Started in 2017, the Berman Buddies program was created to support the students in Sulam’s Shearim program. Shearim students have intellectual disabilities that preclude them from participating in typical classes, but under the leadership of Devorah Merzel, their experiences on Berman’s campus go beyond the walls of their classroom.
Over 25 students in Berman’s Upper and Middle Schools have signed up to be Berman Buddies to the three Shearim students: Elana, Moishe, and Tehilla. Together, they play games at lunch time, arrange Shabbat and weekend playdates, and create a safe space to interact and engage. And while Elana, Moishe, and Tehilla have all benefitted from these interactions, the Berman students and faculty have gained massively from their Berman Buddies in return. Openness and acceptance, a broader sense of community, and sense of comfort to approach students who may be different than they are have all blossomed through their interactions with their buddies.
It is apparent to anyone who sees the students interact that the students are building authentic relationships. Berman students invite the Shearim students to sit with them at lunch or on a field trip, walk to specialty classes together, and reach out when they run into each other in the community. “They sit in a classroom with just the three of them, but when they step out into the hallway, they have real relationships with other kids as well,” said Merzel.
The partnership between Berman and Sulam has grown over the years to create opportunities for students with a variety of intellectual and learning disabilities. In addition to the Shearim program, there are 34 students enrolled in Sulam who attend Berman classes, ensuring that students with a variety of learning abilities have access to Jewish education. Both schools are proud of what they have created for students who may otherwise have had limited success in a Jewish day school environment. “This is real. Our mission of inclusion is real. With this kind of partnership, we can do amazing things.”