With her easy laugh, latent-hippie style and warm demeanor, Judith Edelman-Green resembles everyone's favorite aunt -- you know, the one who sneaked you off to get your ears pierced when you were 12. Her great rapport with people is probably one of the chief reasons she has been so effective in accomplishing what many thought impossible: preparing children with developmental disorders and other disabilities for their bar and bat mitzvahs. What makes her work even more extraordinary is that she's doing it in Israel, where it has long been assumed that such children either did not need or were incapable of this rite of passage.
"Why is this needed in Israeli society? Because kids there don't tend to be mainstreamed," she said. "The schools there are segregated by disability. So if you have cognitive challenges, you don't get biblical studies, you don't get religious training, and you certainly aren't trained for a bar or bat mitzvah."
Edelman-Green recently visited the Southland on a research and fundraising tour for the Masorti Movement's Department of Jewish Special Education, for which she serves as national director. Although she had worked for Masorti (the Conservative movement in Israel) in various capacities, her true mission began when she was asked to create a group bar and bat mitzvah program for 13 children with cerebral palsy. That first success generated a flood of similar requests throughout Israel from schools for children with special needs. Six years later, her department has more than 20 teachers working with 350 kids.
"What I fell in love with about this job is the inclusiveness, the fact that we do this for girls as well as boys, which is [unheard of] in Israeli society," she said.
Despite her 20 years of experience in Jewish education (including a master's degree in Jewish studies from Masorti's Schechter Institute, the Israeli counterpart to Jewish Theological Seminary), Edelman-Green said she met with a substantial amount of resistance to the special-needs project from people uncertain of both her abilities ("A woman can teach Torah?") and of Masorti as a legitimate representation of Judaism.
"What turned it around was that we were so successful," she said. "Kids began to get excited about Judaism. They loved being called to the Torah and being counted among the Jewish people.
"My aim is to make this [project] even bigger. We are in 36 schools; we could be in 75. This year we have a camp for 10 kids, but we could easily have a camp for 50. That's how great the need is."
The cost of putting one child through the program is $1,000 and to support a school, $15,000. Contributions may be earmarked to the Masorti Movement's bar/bat mitzvah program for children with special needs or given to the general fund of projects and congregations in Israel through the Masorti Foundation, c/o Joan Paru, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115-0122.