood center. The workshop, “Working with Special Needs Students in a Classroom Setting: Strategies,” will be led by Sandy Miller-Jacobs, a professor and director of special education programs at Boston Hebrew College.
Miller, now University of Hartford professor emerita, and Miller-Jacobs will be part of a panel discussion for parents, “Helping Your Child,” along with Janice Rothstein, director of clinical services at Jewish Family Services of Hartford.

10 a.m.-12 noon: Fourth Annual Regina Miller Workshop on special education for teachers:
“Working with Special Needs Students in a Classroom Setting: Strategies”
Beatrice Fox Auerbach Early Childhood Center, Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford
Free and open to all teachers; registration required: (860) 768-4964 / mgcjs@hartford.edu

1-2 p.m.: “Helping Your Child: A Panel Discussion for Parents”
Beatrice Fox Auerbach Early Childhood Center, Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford
Free and open to the community; registration required: (860) 768-4964 / mgcjs@hartford.edu

3 p.m.: Reception and opening of the photo exhibition
Sherman Museum, Mortensen Library, Harry Jack Gray Center, University of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford

For museum hours and information: (860) 768-5729 / mgcjs@hartford.edu

A larger group of photographs is displayed on the Greenberg Center website.

For more information on photographer Lena Stein visit www.lenastein.com.

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