Bari Kopman, 8, prefers to be called by her Hebrew name, Leah. She also practices her prayers at home and is on her way to making her bat mitzvah when she comes of age.
But there was a time when Tara Kopman didn’t think her daughter, who has a pervasive developmental disorder, an autism spectrum disorder, would have the opportunity to delve into their faith. But that’s all changed for Bari since joining Lubavitch Chai Center in Dix Hills and enrolling in the center’s Hebrew School for children with special needs.
“It means everything in the world to her,” Kopman said of her daughter’s classes, adding that because of Bari’s disorder, traditional Hebrew school classes would have become difficult as Bari got older and needed more specialized instruction.
Bari is one of nine students with special needs, including children on the autism spectrum and those with other developmental disabilities, who attend Hebrew school at the center each Sunday and are taught by Beverly DelGreco, a certified special education teacher.
Del Greco said her class is all about adaptability. She said she takes a multisensory approach to teaching her students about their Jewish faith, making them feel comfortable and encouraging them to interact. She often teaches through song, repetition, and other methods like incorporating pictures into the lesson whenever possible. The class also periodically mixes in with mainstream Hebrew school classes.
On Sunday, Del Greco’s students, who range from 8 to 12, learned about the Jewish holiday Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, which is on Thursday.
“But how can we celebrate if we’ll be in school?” one student asked. He was concerned about his Catholic schoolmates understanding the holiday.
“Tell them about Tu B’Shevat,” Del Greco said. “They’ll be interested.”
The lessons may seem simple -- in addition to learning the Jewish holidays, the students memorize a handful of prayers, learn the Hebrew alphabet, and the practice of mitzvahs, or doing good deeds - but to the students, it’s an opportunity, they haven't had before to be incorporated into their heritage.
Rabbi Yackov Saacks of the Lubavitch Chai Center said he believes the special needs Hebrew school, which began in March, is the only one of its kind in Suffolk County.
Saacks called the class, which also relies on adult and student volunteers, “heart-warming.” He said every time he sits in on the class, he sees that the students are improving and taking in everything Del Greco teaches.
“You hear them singing the alphabet,” Saacks said. “You ask them, ‘What did God create on the second day?’ and they know it.”
He said the class grew from the Friendship Circle, a program that pairs mainstream Hebrew school students with special-needs children in the community as friends and mentors. He said the Friendship Circle has existed for a few years but left a void.
“‘What if my child wanted to get bar or bat mitzvahed?’” Saacks said the parents would ask him.
“That’s not necessarily viable for these children,” he said, adding that traditionally students must complete Hebrew school in order to partake in the Jewish coming of age ceremony, though there are exceptions.
Kopman agreed that before joining the Chai Center, she thought Bari's disability might keep her from the centuries-old rite of passage.
But now she said she sees no reason that Bari wouldn’t make her bat mitzvah when the time comes. She said the Hebrew school classes have been a tremendous opportunity for Bari and her family.
She said the classes make Bari feel special, and not just special needs.
“It’s drawing her into the community,” she said.
Beverley Del Greco teaches Hebrew school for students with special needs at Lubavitch Chai Center in Dix Hills. (Jan. 16, 2011)