By Judy Waldman
PARTNERS IN TORAH’S goal of having Jews learn in a partner relationship has been successful since 1993. The purpose is to have Jews regardless of education, background, or level of observance learn with a mentor with whom to study, to enrich Jewish life, and to grow in Yiddishkeit. While this incredible feat has been accomplished tens of thousands of times (there are currently 3,094 study partners!), there was a void in the ability to teach children and adults who may have more difficulty learning and more so for those with significant learning challenges.
The story of the Special Needs division of Partners in Torah shows the power of one. When the ripple effect converts that power into energy, it not only can improve one’s learning, but may significantly impact lives on a daily basis and for an untold number of our Jewish brethren with special needs.
Dina Sheva, my twenty-six-year-old daughter who has Down syndrome, attended a Yachad Shabbaton in our hometown of Hollywood, Florida. Afterwards, I received a rather innocuous phone call from an interviewer, Bayla Sheva Brenner – a writer for OU’s Jewish Action. After the chuckles about the similarity if not confusion of names, I was happy to share my daughter’s experience with Yachad.
Yachad was Dina Sheva’s only interaction with other Jewish children because she primarily attended public schools and didn’t fit in with the synagogue youth groups her age. I then elaborated that Dina Sheva used to learn parsha weekly with a high school student but since the young lady graduated and went to seminary in Israel, Dina Sheva was left with an unfulfilled yearning to learn the weekly parsha. We posted notices on shul bulletins, we offered to pay, but alas, young girls tend to be busy and we couldn’t find a consistent instructor for her.
Once I had relayed the information to this professional interviewer, Bayla Sheva immediately jumped in with “I’ll do it!” Really? An award- winning author, a prolific writer, and she’ll spend time learning with my daughter? So began the weekly Skype sessions with Bayla Sheva, Dina Sheva, and My First Parsha Reader.
I started learning with my Partners in Torah teacher Miriam in 2011. As is common, the Partners in Torah mentoring leads to personal and lasting friendships. It is an understatement to say I was blessed with a beautiful friend. In the amazing world of “coincidences,” Miriam is not only a Special Ed professional, but she has three daughters who are also professionals in the field. When Miriam’s daughter Zahava heard the story of Bayla Sheva and Dina Sheva learning together, she thought that it would be a great project for Partners in Torah. Not one to let a good thought fall by the wayside, Zahava sent a letter to Rabbi Eli Gewirtz, Founder and Director of Partners In Torah. An idea, an email, perseverance and voila: Lev L’Lev was created, Yiddisha neshamas have been nourished, and lives have been changed. As Rabbi Gewirtz says, “We need to look at those with special needs as members of Klal Yisrael. They need friends and want to learn like everyone else. If we see them as our equals, we will be helping them fulfill their mandate as Jews and accomplish our own mission as well.”
Danielle Litton is Lev L L’Lev’s Coordinator. Danielle was previously a relationship coordinator for Partners in Torah, but with her Masters Degree in social work and her interest in children with special needs, she jumped at the opportunity for matchmaking mentors and students for Lev L’Lev when the opportunity arose. Currently, approximately 265 students who have varying degrees of exceptionality are learning through this innovative program. The students cover the span of ages from teenagers to some in their eighties and nineties. The diagnoses include anxiety disorder, mental illness, Down syndrome, autism, various cognitive disorders, visual and/or hearing impairments, homebound seniors, and students who need a one-on-one learning situation.
One of the more challenging assignments was for a student who communicates via assistive technology. Naama lives in a residence for adults with special needs in Montreal. Vikka, her enthusiastic and devoted partner who Zooms in every week, says that they sing songs, have discussions on the Parsha and upcoming chagim. Not only does Naama look forward to the weekly sessions but so do the other residents in the home that manage to “eavesdrop.”
Yet, no special needs training or background is a prerequisite to being a mentor. The mentors are homemakers, business professionals, students, and of course teachers. The demographics show the majority of both instructors and students are from the Tri-state area although participants come from less Jewishly populated states such as Indiana and Tennessee, as well as from California, Florida, and Ohio. Other than the US and Canada, students also hail from Israel and the UK. Today’s technology has made learning possible for those who have limited mobility or for those whose matches may require long-distance communication. Whether learning is by Zoom, FaceTime, cell phone, or landline, there is no obstacle that has prevented a successful learning partnership.
