Tuesday, October 31, 2006 | return to: news & features


‘It’s about justice’: East Bay endowment for special needs students reaches 35 Jewish schools

by dan pine, staff writer

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The first time Elliot and Shelley Fineman were told "no" when trying to enroll their special needs kids in a Jewish day school, they got mad. After the second time, they got even.

But they did so in the most constructive way possible. The Piedmont couple decided to start a foundation to provide a resource for Jewish families with learning disabled children.

Several years later, thanks to a $500,000 gift from the Finemans, along with funding from other generous donors, the Jewish special education endowment is now a reality.

The endowment is a project of the Jewish Community Foundation and the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.

With $1.2 million in the bank, the endowment is ready to serve learning disabled Jewish children at more than 35 Jewish day schools, Hebrew schools and Midrashot in the East Bay.

That population is bigger than some might think: Up to 15 percent of kids in Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools may suffer from mild to moderate language-based disabilities.

"The question of addressing special needs has been around for a long time," says Elliot Fineman, "but it had been addressed only on a come-and-go basis." Adds his wife Shelley, "Because of the way Hebrew schools are, with kids there only a few hours a day, it's difficult for kids with language disabilities to learn in the way schools want."

That's about to change, says Steve Brown, chief operating officer of the East Bay federation and one of the spearheads of the program.

"In the past," says Brown, "the [federation-sponsored] Center for Jewish Living & Learning ran a warm-line, a parents support group and a small grants program. We saw that a fresh approach was needed in the area of educator training."

Since many Jewish educators, especially in synagogue Sunday schools, lack the skills to work with special needs students, the endowment's first priority is teacher training. That starts with an educator/professional conference Sunday, Oct. 29 at Lafayette's Temple Isaiah, and subsequent educator workshops, observation and professional consultation.

"The focus of this program is kids who may be on the edge," adds Brown. "They have learning disabilities, but with proper support they can learn alongside their peers. If the kids are given that support, the tools in the classrooms can enhance learning for all kids."

Brown says without such programs, the Jewish community risks more than just a drop in school enrollment. "Now you have families that feel they don't fit in, or feel angry because the schools can't take care of their kids' learning needs. Sometimes they get away from the Jewish community altogether. It's in our interest that every Jewish child gets an education."

The Finemans could have been one of those potentially lost families. Elliot Fineman is president/CEO of Planet Biotechnology in Hayward. He and his wife raised four children, two of whom had special needs.

"We applied twice to one Jewish day school," recalls Elliot, "and both times we were denied enrollment because the school didn't want to take on the requirements of kids dealing with learning disabilities, even though we offered to support the school with a tutor on campus we would pay for."

He remembers the head of school as inflexible in dealing with language-based disabilities. Even when a new head of school came aboard, the Finemans were denied because "the faculty said, 'We don't want to take on this burden in the classroom.' We found ourselves really excluded."

"We've gone around and around for years with all the institutions," adds Shelley Fineman. "Finally we said, 'OK, let's do the ground work.'"

The couple collaborated with others is the community who care about the issue, including Janet King, East Bay federation lay leader Moses Libitzky and philanthropist Richard Goodman. All pooled their resources to kick start the endowment.

Brown and CJLL director Rabbi James Brandt have overseen the development of programming from inside the federation. In addition to the ongoing educator training, Brandt and Brown hope to add the creating of IEPs (individualized education programs), support groups, special needs awareness outreach and b'nai mitzvah student training as possible future programs.

"Right now we have about $1.2 million," says Brown. "Elliot's goal is a $5 million endowment. It's doable. There's a lot of interest in this community from people who want to participate in this."

The Finemans' sons went on to have their bar mitzvahs and complete high school. It's too late for the program the Finemans helped start to help their children, but the couple hopes the endowment will help many Jewish children in the future.

"It's damaging to a community that wants to be self-sustaining if we're by default excluding a large percentage from being mainstream members," says Elliot Fineman. "It's not a matter of charity, it's a matter of justice."

For more information about the Jewish Special Education Endowment, contact Steve Brown at the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, (510) 433-0134 ext. 215.


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