Helping children with special needs is one of the most challenging, but ultimately, one of the most rewarding pedagogical pursuits. In Israel, Seeach Sod, established in 1971 by the late Rabbi Dov Levy, has served as a trailblazer in the religious community, seeking creative and innovative solutions to enhance the quality of life for special-needs individuals.
When Rabbi Levy founded the Seeach Sod organization over half a century ago, he dreamed of enabling children with disabilities from religious families – like his own son Avraham, born with Down Syndrome – to receive the best Jewish education according to their ability to understand. Without funding or facilities, and with the help of professionals who volunteered their services, Rabbi Levy embarked on an uncompromising battle to uphold the rights of religious individuals with disabilities.
Since Rabbi Levy’s untimely passing in 2007, his son Shimon has built Seeach Sod into a massive network that today provides educational, rehabilitative, vocational and living facilities in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh, Beitar Ilit and Safed for individuals with disabilities from infancy through old age.
Seeach Sod prepares students for authentic integration into their families and communities, providing them with an education that is as similar as possible to what is being offered in mainstream religious institutions, including uniforms for girls, a siddur (prayer book) party, special events, a winter “camp” and more. The boys attend a Talmud Torah (religious elementary school) and graduate to yeshiva with Talmud studies on their level. And what could be more in keeping with Rabbi Levy’s concept than an occupational therapist who teaches the yeshiva students how to don tefillin?
This year, Seeach Sod, in conjunction with The Jerusalem Post, established the Dov Levy Prize to be awarded to an individual or group that is making a difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities in their own cities and regions. Eight prominent educators from communities worldwide, including England, Australia and the United States, were nominated for the award.
Jerusalem Post readers participated in an online contest to choose the winner, accompanied by a panel of distinguished judges, including Shimon Levy, CEO of Seeach Sod; Inbar Ashkenazi, CEO of the Jerusalem Post Group; Sylvan Adams, prominent businessman and philanthropist; Steve Linde, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report; and Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization.
The eight nominees were:
- New Jersey Assemblyman Gary Schaer, who has fought for special education funding
- Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder of RespectAbility, a disability-led nonprofit that works to create systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities
- Matan A. Koch, one of America’s leading Jewish inclusion experts and director of California and Jewish Leadership at RespectAbility
- Dean Cohen, founder of Flying Fox, an Australian organization that provides social opportunities for people with disabilities
- Gaby Gotesman and friends, one of five graduating seniors who volunteered in SINAI’s Inclusion by Design program
- Stacey Lubofsky, founder of Giving Tree, an organization in Australia that engages children, both with and without disabilities, and promotes inclusivity
- Chaya Tesler, trustee for Misgav, a London-based organization that provides a haven for adult women with disabilities
- Chaya Bender and Jenine Shwekey, founders and directors of The Special Children’s Center in New Jersey and New York, a state-of-the-art center that services over 750 families with disabilities in Brooklyn, the Five Towns and New Jersey.
The Judges cast their votes for different candidates. Shimon Levy, CEO of Seeach Sod, cast his vote for Chaya Bender and Jenine Shwekey, founders and directors of The Special Children’s Center. Levy wrote, “The work of Ms. Bender and Ms. Shwekey reflects the values my father instilled in me. They are determined to provide a solution for every child who needs it and to allow development in a Jewish atmosphere for every child. Honoring these two special women who perform outstanding work honors the memory of my father, who led the revolution for people with disabilities.”
Inbar Ashkenazi chose Matan A. Koch, saying, “Matan himself is an example as a person with cerebral palsy, putting others before himself, and working tirelessly for the rights of others.”Sylvan Adams, the well-known philanthropist, cast his vote for the SINAI Inclusion by Design Program. “This was a difficult choice, as all of the nominees are clearly meritorious, and each could be a worthy choice for this important recognition,” Adams noted. Ultimately, he chose SINAI because, in his view, “our youth represent our richest asset, and the manner in which they are raised and educated will determine the kind of world that we will have in the future.”
Steve Linde, Jerusalem Report editor-in-chief, voted for Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder of RespectAbility, calling her “a modern-day Jewish heroine. Thanks to RespectAbility and its many partners, more than a million Americans with disabilities have entered the workforce. RespectAbility is also a leader in Jewish inclusion, offering tools, training and teaching on how to respect, welcome and include people with disabilities. Mizrahi’s work has also been recognized by the United Nations, where she has been a keynote speaker,” he said.
