Flourishing in Jewish Day School

A reflection from Lianne Heller, Executive Director of Sulam

Photo of Elana Orlofsky, a Sulam student, with friend.When you meet Elana Orlofsky, you will quickly learn that she is a sweet, bubbly, and friendly teenager who loves art, music, talking to and texting friends, cooking, baking, doing community service, and, of course, having lots of fun.

Elana was born with Down Syndrome in 2003. Her parents, Ahuva and Aaron, were determined that Elana would grow up with all the advantages of any other kid in their community. This would mean she would have to be fully included at a regular Jewish Day School, learn to become a member of the community, and give of herself as much as she receives. She would also have to develop the academic, social, and emotional skills needed to become an accomplished, successful, and happy adult.

The Orlofskys saw Sulam, the inclusion program housed within Berman Hebrew Academy, as the only possibility to achieve their goal within the Jewish community. At the time, Sulam was including Berman students with a wide range of disabilities. However, children with the type of disability Elana has need an additional level of support. With this in mind, Sulam founded the Shearim program—a special education program tailored for each student’s specific needs.

Entering Shearim in kindergarten, Elana was quickly integrated into the social and educational fabric of the Berman school community. To help Berman students get to know and appreciate the many wonderful qualities each Shearim student has, the Sulam team helped form a program called Berman Buddies. Hoping for just nine Berman student volunteers to provide a rotation of weekly activities, the team was overwhelmed with more than 50 students hoping to spend time with Elana and her Shearim friends. Today, Berman Buddies is one of the most popular activities and clubs at the school.

In addition to social development support, Elana has received intensive special education instruction in foundational skills such as reading, writing, math and Judaics with the help of the talented team of special educators working at Sulam.

Now a high school student, Elana is a confident member of the Jewish community. She has deep and abiding friendships with most of the girls in her grade. She can sit at the Shabbat table and read and discuss the weekly Torah reading with her family, making connections between the Torah and her own life. “I love being in Shearim and Berman because I have so many friends and I get to see all my friends all the time.”

Elana is learning functional math so that she can manage her own money and personal finances, she is reading and writing, participating in health and hygiene classes, and attends Berman Judaics classes. She has learned to cook and bake in the school kitchen and regularly comes home with healthy treats that delight her siblings and parents. Thinking beyond school, Elana is participating in a transition class designed to prepare her for daily living, self-determination, and interpersonal and employment skills.

How has COVID-19 impacted Elana and her fellow Shearim students? For essential consistency and daily interaction, Shearim students have attended school in person every single day since mid-October. In addition, Elana has developed powerful technology skills—utilizing educational platforms, social platforms, and other media with independence and ease.

Throughout her school years, Elana has been challenged and guided to push all the boundaries that are sometimes unintentionally created by society. She has become a contributing member of her school community and a valued and respected classmate to her friends. And just like her parents had always planned for her, Elana gives back to the world just as she has received.

“We are forever grateful for her teachers and the administrators at Sulam,” say Ahuva and Aaron Orofsky. “They have given Elana the confidence to go out into the world every day knowing that she is a valued and important member of our community, and that is the greatest gift.”