The success of Lev L’Lev can be measured in the longevity of the learning relationships and in the feedback offered. The program was initiated at the beginning of 2016 and there are on-going mentoring relationships since its inception. Dina Sheva’s first Lev L’Lev mentor was Rina, a mom with a new baby who was going back to school for her nursing degree. They learned weekly via Skype until Rina got further into her 2nd pregnancy and took time off. Dina Sheva’s next and current mentor, Rochel, began learning with her in 2017 and met when Rochel made a cross-country trip and included a big effort to see Dina Sheva. Dina Sheva has been learning with Jordy for almost a year and a half. Bayla Sheva stays in touch, so Dina Sheva has been blessed to have had four women who have brightened her life in addition to quenching her thirst for learning Torah. BFF x 4! As Rivka Kulik, a Care Manager for ACANY affiliated with HASC Center, expressed so well, “Lev L’Lev really is an appropriate name for the program because these beautiful hearts continue to connect even when the chevrusas change or stop.”
When I was asked to be a mentor, I said my only qualification was being a mom and I didn’t feel prepared for a special needs student. Overriding my concerns, I was paired with a married woman in her thirties with two children. Although my student went to day school, due to her challenges she mostly learned how to keep Shabbos by growing up in a frum home, but now she wanted to learn the halachos of Shabbos. After completing our sefer, we both wanted to continue our learning and, at her request, are now studying a sefer on midos. I have been so honored to have weekly learning sessions with my student — she has brightened my Sundays for five years, refreshes my knowledge, and I get nachas from helping someone learn whose husband wears a streimel!
My family’s personal success stories are not the only ones. One mentor brags that they have increased their weekly learning to biweekly; one case manager reported seeing great progress. Danielle Litton says, “It’s amazing to see how each student can be involved according to their own abilities. One connects through singing Shabbos songs together while another one learns Gemara and Chumash, and of course there’s everything in-between. We’ve had partnerships meet up to make siyumim, a partner who received his first pair of Tefillin, and a partner who is learning to lein for his Bar Mitzvah.”
Rivka Kulik from HASC has sent several students to Lev L’Lev for learning opportunities. Two of Rivky’s students, both young ladies in their mid-twenties, live in HASC residential homes. Rivky says that it’s not heavy-duty learning, but it isn’t just the learning that is important, but also the connection to another person in the Jewish community. The feeling of “I have a chevrusa too” is an empowering one. These ladies, along with the other students she has referred to Lev L’Lev, attend shiurim or classes at their day programs, but Lev L’Lev provides the opportunity to learn a topic of choice and at each one’s own level. Other organizations that have partnered with Partner in Torah students include Yachad, OHEL, Makor, Darkeynu, and numerous others.
Rivky, who exuberantly claims with pride that she has seen the Lev L’Lev video three times (https:// www.partnersintorah.org/lev-llev/) says, “I love this program. My ladies love this 37 program. The Torah belongs to everybody. Lev L’Lev is for people capable of learning at whatever level and it is our obligation to make sure that we share our Torah with them too.”
And that’s where Lev L’Lev succeeds. Can you imagine if all the children and adults with special needs could have a mentor, a teacher, a partner?! Those thirsting for Torah who have the same void that Dina Sheva had — no one with whom to learn, no one with whom to connect, no one helping attain growth in Judaism at whatever level. Now they can feel renewed in their Jewish growth and in the personal gratification of having someone who cares individually about their being Jewish. This mitzvah is a winwin, as the mentors gain as much, if not more than these special neshamas do.
As Zahava wrote in her note to Rabbi Gewirtz, “There is a need and there is also an availability of those who can provide the need. Would Partners in Torah be willing to provide the services and offer those with special needs a chance of a Jewish education?” Partners in Torah gave a resounding “Yes!” with the creation of Lev L’Lev. With 265 success stories, Lev L’Lev is giving opportunities. You can be a part of this beautiful mitzvah whether as a mentor or for recommending students.
Heart to heart – heed the call!
For more information or to sign up:
1-800-STUDY-4-2 ext 2