1 April 2022
After finishing school, I went to study in a Yeshiva (male seminary) in Jerusalem for two years. It was while I was there that I became extremely passionate about Jewish culture, which sparked a desire to go into Jewish education.
I worked as a Tribe (United Synagogue) youth director for two years, which was a part time role in the evenings and at weekends and simultaneously became a Jewish Studies teacher at primary school level, working in three different schools during the time I taught, staying in one school for four years. Although I loved classroom teaching, I found the school environment rigid and inflexible and I realised that what I most enjoyed about my experience working in a school was my interactions with children with additional educational needs.
I especially remember forming a special bond with one child – to whom I taught Jewish Studies for four years – experiencing real anxiety about sitting their SAT exams and the only way they’d agree to engage with the tests was if I sat beside them throughout. That was really rewarding to be able to support the child in that way and it crystallised my belief that each child has different needs and rather than trying to simultaneously communicate the same information in the same way to 30 children, a teacher’s responsibility is to communicate information to 30 different children in the way they can best understand it.
Once I’d realised the area I most wanted to specialise in and my skill set, I worked with (Jewish non-profit employment support specialist) Work Avenue who identified the role at Norwood. I joined the organisation almost four years ago, with my first three years spent attached to Adult Services. My role was to help the people we support to connect and engage with and enjoy Jewish life, by running events for each Jewish festival and Shabbat (the Sabbath), as well as having one-to-one visits with people we support. I still do that one-on-one engagement to this day and I have a standing visit with one resident ever Friday morning, when we pray together.
It’s not just about helping the people we support to engage with Jewish life though. For many of their families, Norwood’s Jewish ethos was an important reason for entrusting their relative’s care to us and it gives them peace of mind that they receive cultural support from us. Norwood’s real point of difference is the connections we make between the people we support and the local Jewish communities to them and from early on in the role, I worked to encourage those communities to open their doors to the people we support.
The people we support aren’t necessarily members of individual synagogues or communities and they may not have the direct links with communities as a result, but pre-Covid, I worked to encourage volunteers into homes to light Shabbat candles. I now sit in the community engagement team and my plan moving forward is to restart the volunteers back in homes on Shabbat and festivals, and to run inclusivity workshops with individual synagogues to encourage them to make their environments and communities more welcoming to people with learning disabilities.
My best experience at Norwood was taking eight people we support on a Birthright trip to Israel in November 2019. Embarking on a group tour of Israel is a rite of passage for young Jews across the world, but being able to extend that right to people who weren’t able or supported to enjoy the opportunity the first time round was a real privilege. It was a challenge logistically, as it required 14 members of staff to make it fully accessible and we had to bring our own medical equipment with us, including hoists, and bringing them through airport security was quite a challenge!
A big part of my role has been training staff in homes – we very much depend on our staff to help keep Jewish culture alive for the people we support, encouraging them to participate in and fully enjoy Jewish rituals, and we offer Jewish way of life training to all new staff, as well as regular training before each festival. I’m so appreciative of all the efforts our Ops staff make to embrace Jewish life. Ultimately, it’s one thing giving staff an overview of customs and for staff to observe a traditional dinner, it’s another for them to have to lead it. This past Purim was a prime example – after we had to move our planned in-person party for the people we support online with only a day’s notice, due to Covid outbreaks, staff went to huge efforts to decorate their homes and ensure the people we support could enjoy the online party.
Covid inevitably changed the way I worked and providing cultural support became even more important, as the people we support were forced to isolate from their families and could no longer enjoy sharing traditions and meaningful interaction with them. Family customs are important, and a large part of the challenge is in understanding the needs and interests of the individual and their own personal heritage and traditions. I try to instil in staff the understanding that Judaism is not just a religion, it’s a heritage, culture and tradition and the individualised cultural support is one part of the person-centred care we provide for people from across the spectrum of the Jewish community.
My first online project was Passover picture bingo at the very start of lockdown, but soon after I merged my online activities with the Community Engagement team’s Connect Together programme, which meant that as well as delivering sessions on Jewish culture before each festival, this was supported with themed cooking and art sessions relevant to that festival, which saw Chef Pete leading a honey cake baking session before Jewish new year.
People we support were suddenly able to enjoy more cultural activities, as I could now be in more than one place at a time and we saw the advantages of the people we support being able to connect with people in other homes. Introductions like Shabbat candle lighting over Zoom are now here to stay and as volunteers from local Jewish synagogues were no longer able to visit homes, we replaced those visits with online activities around festivals, and Young Norwood members would lead monthly karaoke sessions with our homes after Shabbat on Zoom.
At the end of the day, improving the quality life for people we support is paramount to everything we do and supporting the people we support to be part of a community is a big part of that.