Recalling the rough patch in his first year at middle school and the preparation for his Bar Mitzvah, Max Granitz readily shares, “I couldn’t learn the Hebrew alphabet to save my life.”

Attending Hebrew School at Temple Israel was a challenge for Max, a bright student with Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that can hinder an individual’s learning skills and make social settings difficult to navigate. Working with Opening the Doors (OTD), the special needs program pioneered by Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education, Max was supported in Temple school activities by an OTD coordinator partnering with his classroom teachers. Additionally, he was paired with a peer support “shadow” in class and, through a concerted effort and his own determination, he thrived at Temple Israel. In 2009, he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, a milestone he describes as a transformative life event.

Now a self-assured, articulate and remarkably grounded 17-year old, Max has found his voice and rightful place in the senior class at Walled Lake Western High School.

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Max Granitz at 14

He is passionate when he speaks of his interests in music, writing and theater. “Choir is where I found myself and fell in love with music,” he says. The confidence he has gained, and much of what he has achieved, he attributes to those who have helped him along the way – opening the doors to his education and spiritual awakening since the 4th grade.

“Max is a shining example of our long-term success in Opening the Doors for students with a diversity of needs and abilities, and he is truly an ambassador and inspiration for the program,” observes Ellen Maiseloff, Director of Opening the Doors and a former special education coordinator at Temple Israel. Featured in Federation’s recent video highlighting the hopes and dreams of the Jewish community, Max stated, “No matter what our personal challenges are, we all need to learn. It’s how our brain develops over time, and I feel everyone should have the same opportunity to learn and to develop their own spiritual belief as I did, starting as early as possible.”

Opening Eyes and Minds, Opening the Doors to Opportunity

Since 1995, Federation’s Opening the Doors (OTD) Partnership Program has been committed to supporting students with learning, behavioral, and social challenges and abilities to ensure that they receive a meaningful Jewish education along with their peers. Responding to critical needs in the community, the program has increased 400% since its inception and now provides a range of services to 1,080 students annually in 26 early childhood programs and Jewish congregational and day schools, at no additional cost to parents.

With the goal of building further understanding and inclusion into the Jewish community school system in 2010, Opening the Doors launched the Madrichim Leadership Institute, an innovative training program funded by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit to empower teens with leadership skills, self-confidence and strategies to assist students with special needs.

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Opening the Doors Para Educator, Lexie Sittsamer with Allie Jacobs

Reflecting on the camp experience at Temple Israel, where her daughter Allie spent “two amazing summers,” Jodi Jacobs fondly recalls Lexie Sittsamer. “We are so grateful to Lexie, who worked as an OTD Para Educator alongside Allie. Through her warmth, patience and compassion, Lexie demonstrated a true understanding of Allie’s needs and created an everlasting bond that none of us will ever forget!”

And how has the program benefited Lexie? “Where to begin? Opening the Doors is both a learning and a teaching experience, providing benefits for all involved,” Lexie observed. “ I have watched amazing friendships and bonds develop. And now, as a special education major at Western Michigan, I have applied all the skills I learned in the Madrichim Leadership Institute to my coursework here at the University.”

A model program, now Opening the Doors to innovation

Innovative and creative in its approach to Jewish education from the start, OTD has remained on the forefront of its field for nearly two decades. The program now employs 23 Master-Level Special Educators and four early childhood Para Educators who annually provide 6,200 hours of support and consultation to students and parents. Parents, teachers and mental health professionals also reap the benefits of OTD through national conferences, community-wide seminars, teacher workshops and Jewish Disability Awareness programming.

A recognized leader, “opening the doors to innovation” in Detroit and beyond, OTD recently has won the recognition of Slingshot, a peer-giving network and prominent funding source in Jewish life. In the world of nonprofits, an endorsement by Slingshot is considered a benchmark – “a closely watched seal of approval from a leading voice advocating for funding innovation.

For the first time this year, with the support of the Ruderman Family Foundation, Slingshot will publish a Disabilities and Inclusion Supplement to its coveted Slingshot Guide. In that supplement, OTD will be highlighted as one of the nation’s top 20 Jewish nonprofits leading the way to educational breakthrough in the area of special needs.

“We are thrilled to be recognized nationally as a community that invests in innovation and inclusion for the educationally diverse students in our preschools, Jewish day and congregational school settings,” stated Jeffrey Lasday, Director of Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education. “With the national endorsement, we hope to build awareness as well as support for continuing our work, and searching for innovative solutions to respond to the growing needs of students, not only in our own community, but nationwide.”

Your Invitation to Learn More

Join the community at a program of Opening the Doors: “A Thorn in My Pocket, Inspiring Success for Those with Autism” featuring autism activist, Eustacia Culter, mother of Temple Grandin, on Sunday, October 20, 2013, at 1:30 p.m. at Congregation Shaarey Zedek. For details and to register, visit jewishdetroit.org/familycircle or call Shoshana Baruch at 248-205-2549

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