Sally Weber never felt so alone.
Nearly three decades ago, she learned her daughter had a severe language disorder that hindered her development. Besides dealing with the shock of having a child with special needs, Weber found little solace in the local Jewish community that had hitherto had given her so much joy.
At the time, Southland temples and institutions offered no Jewish camps, day schools or programming for special-needs children and their families. In Jewish circles, as in society at large, children with developmental disorders such as autism, Asperger's syndrome and cerebral palsy were often seen as burdens to bear, rather than as joys to celebrate.
"I was completely isolated," said Weber, now director of Jewish Family Service's Jewish Community Programs. "There was no place to go as a parent."
Thanks to her and two other Jewish communal professionals with special-needs children of their own, local Jewish families grappling with similar issues now have somewhere to turn for help.
In November, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles brought together seven other agencies, including, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Free Loan Association and Etta Israel Center, to create Hamercaz, a central resource for Jewish families raising special-needs children under 22.
The brainchild of Weber and Michelle Wolf, The Federation's assistant director of planning and allocations -- whose 11-year-old son has cerebral palsy -- Hamercaz, or the center, offers a variety of services through its partner agencies, ranging from interest-free loans for diagnostic testing to support groups for overwhelmed parents to Shabbat dinners for children with special needs.
"Before the creation of Hamercaz, a person would have to make several phone calls or talk to friends of friends of friends to get what they needed," said Wolf, who along with Weber, works part time on the Hamercaz project. "Now, you can get it all in one place."
To access available services, parents can call the toll-free number, (866) 287-8030, and discuss their situation with Hamercaz's program coordinator Amy Bryman. A licensed social worker, Bryman makes referrals to partner and other service agencies and later follows up with a phone call. In the program's first six weeks, she received 30 calls from parents.
"It makes me feel good to see parents getting help with their newly diagnosed children," said Bryman, the mother of a 6-year-old son with autism.
Some of the partner agencies and the services offered include:
- Jewish Free Loan offers interest-free loans up to $10,000 to help finance diagnostic tests, therapy and treatment for children with autism and other special needs.
- Jewish Family Service has a program that sends trained volunteers into the homes of families with special-needs children to perform any number of tasks, including taking children to the park to give parents a respite.
- The Bureau of Jewish Education refers parents to Jewish schools that can accommodate their children's needs. The bureau also holds lectures throughout the year addressing such topics as autism and how to get proper diagnostic testing.
- The appearance of Hamercaz comes at a time when autism and other developmental disorders appear on the rise. Locally, an estimated 6,000 Jewish families in greater Los Angeles have children with developmental or severe learning disabilities, according to Jewish groups. Nationally, one in 166 newborns has autism, the Autism Society of America said. Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other government agencies, autism is growing at a rate of 10 percent to 17 percent a year, the Autism Society added.
Autism is a complex developmental disability that affects the normal functioning of the brain. People with autism typically have problems with verbal communication, social interaction and play activities.
Hamercaz got its start with the help of a $48,700 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. That money has allowed the center to hire Bryman for 15 hours a week and has also paid for a media campaign.
Support from Rabbi Mark Diamond has also helped get the word out. The executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California recently sent letters out to the group's 270 member rabbis, encouraging them to promote Hamercaz to their congregations.
"Sadly, for too many years, families were told, 'Your child can't get a Jewish education. Sorry, your child can't go to a Jewish day school,'" said Diamond, who has worked with children with special needs for more than 25 years. "I think it's a sacred mandate of the Jewish community to take care of our own, and that means taking care of each and every one of our children."
On April 2, The Federation will host a fair for Jewish parents of children with special needs at the New Jewish Community Center at Milken in West Hills from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Representatives of all partner agencies will be in attendance. For more information on the event or Hamercaz, contact Michelle Wolf at MWolf@JewishLA.org.