Camp Shutaf, an informal education program, fills a niche for children with special needs.

Beth Steinberg moved to Jerusalem from Brooklyn with her husband and three sons in 2006. She knew she’d have to fight an uphill battle for her youngest, Akiva, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth. Education for children with special needs is also challenging in the United States, but Steinberg did not expect what she described as a completely absent culture of informal education and a dearth of options for after-school enrichment programming.

This lack of services by both the Jerusalem Municipality and private after-school programming drove Steinberg to partner with another local mother to found Shutaf, a Jerusalem-based informal education program for children and teens with special needs.

Faced with a long summer vacation in 2007 with no real options for Akiva, she turned to members of a special-needs parenting support group for advice.

There she met Miriam Avraham, who also felt frustrated by the insufficient options and resources available for her daughter, Adina. Both alumnae of Jewish summer camps in the United States, the mothers said it seemed natural to adopt the model they were already accustomed to when they decide to set up Shutaf.

Steinberg and Avraham both point to their camp experiences as formative and credit summer camp with kindling their passion for informal education and instilling a commitment to inclusion of all children, not just those with special needs.

Together, the women planned the first Camp Shutaf in August of that year and hosted 10 participants. The camp was more successful than they expected.

“By the following August, [we] had more than quadrupled in size,” Avraham says. They believe Camp Shutaf fills a niche sorely lacking in the Israeli education system, which is indicative of the country’s inadequate philosophy toward special education.

The Education Ministry runs schools that provide services for and educate children with special needs, who are divided into one of three categories – those with delayed development; autism; and all other groups. Funding for programming is assigned separately to each group, and does not encourage integration among children with different special needs, or of these children into the general population.

Special-needs children are assigned to schools that are often far from home and inadequately managed, according to Shutaf. Avraham goes further, stating that the municipality’s department of after-school activities for children with special needs, Tzamid (an acronym for “special needs” in Hebrew) spends most of its resources on a once-a-year festival that highlights special-needs organizations instead of providing services year-round.

Officials at the municipality point out that the Jerusalem education system responds to the needs of all pupils, aged three to 21, experiencing all levels and types of disabilities, including ADHD, Down syndrome, autism, sensory impairments, and other learning disabilities.

“Jerusalem represents the most advanced system of special education in the country and aims to integrate children with special needs as much as possible, both on an individual and school-wide level, with classes running alongside regular elementary school and secondary school classes,” said a Jerusalem municipality spokesperson, who did not respond to specific criticisms leveled by the Shutaf founders.

Shutaf contends that the lack of integration of those with special needs causes a division within communities. Steinberg claims that when communities are split and children are sent to segregated classrooms that are “out of the child’s neighborhood, in poorly maintained school buildings, many of them non-compliant in terms of accessibility,” the city is inherently signaling that these children are different and in some ways inferior to their traditionally educated counterparts. This separation indicates an implicit difference, at least in official policy, between a child with special needs and other children.

The numbers indicate that Israeli society regards the special-needs community as separate from the mainstream. Of 605 Israelis surveyed, 52 percent said they wouldn’t want to meet or get to know someone with a cognitive disability. Sixty-seven percent said they wouldn’t know how to respond to a person with a cognitive disability, and 25% think that people with a cognitive disability are violent or aggressive, according to a January 2013 poll by AKIM Israel, the Association for the Habilitation of the Intellectually Disabled.

This is precisely the type of discrimination Shutaf works to remedy through its inclusion programming.

The organization now runs a year-round inclusive program for youngsters aged six to 21, with camp three times a year; after-school programs that include a youth group, a cooking workshop and a young leadership program; and a support group for parents.

Shutaf camp groups are made up approximately 75% of children with a wide variety of special needs and the other 25% are typically developing children.

Shutaf just held a Passover camp for 50 participants this year at the Natural History Museum, and is proud of the growth of its year-round after-school programming.

Reflecting on the current state of the program, Steinberg remarked “what had started off as a small program for our own children developed into something much bigger and more important.”

by Merav Ceren
Originally posted in The Jerusalem Post, on March 21st 2013