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With Open Arms: UJA-NY Federation, JAFI and JDC redefine Special Needs Education in Moscow
July 2010

Sonia is nine years-old. Although she has cerebral palsy, she thrives at the mainstream “Gan Chama” Elementary School in Moscow, earning excellent grades and taking part in extra-curricular activities with her friends. She also takes individual classes with a speech therapist and receives supervision from a psychologist, which has helped boost her self-confidence.

Sonia has had the opportunity to integrate into a mainstream school thanks to a unique partnership between UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.  This year the program, Integration of Children with Special Needs in the Jewish Community in Moscow, enables 196 children with special needs (ages 4-16) to participate in formal and informal Jewish education activities across Moscow.

“The size and scope of the program is all-encompassing,” Rina Edelstein, director of donor relations for JDC’s FSU department, says of the partnership with JAFI.  “We’re touching almost every Jewish organization in Moscow through this program.”

The integration project takes place primarily through the framework of six Jewish day schools and community centers, providing children with cerebral palsy, autism, cognitive impairment, Down’s syndrome, and ADHD the assistance and individual attention necessary to build their Jewish identities, both in and out of the classroom. In the realm of informal education, for example, 23 children with special needs and their parents attend a week-long summer camp alongside kids without disabilities. There are also services designed for parents, including a parents’ club and psychological counseling.

It’s a revolutionary approach to special needs education for Moscow’s Jewish community. Prior to the project’s existence, disabled children had few, if any, educational opportunities due to an extreme stigma in FSU countries regarding special needs. Outside of Moscow and other big cities, schools that have special education programs are still hard to find.

“Special needs children are very often ostracized in the FSU,” Edelstein says.  “So antiquated is the general bias in these countries towards special needs that up until a few years ago, a left handed individual was considered special needs.”

In some cases, this is the first time a child with special needs and his family can comfortably take part in a Jewish community event or receive the financial support to buy equipment, such as a new wheelchair. In other instances, it provides children access to Jewish education in a welcoming and receptive environment, as opposed to the less personal environment that’s often associated with educational culture in the former Soviet Union.

“This year was a real breakthrough,” one parent says. “Working with teachers, [my son] ‘stuck’ to the 5th grade, goes to school with pleasure, by himself, without a nurse, and sits in a classroom.  He also began to participate in extra-curricular activities, field trips, and holiday celebrations…At home, Roma [her son] has also improved, which we attribute to his progress at school.”

The Integration of Children with Special Needs program took root in 2006, at the behest of members of the UJA-Federation of New York. When participants on a NY federation mission to the Former Soviet Union noticed a complete lack of services in the region for people with special needs, they turned to JDC and JAFI, asking them to collaborate on a joint program in Moscow that would fit in with their respective priorities. A joint steering committee was formed that incorporated the strengths of each organization – JDC’s welfare infrastructure and JAFI’s formal Jewish educational resources with each organization offering informal Jewish programming. The program launched in time for the 2007-08 school year and has already accomplished some of the goals set out by federation lay leaders and professionals.

“UJA-Federation of New York’s Caring Commission is proud to have initiated this pioneering effort in response to unmet needs of children with special needs in the FSU and their families,” says Roberta Leiner, Managing Director of the Caring Commission at UJA-Federation of New York. “We continue to support this program as it reflects our global Jewish responsibility and commitment to build inclusive schools and Jewish Community Centers in which children with special needs feel embraced by a caring Jewish community.”

UJA-Federation of New York funds the entire budget through a $250,000 per year grant, $150,000 of which goes to JDC, and the remaining $100,000 to JAFI. Both programming bodies use their additional existing resources in Moscow to support and carry out the program.

As the program grows and matures, the need for qualified service providers has become more pronounced. This year, a group of 70 professionals and 34 volunteers received special training in Jewish studies as well as new educational approaches to working with special needs children.

On the professional level, school educators and specialists continue to forge close connections to determine what’s best for each child at different stages throughout the year. Evaluation statistics indicate that each year, approximately 25% of the children advance to the extent that they no longer need the additional support, becoming fully integrated into the Jewish community in Moscow.

According to Natalie Shnaiderman, Project Director at JAFI, the 2009-10 academic year was a breakthrough year for the program as the project team became more independent and professionally competent. While, at first, they relied heavily on expert organizations to provide ongoing advice, the schools have since learned to use their own resources.  

The program is also having an effect on the non-Jewish community, as Moscow’s municipality has started to work with the program’s staff in a two-way information exchange. This dialogue has helped program participants and their families learn about the municipality’s new initiatives and developments to enhance quality of life for special needs children, and the city officials learn about the new and innovative approaches the integration program is using in and out of the classroom.