New York schools shun special needs kids

By Paul Berger, August 5, 2010
Follow The JC on Twitter

Manhattan offers the Jewish parent everything: gleaming community centres, world-class Jewish day schools, and a synagogue on just about every corner. But when it comes to raising children with special needs, New York's glitziest borough is, apparently, lacking.

One recent Monday evening, about 150 people crowded into the basement of Congregation Shearith Israel, on Central Park West, to discuss "The Jewish Community's Obligation to Special Needs Children."

The imposing synagogue is home to the oldest congregation in America. The previous day, Irish President Mary McAleese had stopped by to thank its members for their predecessors' generosity during the Great Famine of
1845-1852.

However, this particular evening there was little cause for self-congratulation as a six-person panel spoke about the Manhattan Jewish community's lack of support for children with special needs.

The impetus for the event was one family, Gavin and Jodi Samuels, a South African couple whose daughter, Caily, aged two, has Down's Syndrome.

The Samuels - she is an internet marketing consultant, he a pharmaceutical industry executive - already have a son and a daughter who attend the $20,000-a-year Manhattan Day School, a Jewish school on the Upper West Side. But the school will not accept Caily.

The family claim that the school refused even to assess their daughter, arguing she would be better off elsewhere.

But the couple say that the closest Jewish special needs schools are in Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey, all at least one hour away by bus. Besides, the Samuels maintain that including special needs children in regular classes is better for their daughter, and is standard practice in state schools across the city.

"The only schools that turned us away in Manhattan were the Jewish schools," said Mrs Samuels.

Manhattan Day School principal, Rabbi Mordechai Besser, declined to comment.

The Samuels appealed against the school's decision. They even offered to pay the additional expenses that Caily's schooling might incur. But to no avail.

Instead, Mrs Samuels said, families associated with the school "told us they will squash us and we will never be able to show our faces in public. A group of families have pooled together to make sure our daughter never gets in."

The evening's panellists agreed that the community, though moving slowly in the right direction, still had a long way to go.

Richard Bernstein, a disability rights lawyer, who is blind, said other faiths, particularly the Catholic Church, were way ahead on issues of special needs education. And Dr Jed Luchow, director of special needs at the Board of Jewish Education, said the reason some schools refused to take children with special needs was a fear of being seen as "the nebbuch school".

For many parents, secular or state schools are not an alternative. Nevertheless, some parents do take that option.

Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of a Bronx yeshivah, and his wife Devorah Zlochower, a teacher, have two boys with Asperger's syndrome, who attend a secular school for children with special needs in Manhattan. Both parents said that not just Jewish schools, but synagogues, too, were failing families.

Ms Zlochower said that years of frustration finally boiled over last year when she wrote an article with her husband published in the Jewish Week.

"For our children, inclusion in the prayer services and programming at synagogue is a last chance to be part of the Jewish community," she wrote, "and they are being pushed out with both hands. We want to be a part of the community, desperately. But to do so, our children must be made welcome."

    Last updated: 11:17am, August 5 2010