By Cindy Mindell ~
WEST HARTFORD – For some 30 years, The Emanuel Synagogue has offered programming for high school-aged teens of all abilities. Now, the congregation is trying out something new, a curriculum of its own design that brings together “typical” kids and those with special needs.
Three years ago, the synagogue was the first religious institution in the greater Hartford area to participate in Unified Theater, an inclusive program for both typical and special-needs children in a peer-led theatrical production experience.
Inspired by a cousin with disabilities, West Hartford native Micaela Connery started Unified Theater in greater Hartford when she was 15, and now serves as the organization’s executive director. The program operates mostly in schools and has been replicated and acclaimed around the country.
The Emanuel was inspired to add the program to its teen curriculum when a congregant with both a typical child and a special-needs child suggested it to education director Judith Fox.
“We are totally committed to meeting the needs of every single child in our synagogue community, including children with special needs,” Fox says. “We have all these wonderful teens in our Hebrew high school and decided that we should do this.”
Fox says that once students reach high-school age, differences become more apparent. The curriculum demands more conceptual thinking, which many of the children with special needs find too challenging.
United Theater allows all teens to participate in an activity together, regardless of ability level. The Emanuel students have produced two plays so far.
“This concept of typical kids and special-needs kids doing a project together is beautiful,” says Fox. “But what we discovered is that it was weeding out some of the kids who wanted to do a unified activity but didn’t necessarily want to be in a production.”
This year, Fox and her staff decided to offer a Unified Crafts course instead, integrating Jewish concepts in hands-on activities where kids with a variety of abilities can work together in a creative process. The unique curriculum is designed by art teacher Robin Herman, and congregant Jennifer Topol, a professional aide who works with special-needs children.
Unified Crafts is already proving successful, says Fox, who points to a recent incident as a hopeful bellwether. The teens created models of the sanctuary using shoe-boxes and then met with Rabbi David Small in the actual sanctuary for a learning session. Later, during a meeting of congregants with special-needs children, one of the teens came into the meeting-room to sit with his mother.
“The mom told the group that her son was so proud of his project that he’d been carrying it around all day, showing it to everyone he met,” Fox says.
Soon the synagogue will pioneer another program, the first-ever special-needs United Synagogue Youth chapter. Fox’s reasoning is simple: “It’s not something currently being done, and it should be,” she says.
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