I arrived at the Greengate Jewish Center hall, in Baltimore, on June 2, early enough to watch O’Fishel Caterers’ wait staff put on the evening affair’s finishing touches–the regal looking burgundy tablecloth overlays, the teal blue organza chair sashes tied around silky white banquet chair covers, and the colorful fresh floral centerpieces on the tables set for the 140 expected by-invitation-only family and friend gratis guests. They scurried to the rhythm of the one man band‘s warm up number, while plentifully stocking the salad and beverage bars. By now, the photographer and videographer had joined me; the incessant flash of Esky Cook’s omnipresent camera only added to the excitement.
At first glance, one might have thought that the grand chandelier-lit hall was host to a fundraiser, with its long dais and several surrounding beautifully set tables. But, as the evening progressed, there was no mistaking that the ambiance of the Gesher LaTorah event was, instead, that of a celebratory simcha. As each of the eight honored special needs students were announced when they entered the hall in a processional, they received a standing ovation as they were bedecked with a personalized “Commitment to Jewish Education Award” ribbon medal, aglow in their opportunity to shine. After an elegantly served four-course dinner, the leibadik separate men and women dance circles around the celebrants made it feel like a chasana, all the more! It was being paid for by an anonymous parent sponsor, and the lovely decor was an upgrade donated by O’Fishel Caterers.
Thirty students, ranging in age from six through adult, attend Gesher LaTorah. Close to fifty years old, it is the oldest religious special needs program of its kind in the U.S. The students honored at the Gala, co-chaired by Mrs. Chaya Cohen and Mrs. Libby Steinberg, are the over 17-year-old participants of the Sunday TAG (Torah, avoda, and gemilus chasadim) program, who take advantage of their once-a-week opportunity to advance their knowledge of Yiddishkeit, although some of them also learn during the week with private tutors or with their family.
TAG was created for those who want to continue to learn as adults, for whom a school-type environment geared to younger students was not age-appropriate. The entire Gesher LaTorah program tries to maintain a 3:1 teacher-student ratio, based on its students’ needs. Two students use sign language interpreters, and there is more staff for those students who have additional needs, so that everyone gets individualized attention. Although tuition is charged, as an agency funded by Associated: Jewish Community of Greater Baltimore, the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education (CJE) program is in a position to offer financial aid so no one is turned away because of finances.
“Tonight is all about celebrating Jewish learning,” explained Mrs. Rachel Turniansky, principal of Gesher LaTorah and coordinator of the CJE’s Special Needs Programs. “Jewish learning never ends. Jewish adults continue to learn even well beyond the school year. Jewish adults with disabilities also have an important job to do to continue their Jewish learning. Students in our TAG class have been learning and continuing their dedication in Jewish learning for many years, and that is what we are here, tonight, to celebrate.”
“What we are witnessing here in the TAG program is Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chasidim in their most pure forms, both by the participants and by everyone else involved in this fantastic, amazing program, in which people are doing things purely l’shaim shmayim and making an incredible Kiddush Hashem to all who see them and are aware of what they do,” said Gala guest Rabbi Raphael Waldman.
It was obvious to me that the success of Gesher LaTorah, in great part, can be attributed to the warmth and sense of family that exude from its administrative and teaching staff, as I witnessed one student ecstatically running into her principal’s arms in the middle of dancing, and the passionate hug that longtime Gesher LaTorah teacher, Rebbetzin Tirza Arieh, shared with one of her ‘girls’, at the end of the Gala.
“Gesher LaTorah is a place that people who are a little different can call ‘home’, could learn about their heritage and now feel free to shine in the ability that they have,” noted Rebbetzin Arieh. “Rachel Turniansky has been a wonderful mentor to all of us. She encouraged us as staff members and students to grow, to take what Hashem Has given us and use it to our potential….Parents of handicapped children have an even tougher job than most parents because besides having to deal with the ups and downs of parenting, they never know what tomorrow is going to bring–whether it’s going to be a hospital stay or not having their child accepted into a program, or once again having their child ridiculed–but, as I look around at all of these parents, who I see on a weekly basis, dealing with everything that have to deal with, who can come tonight and put that aside, and actually smile and just let it go and be just like everybody else sharing a simcha, is something wonderful; to be here tonight is an experience that every single person should witness and learn from.”
Beth Bluman concluded this about her eye-opening teaching experience at Gesher LaTorah, “It’s about the love, it’s about the patience, it’s about the understanding, it’s about accepting others for what they are and not seeing their disabilities, not seeing their special needs, but seeing them as a person and how you would like to be treated, how they should be treated….That‘s what Gesher LaTorah is all about!”
Mr. Nechemya Jakobovits, a rebbe at Gesher LaTorah, added, “It is the best place to be on a Sunday morning; I look forward to see how the students interact and how they learn. It is the only day that some of them learn. That is what Gesher LaTorah is doing for
them–building a bridge for them for what they don’t have over the week.”
