What Makes a School a Community

Written by Sarah Sicherman on . Posted in Features

It’s a Monday morning in the Upper School at Berman Hebrew Academy of Rockville, Maryland. The bell rings and the halls are filled with students rushing to first period. Teachers are smiling and welcoming their students into class.

If you look closely at the gaggle of students, you will notice that this is not a homogenous group. Students come from different Jewish backgrounds, are talented in many different ways, and have various personal challenges. It is a diverse group of people that represents our diverse world.

In this mix, you will also find students who need explicit support, be it academic, emotional, social, or behavioral, in order to find their place within the group. These are the students who have learned that in spite of their differences, they are welcome and capable of making a contribution. These are the students who teach the others that every person is valuable and deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.

This picture of true community learning was intentionally designed and created because of a group of deeply passionate parents who were, and continue to be, touched by their own personal stories.

“When Jacob was born in 1996 with Down Syndrome, I knew that I couldn’t be the only parent in such a large community who had a child whose learning style was different,” said Amy Blum, founder of Sulam. “I wanted to ensure that all of our children could be included in a Jewish day school environment.” And so Sulam was born.

Sulam, the Hebrew word for ladder, operates on the belief that every child should have access to a rich and nurturing Jewish education. Housed within Berman, Sulam’s team of special education teachers provide students in grades K-12 with highly individualized educational programs. The unique combination of inclusion in general education classrooms and targeted instruction aims to ensure students reach their maximum learning potential.

This year’s honoree at Sulam’s annual gala on June 3, Blum reflected in advance of the event on her unwavering commitment to making inclusion possible in a school setting and beyond for the past 22 years.

“The goal of Sulam was to be able to look at our community as a whole, and reach each individual and discover their value,” she said.

For Sulam Director of Marketing Ahuva Orlofsky, the birth of a daughter with Down Syndrome 14 years ago completely changed the trajectory of who she has become, both personally and professionally.

“After Elana was born, a lot of my thoughts began to focus on what the future would look like for her,” said Orlofsky. “I wanted to be sure she would be included in this community, be able to go to school with her peers, but also receive the special education that she needs to be successful.”

“As Elana grew and became a student at Sulam, I began to get to know many of the students and felt a pull to come work here. I saw a reluctance from students to say that they went to Sulam for fear of standing out. Through my work, I have a personal goal to not only show the community what Sulam is doing every day, but to help show these students how extraordinary they are, and help break down any stigmas related to being a Sulam student.”

On Yom Ha’atzmaut this year, Elana participated in the daglanut presentation, twirling an Israeli flag alongside her seventh-grade classmates. Ahuva credits the amazing partnership between Berman Hebrew Academy and Sulam for providing Elana the opportunity and confidence to participate in this tradition alongside her peers.

Sulam Director Lianne Heller has her own story, too.

“I am the very proud parent of four sons, two of whom learn differently,” said Heller. “Lev was a highly gifted student who struggled with executive functioning. He simply could not access general education, and had Sulam been available at the time he would have been able to stay at Berman. As a community, I wish we had been able to serve his needs.”

Years later, when her second son, Ezra, presented with similar challenges, he had the option of Sulam ready and waiting for him. “He was embraced by a dedicated team of educators who worked with him tirelessly,” said Heller.

Ezra successfully graduated from Sulam and Berman, is comfortable within the community, and continues to thrive, she said.

Over time, Sulam has increased its range of services and its ability to include an even more diverse range of students. “When a community gets together and recognizes that every human being has value and has the right to be included, we elevate our practices, we elevate our commitment to a just and fair society,” said Heller.

“Sometimes we just need that one special parent, or family, to push, to demand, to rally support, to get us to the next level,” she said. “I can’t wait to see where Sulam will be in the next few years.”

By Sarah Sicherman