Slim Pickings Here for Jewish Special-Ed


Rachel Wizenfeld

LA may have the kosher restaurants, the kollels, and now even the summer camps for Jewish families who want to stay local, but when it comes to educational options for Jewish kids with special needs, it’s a grim landscape.

Unlike in other states (New York in particular), if students here have learning challenges, learning differences or are developmental delayed, they have virtually no services available to them unless they go to a public school (or a public-private school like the Help Group’s Village Glen).  If parents want to keep children in a Jewish school, they have to pony up the cash to pay for services themselves – such as shadows, inclusion specialists, speech therapists and more, or pray that the child’s school or a local organization can offset some of the costs.

In contrast, in New York, students who receive state-funded special-ed services may receive those services at the non-public schools that they attend.  But in Los Angeles, once a child turns five, unless he is enrolled in public school he’s ineligible for nearly all special-ed services.

“It’s unbelievable,” says Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, principal of the YULA girl’s school who moved here from New York five years ago.  “In New York all of these services are provided from kindergarten through high school.”  Besides money for textbooks, bussing, school nurses and more, he recalls how every yeshiva in New York has a resource room staffed by a NYS or NYC-funded specialist.

But in California, whether it’s due to the power of the teacher’s union lobby, or a stronger division between church and state, funding for these services is from the state is barely available, placing a huge burden on Jewish families and the Jewish schools themselves.

Day schools here really don’t have the funding nor the space or true ability to take care of these kids, says Rabbi Michy Rav-Noy, founder and director of the Friendship Circle of Los Angeles, which operates a Hebrew school for children with developmental delays and offers social support and other programming for Jewish kids with special needs.  He estimates that 96% of LA Jewish kids with special needs — who would prefer to stay in a Jewish school — are forced to go to public or non-Jewish private schools, while 4% remain in the Jewish school system, and end up paying double tuition for the shadowing and extra services that they need.

Some of these kids utilize programs like Ner Yaakov (an Etta Israel program for boys with learning disabilities at Toras Emes; its sister program, Ner Shoshana, ended this past summer), or a new program called Online Jewish Academy (see sidebar).  Some elementary and high schools have inclusion specialists to guide student integration and success in the school, and there is a general feeling among parents and teachers that schools are becoming more open and accepting of students with differences.

Rav-Noy sees hope for kids with mild or moderate learning disabilities who want to remain in Jewish schools, since they are likely to succeed with the proper modifications and support.  But once kids need more intensive therapies and have more profound disabilities, the expense and unlikeliness of social and academic success at a regular yeshiva becomes virtually impossible.

Doonie Mishulovin, the inclusion specialist at Valley Torah High School for Boys, says that she’s been able to successfully integrate kids with ADHD, learning disabilities, anxiety issues and other needs.  But most of these students need additional outside intervention to succeed, and this cost is most often paid for by the parents – who are sometimes shelling out tens of thousands of dollars each year in addition to tuition.  Families who can’t pay for additional help either end up going to public school, homeschooling, or remaining in the day school system with academic and behavioral problems and/or emotional issues that come from failing in school or having needs that are not properly addressed.

“They fail and they don’t learn what they could have learned in public school – how to read and other basic skills.”

Beth Jawary, the student support coordinator at Bais Yaakov and Yavneh Academy who has worked with many of the local Jewish schools, says that while basically all the day schools here do have a resource room, none of the high schools do, and overall there’s really a lack of services for students who learn differently, she says.

“Oftentimes, if not all the time, it’s on the parents to fund the extra services.”

At Yavneh, where Jawary works, there are some school-funded intervention options up until 3rd grade, and some services through Title 1, a federal program that provides supplemental educational services – often to those with special needs – to eligible students attending private schools.

Most elementary schools provide some Title 1 services, and some elementary and high schools will give families paying for special-ed a tuition reduction, or aid through private fundraising and tzedakah.

“For some, keeping their children in a Jewish environment is more important than getting the other services,” says Jawary.

But remaining in a regular-ed school or yeshiva can sometimes erode a child’s self-esteem if their ability doesn’t match that of their peers.

“They don’t feel good if they’re not accomplishing. Kids understand when their grades aren’t authentic. In the long run, if they can’t do the assignment when the rest of their class can, they’re not going to feel good about themselves.”