Former employees of Gesher LaTorah came to celebrate, as well. Robin Kravetz, a former longtime Gesher LaTorah teacher, who has since moved to Israel, was thrilled to attend the Gala. “Because it is so small, it is really like a family. It’s just a happy place to come…literally, it is my second family; I really feel that way. Even when I was in Israel and then came back, the first people I came to see were the people at Gesher…Personally, I don‘t dance at all, and I danced with them and I felt so good just to be close to them and celebrate with them. This is for them, but it is also great for everyone who came this evening, to see how everyone supports each other. They might have a child or friend who is in Gesher LaTorah, but they see everyone else‘s family and friends, and that it is not just them–it gives them chizuk.”
Beverly Kronthal, who retired from working at Gesher LaTorah after 17 years, did not want to miss the Gala event, either. “It was a pleasure and a privilege to watch these children grow into adults…..They were wonderful years. I miss it. I’m here with tears in my eyes to see how they’ve grown.”
Rabbi Lawrence Ziffer, CEO of the CJE, in his address to the Gala attendees, stressed, “At Gesher LaTorah, we know that every little bit of learning counts. Every Jewish experience, every Hebrew word, every holiday custom, every Jewish social interaction contributes toward the goal of lifelong learning. Tonight is an opportunity for celebration! Let’s celebrate all that our Gesher LaTorah students have learned and accomplished in the past and their families’ commitment to ensuring that they will continue on the path of lifelong Jewish learning.”
One of the highlights of the evening was when the father of a longtime Gesher LaTorah student, Maxim Tsipenyuk, shared his heartfelt feelings about the program. Prefacing that his family came to the U.S. thirty-six years ago, from the Ukraine, he expressed his gratitude: “Gesher LaTorah taught Maxim his Jewishness, because we came from a country where nobody knew anything about being a Jew; it was actually a bad word. But, here, Maxim comes home and the first thing he does is kiss the mezuzah….Maxim cherishes everything connected with Jewishness and Hebrew and Jewish history and Jewish traditions. He learns and learns and learns and can’t wait to go to school every Sunday, so I thank all of you teachers, principals, interpreters. Without you, life for these people would not be the same, believe me, and we thank you very, very much.”
“Parents had the opportunity to thank the dedicated staff and administration of the CJE, including Rabbi Larry Ziffer, Amian Kelemer and Rachel Turniansky,” noted Mrs. Esther Ward, founder of Menucha, the only Kosher respite/Jewish immersion program of its kind in the State of Maryland. “Even though my daughter’s bedtime is around seven, we kept her at the Gala until nine o’clock because she was having so much fun. Even though she can’t talk, her smile said it all. We are so thankful to those who made this memorable evening possible.”
“Torah belongs to everyone and it was very apparent as we whirled and danced that every person in the room was there to celebrate that fact,” feels JCE COO, Amian Kelemar. “The adults we are celebrating have an impressive sense of Jewish identity that has been cultivated through a wonderful partnership with parents, Gesher LaTorah and other community programs and services. It is my pleasure to have known some of the Gesher LaTorah students since they were very young and it was a gift to be present to celebrate their accomplishments! Thank you to all of the organizers of the evening!”
Zipporah Elan, mother of twenty-year TAG student Gidon Elan, got emotional when she shared, “These honorees are absolutely remarkable. If you took all of them collectively, you could probably build a room like this with trophies, awards, accolades, and plaques. They all get awards from the Mayor’s Office, from where they are employed, from where they do volunteer work…The most amazing thing is that all of them work beyond their potential and they still manage to achieve, which is astounding to me. I am inspired by all of them…When we were deciding what to do for them–considering a barbecue or an assembly–it was decided that it is worth it for these people, because they are so special, to be how every other person is special, and to be honored by the community and with their family and friends.”
“When I met Mrs. Elan to discuss this concept, I saw she was a locomotive heading in the right direction; I wanted to make sure I had a seat on the train,” says O’Fishel Caterers owner Fishel Gross, who said that everyone, including Mr. Jeff Forman, President of Greengate Jewish Center, who donated the shul space, was excited about it.
Zalka Angster, who enjoys doing music with Gesher LaTorah students every other Sunday, said, “Just being part of this amazing event makes me so proud to be a part of this amazing organization….The looks on the faces of the young people who have been part of the TAG group show how proud and happy they are tonight and it is so wonderful to see them getting this kind of recognition, because, let’s face it, how often can people with these kind of disabilities really enjoy any positive recognition? This has been a wonderful opportunity for this.”
Yoav Elan, brother of Gidon, one of the longtime student honorees, shared a beautiful Dvar Torah during the meal, and afterwards mentioned, “We’re very proud of the work that he puts into his education and we are all very proud and excited that he has earned this honor, tonight….My brother is very shy, by nature, but I think he is very happy that all of these people have come out to recognize his efforts and all the efforts of his friends.”
I am sure that honoree May Steinberg‘s sentiments were simpatico with those of her fellow classmates when she commented at the evening‘s end, “It was tremendous. I couldn’t believe it….I‘m overwhelmed by the whole thing. Gesher LaTorah was the greatest thing that came together, and I get a lot out of it.”