November 16, 2018

The Gates of Hope

Fortunately for Elisa, she landed in a caring and effective public-school program, which taught her to make the most of her abilities. But Lora was determined that her child also have the opportunity to learn about her Jewish heritage. She found that opportunity at Shaare Tikva.

The aptly named Shaare Tikva (or “Gates of Hope”) is a weekly Sunday-school program that introduces Judaism to children who are developmentally delayed. It started in 1983 at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts; Elisa was a member of the first class.

When the tiny synagogue was unable to sustain the program, parents such as Lora Jerugim worked tirelessly to keep it from dying. In 1987, Shaare Tikva found a warm welcome at Valley Beth Shalom, where board members allocated $50,000 to serve these Jewish youngsters who our community tends to forget.

Today, Shaare Tikva is one of the Bureau of Jewish Education’s few magnet programs for special-needs children. This means that it opens its door to all Jewish families; parents need not join VBS in order to enroll their offspring.

Currently, there are 24 Shaare Tikva students, and there’s room for more. They range in age from 3 to 18. Their disabling conditions include Down’s syndrome, autism and such still-mysterious genetic diseases as familial dysautonomia. Surrounded by highly trained teachers and volunteers who shower them with love, the Shaare Tikva kids learn to think of the synagogue as a second home.

When I visited Shaare Tikva, I was introduced to the program’s coordinator, Susan North Gilboa, of whom a grateful parent once said, “If anyone has a place in the world to come, it’s she.” Gilboa showed me lively classrooms, where small groups were busy exploring Judaism through crafts, songs and stories. During music time, even the nonverbal children found ways to share in the joyous mood by clapping, stomping, doing impromptu dances in their seats.

The Hebrew language formed an important part of the mix: The rousing song “Emet” was clearly a school favorite, and everyone had fun shouting out the words “Abba” and “Eema” in the course of the inevitable “David Melech Yisroel.”

Shaare Tikva does not overlook the teaching of prayer and ritual . Each Sunday, a VBS rabbi leads a short prayer service, helping familiarize the students with what they’ll find in their home congregations. Like others who have been involved with special-needs children, Gilboa is convinced that her kids manifest spirituality in its purest form.

“There’s a sense of completeness I think these children feel,” she said. “When they’re davening, it’s from the heart, from the soul.”

These youngsters’ passion for Jewish ritual may help smooth their way during difficult times ahead. Now in her late teens, Elisa Jerugim is facing daunting new adjustments as she approaches chronological adulthood. But even during her roughest moments, she has found pleasure in lighting candles and chanting the blessings that welcome in Shabbat.

Of course, most Jewish children who attend religious school are looking ahead to a bar or bat mitzvah, and the Shaare Tikva kids are no different. As they approach age 13, each is carefully prepared for his or her special day on the bimah. Prayers are learned in transliteration, or are memorized — whatever works. Those for whom uttering sounds is a painful chore find other ways to participate. One father proudly told me that, at his son’s bar mitzvah, they had read the Torah together — the boy pointed and the father read the words.

Elisa’s bat mitzvah was unforgettable for Lora Jerugim, who had hesitated over whether to schedule the event at all. But a sympathetic rabbi and a dedicated tutor, plus the support of the whole Shaare Tikva community, made everything possible. Elisa learned the entire prayer service by rote. During the ceremony, in a sanctuary filled with family and friends, Elisa’s tutor sat, facing her, mouthing all the words and waving her arms like a conductor. It was a triumph, for Lora Jerugim — “one of the most incredible experiences of my life…of her life. Her day in the sun!”

Some of the joy and hope felt at Elisa’s bat mitzvah resurfaced a few weeks ago, when Shaare Tikva held its traditional end-of-the-year banquet and Friday-night service. At the service, which is always well-attended by VBS congregants, the older kids help lead the prayers, and everybody sings. As always, there were a few stumbles and fumbles, but the staff stood by to lend a hand, and the congregation encouraged each participant with hearty applause. So great was the excitement among the youngsters that a few burst into happy tears.

Last year at this time, the service became a graduation ceremony for Shaare Tikva’s 18-year-olds. Elisa was among those moving on, and Lora made an emotional speech on her daughter’s behalf, thanking the program for giving Elisa a Jewish life. Now that Elisa is a graduate, both of high school and Shaare Tikva, her days are veering in new directions. She has a part-time cafeteria job at a Santa Monica hospital, and she is now eligible to join Chaverim, a social group for developmentally disabled Jewish adults, aged 19 through 60. (Feeling uncomfortable with the wide age span, Lora Jerugim is trying to launch a young-adult group.)

But Elisa still feels a strong attachment to her friends at Shaare Tikva. She and her mom were invited back to this year’s service, and Elisa went up to the bimah to join in the singing. After the service, the Oneg Shabbat featured Israeli dance music. Soon, there was a circle of dancers — all ages, all sizes, all conditions — stepping happily (if not always gracefully) to the beat. Elisa was among them, caught up in the jubilation of being Jewish.

Beverly Gray writes about education from Santa Monica.

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