“A former political strategist, advocate and commentator, I got to know Laszlo Mizrahi when she founded the Israel Project and served as its president for a decade (2002-12). She has written countless articles and is often interviewed in the media, promoting the rights of people with special needs. A strong supporter of Israel and the American Jewish community, she eloquently and effectively advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities – especially people of color and those with “multiple minority status” – in Hollywood.”
Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization, chose the Flying Fox project, headed by Dean Cohen, noting that the organization makes people with disabilities feel like they are among equals, as indeed they are. “It is our obligation to provide people with disabilities the means to fulfill themselves occupationally and socially,” he said, “and I will do everything in my power to make it happen.”
While the votes of the five judges were divided among different nominees, Jerusalem Post readers made a clear choice, choosing Chaya Bender and Jenine Shwekey, founders and directors of The Special Children’s Center in New Jersey and New York, by an overwhelming margin.
In 1996, at the age of 16, best friends Chaya Bender and Jenine Shwekey began volunteering in people’s homes after school, helping families survive the challenge of raising their new, special child. As more families reached out, the two teenagers convinced someone to provide an apartment rent-free where they were able to bring the kids together under one roof, enabling them to help even more families.
The program grew from an after-school respite program to a Sunday program and then a legal holiday program. In 2009, when the first building was built, Chaya and Jenine added an integrated daycare for children ages 0-3 and an educational school program. Today, the Special Children’s Center is primarily based out of its New Jersey location, in a 40,000 square ft. state-of-the-art building, complete with a music room where the children learn theater and musical skills.
Bender and Shwekey chose the name “Special Children’s Center” because Shwekey recalled that she always had a Sephardic community center to visit when she was growing up, where youth spent their time doing positive things. The center was a special part of her life, and she wanted special children to have a place where they would be loved and cared for.
“Our approach is never to say ‘no,’” Chaya and Jenine say. “The entire operation of over 300 employees and 600 volunteers is ‘heart-based,’ predicated on caring about families and loving the children.”The center recently purchased a 30-acre farm in Howell, New Jersey, with the intention of starting an agricultural vocational program to teach adolescents skills that will benefit them throughout their lives and give them a community, enabling them to be serious contributors to society.
The Center’s goals, explain Chaya and Jenine, are to provide families raising a special child with the ability to be happy and functioning ones that can love and embrace their child living at home in the warm and loving family environment that is best for them, knowing that during the challenging, long hours after school, on Sundays, legal holidays and weekends – when their other children need them, and there is so much going on – their special needs child is getting the best care in the world.
“We discovered that a special child can soar beyond challenges and beyond expectations with the help of a loving hand,” they said.
Jerusalem Post Group CEO Inbar Ashkenazi said, “We salute Ms. Bender and Ms. Shwekey as the winners of the Dov Levy Prize for their outstanding work in helping individuals with developmental disabilities maximize their growth and development, while providing needed support to their families. We congratulate all of the Dov Levy Prize nominees who have dedicated their lives to making a difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities.”
Shimon Levy, son of Rabbi Dov Levy and CEO of Seeach Sod, summed up the contest, saying, “I found the work of Ms. Bender and Ms. Shwekey to be especially inspiring, in light of the fact that already in high school, they began volunteering on behalf of people with disabilities. I would like to see all young people who are currently involved in similar projects today follow their example and, like them, continue with those projects, making them bigger and better.
“Frankly, I’m amazed by the tremendous feedback generated by the Dov Levy Prize and by the caring exhibited by people worldwide who took the time and effort to show their appreciation for people who are working to create change for the special needs population,” Levy said.
“I would like to extend a heartfelt invitation to one and all to visit our Seeach Sod network in Israel for a unique experience – to see firsthand our varied programs, to meet our students and staff, and to imbibe our passion to make the world a better place for those with disabilities.”
Riki Deutscher of Kew Gardens Hills, New York, was selected among Post contest voters as the winner of a free round-trip ticket to Israel. “As a special education teacher by profession for over 20 years, there is no other cause closer to my heart than special education in our schools,” she said.
This article was written in cooperation with Seeach Sod.