As her daughter Amy was nearing graduation two years ago, Pattie Earlix was crushed by the thought that her religious education was ending.
“We were heartbroken,” Earlix said. “How can our kids graduate? They have nothing to graduate to.”
By the time she was 8 years old, Amy had been diagnosed with a mood disorder, learning disabilities and ADHD. Shortly after her bat mitzvah and until recently, she’d studied with Shaare Tikva, a weekly Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Sunday religious school program for 3- to 18-year-olds with developmental delays or autism. There she made friends and enjoyed attending religious services while parents reached out to one another for support, Earlix said.
As Shaare Tikva students turned 18 and 19, however, “they were gently asked to graduate ... no one wanted to go,” Earlix said. “Parents as a group said, ‘If VBS stops at Shaare Tikva, that community sense of belonging stops.’”
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Graduates of Valley Beth Shalom’s Shaare Tikva will likely be among the first students with Artistic Spectrum, a Jewish education program for special-needs adults.
Photo courtesy Etz Chaim Learning Center
Vocational training, counseling and social services exist for Jewish adults with special needs, but few synagogues and agencies outside of the Orthodox community, like Etta Israel in North Hollywood, offer continuing Jewish education for that segment of the community.
Starting this fall, VBS will launch the Artistic Spectrum of Jewish Learning, which seeks to provide adults with special needs, ages 18 to 25, with opportunities in higher Jewish learning through the arts. Classes are scheduled to begin Oct. 18, and will meet on Sundays.
Artistic Spectrum — playing off the term “autistic spectrum,” a phrase inclusive of all autism disorders — is one of several programs offered through Our Space, a unique collaborative effort between Conservative congregations VBS in Encino and Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. The curriculum for Artistic Spectrum’s first year will teach Shabbat through the arts, including photography, weaving challah covers, dancing, painting, ceramics and instruction on Jewish traditions, such as creating a Jewish kitchen and preparing a Shabbat dinner.
“Some of our graduates are already living in independent situations with peers, and they want to bring Shabbat into their homes and be able to invite their families over,” said Susan North Gilboa, director of Our Space.
Tuition for Artistic Spectrum is $900, and students need not be members of Valley Beth Shalom or Temple Aliyah to participate. Classes will be held 9-11:30 a.m. each Sunday, except holidays, and the academic year will end June 6.
“This year is intended to be a pilot program, drawing on six recent graduates, two of whom just graduated from Pathways at UCLA,” Gilboa said, referring to a two-year UCLA Extension program for adults with special needs.
Artistic Spectrum is the second 18-and-over program started through Our Space, joining the Voice of Hope Choir, which Temple Aliyah’s Cantor Mike Stein started in 2008 and teaches twice each month on Sundays. Partial funding for Artistic Spectrum comes from a $15,000 grant from The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, which was provided in summer 2008 to support Our Space programs, especially the newly formed choir.
Our Space, which was established in 2007, seeks to help children with special needs, particularly those with an autism spectrum diagnosis or various learning/developmental disorders. Serving 40 to 60 students, ages 3 to 18, Our Space is comprised of classes on Jewish topics, youth groups and a parent support network.
“The idea was to coordinate and work together to be able to bring in as many families as possible across the scope and to join forces,” said Rabbi Paul Steinberg, who heads the VBS Etz Chaim Learning Center, which includes the Our Space program.
In addition to Artistic Spectrum and the Voice of Hope Choir, Our Space’s programs include Shaare Tikva; Moreshet, which meets twice a week for children in third through seventh grade; Solomon’s Tent (formerly Otzar), Temple Aliyah’s second- through seventh-grade program for special-needs Jewish learning; Bagels ‘n’ Chats, a monthly support group for parents; and B’Yachad, a monthly Jewish youth group for pre-teens (ages 7-11) at Temple Aliyah and teens (ages 12-18) at VBS.
Our Space maintains a low student-teacher ratio, and the learning takes place through hands-on classroom activities, music, art and making connections to the lives of the participants, Gilboa said.
“There is a growing body of research that points to the effectiveness of arts education to enrich the lives of young people with special needs, allowing them to develop along their unique paths. In addition to this research, there is a long tradition with Judaism embracing the arts as religious expression,” she said.
While Artistic Spectrum will be the first program of its kind in Los Angeles, featuring regular academic, artistic and religious instruction at the synagogue level, Jewish education for adults with special needs has been available. Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, for instance, provides some Jewish educational opportunities as part of its Chaverim program, but the group is more socially oriented, featuring a karaoke night, a dinner club, dancing, day trips, Shabbat dinners and holiday parties.
Some Shaare Tikva graduates are already expressing interest in enrolling with Artistic Spectrum, including Arthur Abravanel, 20, who started with the program in first grade.
Diagnosed with autism and ADHD, Abravanel was uncomfortable around crowds and loud sounds when he was younger. But by the time he graduated from Shaare Tikva this past year, he was in front of a crowd on stage singing prayers, and he was among the first to join Voices of Hope Choir, which he plans to rejoin this year.
Today Abravanel, and his sister Alayna, currently in Shaare Tikva, are active in the Jewish community and attend social and holiday functions with friends made through Our Space.
When he talks about the Our Space program, Abravanel says he particularly appreciates “meeting new people [and] learning about Jewish traditions.”
Amy Earlix, 19, says she’s remained close friends with students from Shaare Tikva, including Abravanel and his sister. She also says she learned a lot from Our Space program, including Jewish practices, reading Hebrew and learning about the Jewish community. But Amy is eager to try something new and different with Artistic Spectrum, even though it will mean not seeing students still enrolled in Shaare Tikva as often.
“My friends will miss me, but they’ll always be in my heart,” she said.
For more information about Artistic Spectrum of Jewish Learning, call Our Space at (818) 530-4069 or visit http://www.ourspacela.org.