She quotes what she heard a rav say once, that “’you’ve got to make them a mensch first.’ Basic skills make a person a mensch.”

However, Jawary believes that a lot of progress has been made in the elementary and high schools here becoming more open to students with differences.  “There’s more of a willingness to accommodate different needs and learning styles.”

Of the kids who leave the yeshiva system, some hate it because they have to deal with the boy-girl dynamic, and there’s a social pressure to be culturally different (such as needing to watch TV and movies in order to fit in), “but honestly I see kids who are benefitting from being in public school because their needs are being met,” says Mishulovin.

However these kids do suffer religiously.  The Friendship Circle offers the only Orthodox Hebrew school for students with developmental delays in Los Angeles – Mishulovin is the educational director — and parents have told her that once their kids started coming to the Hebrew School, suddenly they were sitting at the Shabbos table and were more involved — because now they felt it was theirs.

“Parents are busy being parents. They’re not going to make a makos project with their kid, there’s way too much going on! That’s why the Hebrew school is so incredible.”

One Pico-Robertson mom, who prefers to remain anonymous, said she tried to create her own special-needs program in one of the day schools about 15 years ago, but it was so cost-prohibitive and she was frustrated from the lack of guidance and support from the schools that she ended up sending her son to a non-Jewish, therapeutic elementary school program.  There her family was “thrown into the secular world,” having to deal with Halloween and proms and non-kosher cooking classes which were central to students’ socialization.

Her son is now in high school, and she says the main thing he missed out on was friends.  “Being in a secular environment, he had very little contact with other religious kids.”

“It’s a painful choice,” says Rav-Noy, about leaving a Jewish school.

He points out that these kids suffer from a double isolation.  Already they are isolated from general society due to their disabilities or differences, and then added to that is a deeper isolation from the Jewish community which they don’t feel a part of.  Their siblings might come home with parsha projects and sheets and they don’t have anything; they’re unable to participate the same way in shul, and they go to different schools so they don’t have Jewish friends.

One mother of two Down-syndrome children who lives in West Hollywood and who also prefers to remain anonymous, recently pulled her 7th grade son out of the Orthodox elementary school, where he had thrived for many years, to go to public school. While his class had grown to accept him and his occasional disturbances, children from the younger classes had begun to make fun of him, creating an uncomfortable social environment.  Academically as well, the gap was growing, especially as kids advanced in Mishnah and Gemara.  She switched him to public school for these two reasons, and now he gets services during school hours like speech therapy, adaptive P.E. and more. But he doesn’t have the opportunity to learn about parsha, the Jewish holidays, or to daven.  He puts tefillin on when he comes home at 3pm.  However, because he spent so many years at a Jewish school, he has the foundation of reading Hebrew and tefila that other kids may lack.

This mom was met with an unexpected challenge.  After her son missed numerous days for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkos, the school called her saying he had missed too much school, accused her of making up Jewish holidays, and threatened to elevate the issue to the city attorney.  The school, a regular middle school with a special needs track, receives money from the city per child per day of attendance, so they are motivated to have students show up.

“I said, ‘It was a Jewish holiday.’ The woman in charge of attendance said, ‘we don’t have it in our calendar, and we also have other Jewish children in school that were not absent.”

This woman also has a daughter who is a high-functioning Down-syndrome young woman currently in a seminary for girls with special needs in Jerusalem.  Her mother says she thrived going to a typical girl’s high school, which she attended with a full-time shadow as well as weekly support from a private speech therapist and educational consultant.  But shadows cost between $15-$20 an hour, and therapists and consultants can run $150 an hour, making such options out of reach for many families.  Some are able to get funding through Regional Center under the category of “afterschool-services”, but sometimes families have to put up a fight to get the funding and wind up in a bureaucratic runaround.

Devorah Weiss, a woman in Hancock Park who has become something of an advocate for parents of special needs, says she considered a move out to New York for years to gain access to better special-ed services for her son.  While she ultimately remained in Los Angeles, she still wonders whether her son would have been better off in the schools there.

Some families actually have moved cross-country to better accommodate their children’s learning needs in a Jewish environment.  But such a move is obviously not feasible for everyone.

Ultimately, the hope for many families here is that someone will open a Jewish school for kids with special needs and developmental delays.

Rav-Noy says that creating a school is a dream of his, and something that could have dramatic impact on the lives of these children.

