Thursday, March 31, 2011

Talk About Full Circle: Sonni Bendetson, A'09

There’s a tradition at Tufts Hillel that when we say the motzi on Friday nights, everyone reaches their arm toward the center of the table and puts a hand on the challah.  At two Shabbat dinners recently, for the first time, several of those hands belonged to young adults with special needs.  As I looked around the room at students, professors, Hillel staff and even President Bacow connected to one another and reciting the motzi in unison, I realized that, at that moment, no one could really tell who had special needs and who did not.

That was a highlight for me: watching my college world merge with my professional world around an issue that is deeply important to me. And Repair the World made it happen. 

I grew up with a younger brother who is hard of hearing, and it only took witnessing one teasing comment from another kid, a family friend who called my brother “ear boy” because of his hearing aids, to ignite my passion for advocating for people with special needs at a very young age.  In high school I became involved in the Gateways Teen Volunteer Program, which trains high school students to be one-to-one aides for students in a Sunday school for children with special needs.  I wrote my college essay about my experience in this program, and went on to study Child Development at Tufts, graduating in 2009.

After graduating college, I took a job as Program Associate at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, the same organization that runs the Gateways Teen Volunteer Program. During one of my first days on the job, I attended a meeting with a group of parents who wanted Gateways to design a Jewish education program for their young adult children with special needs, who were all about my age.  I was thinking about the role Judaism had played in my life for the past few years and realized that, like most Jewish young adults in the US, my campus Hillel had shaped my Jewish identity as a young adult, providing a forum to explore Judaism through education, socialization, volunteerism and spirituality.  Then it occurred to me that people with special needs were simply not a part of this experience, and that if I had not found a way to incorporate this population into my definition of my Jewish community in college, then most other people probably hadn’t either.

I wanted to create a program that would meet the needs of Jewish young adults with disabilities, as well as begin to address issues around the inclusion of people with special needs in the greater Jewish community.  Lucky for me, Tufts University, my alma mater, was poised and ready to take on this mission. Tufts Hillel, through their Repair the World initiative, partnered with Gateways, Boston’s central agency for Jewish special education, to pilot this innovative new program that aims to challenge- and change- the way we view, treat and interact with people with special needs in our community.  Now the greater goal is to develop emerging adults who are not only aware of people with special needs, but who value and expect a community that is inclusive of all Jewish people.

With the support of Gateways and the partnership of Tufts Hillel, we recruited volunteers and have run the first two installments of the program with huge success. Everyone in the program- the volunteers and the young adults with special needs- have had fabulous evenings.  “The best part,” according to Marie, a bright young woman with Down Syndrome who is enrolled in the program, “was when we did the Kiddush together. The whole table and the whole room, it was like one big community and I felt part of it.”

The next installment of this program is slated for April 8 at Tufts Hillel.  For more information on this or any Gateways program, please contact Sonni Bendetson at 617-630-9010, ext. 109 or at