“The biggest problem – or obstacle – occurs when families in our community tend not to come forward and acknowledge they have a need or that their child would benefit from special programs,” he continued. “Understandably, many are in denial and most just look to alternative sources outside the Jewish community. Not only does this alienate families with special needs from our community, but it also makes it more difficult to establish programs for these families within the community because the community doesn’t know who they should be trying to reach.”
After an exhaustive search, Katzenellenbogen and his wife began the Houston Jewish Special Needs Yahoo Group, specifically to promote discussion and be a source to announce events and activities that cater to all Jews of all ages with special needs in our community.
“The Jewish Herald-Voice has been extremely supportive regarding Jewish special needs awareness in our community and in trying to get those families who have a need to come forward,” the activist father pointed out. “My only concern is that it may, incorrectly, appear that there are many local options within our Jewish community, when, in fact, there are very limited options.
“This lack of awareness within our Houston Jewish community is alarming, considering that special needs, especially autism spectrum disorders, are increasing to epidemic proportions,” he said. “Our fellow Jews know that families have a child or children with special needs, but they really do not realize how much it affects the family dynamics – or what all the family has to do, just to function on a day-to-day basis.”
In fact, when there is a child or individual with special needs in a family, the phrase, “It takes a village” – or a shtetl – “to raise a child” takes on a totally new meaning.
Many families spend more than they make to offer their children the therapies and services they require. Notably, the state of Texas has the dubious distinction of being 49th when it comes to offering services for children and young adults with special needs. Wait lists for services easily can go on for seven to 10 years and, by that time, the child has missed out on the early intervention that is key to any hope of success.
One other problem: Because the disabilities among the Jewish population in Houston are so varied, the special needs are many and wide-ranging.
Perhaps Katzenellenbogen’s greatest frustration comes when he finds conflict between his lifetime of Jewish teachings and his current reality. “I have heard comments and quotations from numerous rabbis and important lay community leaders, referring to the need to educate our Jewish children, according to his or her own way, and some have even gone so far as to state that this is part of Jewish law. King Solomon was to have said, ‘Teach your child according to his way.’
“Most of Houston’s Jewish day schools accept high functioning special needs children, but they do not welcome all children with special needs,” he continued. “There are many other Jewish communities in this country which have programs we could use as models here in Houston, so that we can serve the needs of children of all levels of mental and physical ability.”He points to the Friendship Circle program, part of Chabad Outreach of Houston, as being a supportive and proactive Jewish organization in the Houston community. “We cannot thank Rabbi Dovid Goldstein enough for all the great work he has done to accommodate our Jewish special needs community,” Katzenellenbogen said. “His philosophy has always been to offer support without hesitation, and he is a true mensch.”
He points to the Friendship Circle program, part of Chabad Outreach of Houston, as being a supportive and proactive Jewish organization in the Houston community. “We cannot thank Rabbi Dovid Goldstein enough for all the great work he has done to accommodate our Jewish special needs community,” Katzenellenbogen said. “His philosophy has always been to offer support without hesitation, and he is a true mensch.”
Katzenellenbogen went on to say Chabad has embraced all children to make them feel they have a right to be a Jew, to be proud of whom they are and of their heritage, even when they can not express it like their typically developing peers.
“They serve families from all observances and affiliations of the Jewish community,” said the activist. “In addition to their weekly Friends Program, where they pair [a special needs child with] two volunteers, usually teenagers (the vast majority of whom have no connection or affiliation with Chabad), they also have a calendar for programs around all the major Jewish holidays, plus a Mom’s and a Dad’s Night Out, an annual Friday night Shabbaton and three new Children’s Circle events in conjunction with leadership from The River for interactive programs.
“Volunteer training sessions also are complemented with volunteer outings, as a way of thanking the teenagers who give their time to perform this mitzvah, plus the Friends Program holds an annual year-end dessert reception for the parents and volunteers.
“Rabbi Goldstein always steps up to the plate taking care of the need first, and then worries about funding afterwards, which is why I would encourage anyone wanting to offer financial support to contact him directly,” Katzenellenbogen said.
Then, he added, thoughtfully, “Many people in the Houston Jewish Community have done great work to assist children and young adults with special needs, but they do not live with the issues like the parents and caregivers. While parents and caregivers can help raise awareness and try to find ways to access more of the services needed individually, it really requires a concerted effort from a large group.”
There are also initiatives from Jewish Family Service, thanks to Linda Burger, and the Bureau of Jewish Education, Kesher Sunday School, under Diane Brezner. Lee Wunsch, Jewish Federation CEO, is receptive to future support for the special needs Jewish community. Ultimately, it will be up to the families to make their needs known, to come forward and to be identified. Katzenellenbogen, in the meantime, will continue to, as he says, keep talking, keep making noise and keep bringing up these needs until they are met.
Mark Katzenellenbogen — Email
AUG 01 • Some will no doubt chuckle at my expense when you see the pictures and the degree that I will go to, in order to help raise awareness for Special Needs within our Houston Jewish Community.
Please note that the interview covered many issues and was edited which was out of my control. I included all those in the community who have addressed Special Needs in the past and mentioned every group I know of who are currently providing services within our local Jewish Community. Unfortunately some items got cut and I wanted to apologize and add a few footnotes:
1) The JCC has reintroduced their Club Haver which now meets monthly for social interaction events and I am promoting a monthly bowling social get-together as not everyone is a member of the JCC.
2) The STARS program at BAC is fantastic for those children under the age of 5.
3) The problem is that there is a very large gap (lack of services for those) between the age of 5 and 25.
Many thanks for your positive comments of support for this important cause and to those who have come forward for Special Needs