“We get feedback from parents – ‘the Hebrew school has really helped; our kids are getting more involved in Shabbos, they take part at the seder, they’re singing Chanukah songs and not Xmas songs.’ Imagine how much more we could do if we had a full-time program?”

He recently began investigating if there’s interest in a full-time program and is collecting responses.  His first goal is to get seed money for a strategic planner to put together a funding plan, a lobbying strategy and an overall framework so they can create a sustainable venture.

Short of building a school, Rav-Noy sees other steps that could be taken to help fill the Jewish void for special-needs children.

Kids with mild disabilities or behavioral issues like ADDD could have more support systems in school such as shadows, more resource rooms, and perhaps special classrooms for certain parts of the day and along with integration for other parts of the day.

For kids who are severely disabled or delayed, they would need a designated classroom for kids to have a special-ed teacher and contract with therapists.  All of these services would partly be paid for by the parents and partially subsidized, either by the schools or community donors.

A major obstacle is the immense cost it takes to provide services for just a few children with special needs.

Phil Lief-Greiff, the associate director of the BJE (Builders of Jewish Education in Los Angeles) says that in places where these schools have been built, they’ve come together because of a significant influx of dollars, far beyond what even normal communal funding can provide.

He mentions a pull-out program in Jewish day schools that was underwritten by the Gindi family and lasted for several years, but ultimately proved to be too costly and closed.

“It all comes down to money,” he says.

Rav-Noy agrees, and hopes to find a funder who really believes in Jewish education for everyone – “for every Jew’s right to be a part of their heritage, regardless of their abilities.”

Sidebar: A New Hope for Jewish Inclusion in Schools

As demand for special-needs services grows, innovations emerge.

One such innovation is Online Jewish Academy (OJA), a learning system that blends online and in-person teaching components to accommodate different learning styles and needs, and which can be easily incorporated into an existing brick-and-mortar school.

OJA was a recipient of an RFP (request for proposals) released by the Jewish Federation of LA last year as part of a growing desire to nurture programs in the area of Jewish education for kids with special needs, according to Adynna Swarz, director of Caring for Jews in Need at the Federation.  OJA also received a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation.

The program is currently in use at several local high schools, including YULA, Shalhevet, and Valley Torah, and Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, the principal of YULA Girls School, says that while new, it’s already helping some of his students succeed despite learning challenges.

OJA was co-founded by Hyim and Sari Brandes, a brother and sister team.  Sari had grown up dyslexic and ultimately attended Harvard, and had been frustrated that no one realized her capabilities when she was young, according to Melanie Feder Tassoff, OJA’s director of admissions.  Sari founded OJA together with her brother as a way to use technology to enable students with learning differences to attend and thrive in a Jewish school setting.

Using a mix of online tools and teacher support, subjects and skills can be slowed down, broken down and explained in a different manner.  Students using OJA have a range of learning challenges, such as processing disorders, dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, Asperger’s or general anxiety disorders that play into different learning issues, says Feder Tassoff.  She mentions one student who is at honors level academically, but has a tremendous amount of test anxiety and was unable to sit in a traditional classroom for an entire day.

Students are considered to be dually enrolled in OJA as well as their home campuses.  Students attend their home campus (such as Shalhevet or YULA) and then take certain classes, such as math or English, in a special classroom devoted to OJA.  They also receive a certain amount of educational therapy as additional support.  The school acts as a subcontractor, so parents pay regular tuition to the school, and the school pays OJA per student per class.  Much of OJA’s funding comes from grants and donations to try to minimize the burden on the schools. 

This is the second year that OJA has been in place at YULA, and Rabbi Lieberman says that while it’s currently in use for just two students, it’s really helping them transition into a regular school.  Previously these students were in a school where all these special learning services were provided, and without OJA, the transition to YULA would have been much harder.

“It’s designed particularly to help each student on his or her own level; it works at their speed,” he says.  And due to the online component, teachers are able to quickly assess a child’s level of understanding or skill, which can’t always be elicited from testing. 

He adds that with OJA available, he’s getting more inquiries from parents who want to send their children to YULA, but need more specialized instruction. 

“Hopefully it will eventually go nationwide,” he says of OJA, which is currently an LA-based program.  “It will help a lot of places.”

For more information on OJA, visit or contact Melanie Feder Tassoff at