Beer Sheva’s Students with Autism Face a New Academic Year with Reasons to Smile

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Dr. Elissa Freedman made aliya from Connecticut in 2016 with her husband and three young children. Prior to her aliya she served in several communities as a board-certified family physician, and teaching medical students and residents. A family doctor with Clalit Health Services in Beer Sheva, she was granted tenure after only one year in recognition of her outstanding service to her panel of patients (presently at 1600 people). As an Orthodox Jewish woman, she works not only as a busy doctor but also as a member of the wider community. Her second profession begins when she arrives home and assumes the role of devoted wife and mother. One of her children, like many others in Beer Sheva, is on the Autism Spectrum. Dr. Freedman knew when her family decided to move to Beer Sheva, that she would face an uphill battle. Beer Sheva still struggles to provide the ratio of therapists and physicians to patients that the center of Israel enjoys. She committed to fighting for the best interventions and instruction not only for her son but “for all the kids of the south.” When the opportunity arose to work with the city’s department of developmental pediatrics one day each week, she made excellent use of the opening.

A bit of background: Since the Freedman family’s arrival in Israel, Dr. Freedman’s son has been mainstreamed in the neighborhood religious school with the assistance of a classroom aide who split her time between him and another student with similar needs. The school also provided two hours weekly of social skills support and two hours of small group academic support. Despite the best efforts of the families coupled with generous private supplemental therapies this past year, Dr. Freedman’s son was still floundering. Despite best intentions of the school’s supportive staff members, the administration lacked the expertise or staffing to provide the child with what he needed to thrive.

The Freedmans, like other Torah-observant parents, have been forced to choose between options A) placing their child with autism in mainstream religious classrooms where teachers and aides lack the training or resources to make lessons accessible and appropriate for students with autism, or B) placing them in small classes within the secular school system where the curriculum is different and where their socialization needs based on the cultural norms of the orthodox Jewish family life were not being met. Secular schools in the Jewish homeland don’t include daily prayer, blessings before and after meals. Classmates and teachers might not observe halakhic dress codes, kashrut, Jewish holidays, or Shabbat. For ultra-orthodox haredi families the differences of the two school systems are compounded by the presence of smartphones and internet which are off-limits or highly restricted within their social and employment settings. Both educational options left important needs unmet, the children with autism more confused and stressed than before.

This struggle is not unfamiliar to most American Jewish families outside a select few neighborhoods. Those parents are also forced to send their Jewish children to public schools in order to receive the educational support required for more complex developmental conditions such as Autism and Down Syndrome. “As a parent in Connecticut, I felt abandoned by the Jewish Establishment,” Dr. Freedman says. “I felt that we were forced to choose the public school which was incredible and wonderful at helping my son to develop basic skills but it left his soul unnourished. We knew that he had no Jewish future there and that we would either move to New York where we could spend $60,000 per year to send him to Sinai Schools or we could make aliya to have those needs met Since my husband and I had always planned on making aliya, the choice was obvious.”

The situation from 2016 – 2020: The move to Beer Sheva did not solve the Freedman’s problem, however. A necessary communication skills class that specializes in children on the autism spectrum did not exist in Beer Sheva’s religious school system until 2019 though such classes do exist in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ra’anana, Efrat, Bet Shemesh, and elsewhere. Freedman explains that “This year Beer Sheva had 22 secular preschool classes for children with ASD. While approximately 30% of all Beer Shevian school children attend religious institutions, until now the system had reported that there weren’t sufficient children to form a class of 6-9 children.” Several concerned parents with professional degrees and/or financial means left Beer Sheva in order to have their ASD children’s needs met in other cities. “That,” says Dr. Freedman, “was one of the persuasive arguments that parents still in Beer Sheva used to convince Beer Sheva’s ministry of education to change course and to start meeting the needs of orthodox children with autism. The improvement in educational resources becomes effective immediately in the fall 2020 school year.” The momentum for improvement is likely to continue. Beer Sheva is home to the new National Autism Research Center of Israel. https://www.autismisrael.org/soroka-medical-center

The persuasive argument referenced above resulted from an invitation by Malka Shakham, an experienced special educator, haredi mother and doctoral candidate at Ben Gurion University, to Dr. Freedman. Both women joined a June 28, 2020 ZOOM meeting to champion the need for special education curricula tailored to the religious and haredi communities. Dr. Freedman represented the experience of dozens of other parents. All of them have been struggling to help their children to succeed while providing the additional support needed to understand classroom expectations, to develop social and play skills that come naturally to typical children. Dr. Freedman explained that “Kids with ASD are too often not meeting normative milestones such as making friends, looking people in the face when speaking with them, achieving academic success, knowing how to behave in public, and so on. These skills can be developed in many cases with the right interventions. The confusion caused by cultural gaps only worsened the situation and it’s a problem that must be remedied.” Dr. Freedman made another important point to the authority figures participating in the meeting: “Beer Sheva is the capital of the Negev. Its astonishing growth and success will lead the future of the country. Young families arrive here as I did, to study at Ben Gurion university but they will take their skills and relocate to the center of Israel if they don’t find the resources they need for their children to thrive and to blossom. We must entourage young families who have benefited from the amazing education available here at Ben Gurion University to stay and to invest in helping the city as it races forward.”

The result of the ZOOM discussion has been a unanimous agreement to work towards better meeting the needs of Haredi, Dati Leumi, and secular children individually and in group settings, within Beer Sheva’s public and private educational systems when the 2020-2021 school year begins. To Dr. Freedman’s joy, the city has officially announced that a combined 1st and 2nd– grade Communications class for the religious sector will be available.

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