Maor: Opening the Door to Special Education
Devorah Talia Gordon
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
When Iva R’Bibo was born nine years ago, her mother Sarah didn’t know right away that she had special needs. But soon she saw Iva wasn’t reaching the same milestones as her three older siblings, and Sarah and her husband started the arduous journey to try to figure out what was going on. “I didn’t know much about special needs and had my hands full with four little children. It was very overwhelming running to endless doctor’s appointments and therapies and trying to find my way through the complicated system of government benefits and assistance.” She kept looking around the community trying to find a Jewish organization, that provided guidance, resources, and support for families with children with special needs.
Sarah slowly started to make connections with other mothers in the community who had children with special needs. That is how she met Chaya Chazanow, the co-founder of Maor, whose son was around Iva’s age and also had special needs. The two moms, together with a third mother, created a WhatsApp group chat called “Questions and Sharing,” which has grown to over 70 members in the community, where members share information, resources, and other advice, and help each other navigate the complicated world of being a special needs’ parent.
Sarah was guided to the Regional Center early on and was able to get Iva into an early intervention program. After that, it was time for Iva to enter the school system. The R’Bibo’s looked to the Jewish community and asked, “Where is the Jewish school for our daughter? The answer was – ‘there isn’t one’!”This really shocked them. The R’bibo’s just couldn’t believe that Los Angeles, with the second largest Jewish community in the U.S., had no Jewish school option for children with special needs, and that they would have to send their daughter to public school. “That was really hard,” Sarah recalled.
The R’bibo’s thus entered the complicated LAUSD system. They did evaluations, sat through IEP meetings, and even had to hire a lawyer to defend against some improper actions taken by the school district to undercut the services to which Iva was entitled in her IEP. With legal help, Iva was able to attend a wonderful, inclusive preschool for two years. Then it was time to transition yet again.
Sarah visited special education schools, regular schools, and charter schools, but there were no great options for Iva. “I felt exhausted and defeated,” Sarah said, not knowing what to do next.
“It’s a battle for most parents. What do you choose?” Sarah explained that if parents place their special needs child in a Jewish school, while it’s great that the child is in a Jewish environment, they are often not getting their needs met. Those schools just don’t have the resources needed to support the students. But hiring a “shadow” can be very expensive and is not a feasible option for many families. After school, parents still may be running all over the city for therapies and other services.
The other option is to send your child with special needs to public school. There your child may get the services they need, but are not learning about their traditions and holidays, and not spending time with peers from their community. “This is a very hard choice,” Sarah said, acknowledging that public school was not an option for them.
After experiencing what LAUSD had to offer, Sarah and Chaya got together and decided there had to be a better option for their children and, if not, they would create one. They did endless research into prior programs in the community, traveled to New York to look at schools, and spoke to countless professionals and parents. They reached out to Friendship Circle for guidance, and started to work with them, motivated to “creatively make this work.”
They had a vision: to create an innovative learning center for Jewish children with special needs, integrating general and Jewish studies, therapies, and enrichment activities all in one place. Teachers, therapists, and staff would collaborate, personalizing curriculum for each student based on how he or she learns best. More importantly, students would be in a warm Jewish environment learning about their tradition and establishing friendships with peers from their community.
“We were told just start – and we did, with two kids and one teacher.” And Maor Academy was born.
In the beginning, a single classroom at the Friendship Circle housed Maor. When the enrollment grew to about a dozen students, Maor moved to occupy the entire first floor the Aish Tamid building near The Grove; during the pandemic about 8-10 students have been attending. The staff creates an individualized plan for each child, striving to give the children the highest-level education and the best therapies, and do so in a way so each child will grow and reach her potential.
“Everyone on staff works collaboratively, regularly meeting and adapting each student’s learning plan based on their changing needs,” Sarah said. “We are big on training. Our director, Kimberly Landis, spends a lot of time teaching and training.”
Maor also has a full-time social worker on staff to counsel families on accessing and navigating the challenging path to critical governmental funding and services. This free service is available to the entire Jewish community. If the family’s first language isn’t English, for example native Israelis, Maor provides a translator for them to negotiate the complicated special needs system. Much guidance is needed, Sarah said, commenting that “although California does have great services for families, they are not easy to access. Maor is the resource I wish I would have had when I first began this journey.”
A GIANT STEP FORWARD
So far, Maor has had great results. “There is kedushah at Maor,” Sarah said, “it is very warm loving, Jewish environment.” The program has outgrown its current space and, over Chanukah, the Maor vision took a giant step forward. Maor closed escrow on a new campus, thanks to the incredible generosity of several philanthropic families in the community.
The new Friedman Family campus, dedicated in loving memory of Chana Leah Friedman, will be at the site of the former Jeffrey Foundation building, on Washington Blvd just west of Hauser Avenue. Started by Alyce Morris Winston, whose son had muscular dystrophy, the building was previously used for special needs education. It has ample space for classrooms and professional trainings, as well as room for a large, innovative sensory gym. There are two beautiful playgrounds, and room for therapists and behaviorists to work with all the children in various modalities.
“With the new space we hope to serve more kids and families, grow our school program, and add an inclusive preschool, and a new training and development center.” The goal of the preschool is to give the children the extra support they need and then for most to transition back to the Jewish day schools. Sarah explained that identifying challenges early on can help tremendously, so the child can receive early intervention, which can be extremely helpful in the long term.
Part of the collaborative model that Maor values includes working with the different organizations in LA. Maor’s goal is to add to the landscape of special needs resources already up and running. In the evenings and on weekends, plans are underway for the campus to be used by The Clubhouse to provide respite services to children and families in the community. “Our goal is to continue the conversation with the community, with ETTA, Friendship Circle, The Clubhouse, HaMercaz, the Jewish Federation, the Bureau of Jewish Education, and others,” Sarah said.
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES
Four years later, Iva is happy and thriving. She participates in the religious aspect of life and community in a way she could not before.
“My daughter wants to be part of the community. She’s 9, but before Maor, she didn’t know so much and was already somewhat isolated due to special needs.” Now Iva attends shul with her family, can participate in holidays, and is growing and learning and feels a part of things.
“I want to give her all she needs just like I would for my other kids,” Sarah said. “Just because she has special needs doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have all of the same opportunities to learn and be part of our community.”