In the Purim story, Haman told King Ahasueros that the Jews were "different," labeling them the "other". To celebrate the turnabout that left Jewish lives intact and Jewish values triumphant, Esther and Mordechai enjoined their people to remember those who are in need of help on Purim.
Purim is thus a holiday of Jewish unity and caring.
Arutz Sheva decided to visit the Reishit school, whose anthem declares "that everyone belongs and no one is out of place", during the Purim season for a special evening at which 50 fifth grade parents and children celebrated the end of an intensive learning experience on mainstreaming special children.
The prize-winning model religious elementary and junior high in Gush Etzion in Judea has found many pioneering ways to make children who would be termed "different" in other venues feel that they belong. What is even more striking to visitors is that the non-special needs children in Reishit don't know they are doing something unusual. It is not an issue of which they are aware and they spend their school years seeing challenged children as a natural part of the classroom.
The school's principal showed us one of Reishit's original ideas in action - the bright and cheerful café run by special needs students who host their "regular" friends for drinks and snacks.
Reishit's special education children hail from far and wide geographically and from every religious group – in one quick glance, we could see a hassidic child with sidelocks and black skullcap sitting near another wearing a small knitted one, and observe teachers and parents of all types breaking down the walls that separate religious Israeli citizens as they shared problems, hopes and fears.
"G-d created the special needs child, too," said one father. "There is a Talmudic tale about a man who disparaged another's ugliness. Go complain to my Creator, said the second man. And that's how I used to feel with my son in the park, when mothers would tell their children to keep away from him when he so wanted to play with them and was actually a very gentle child. How wonderful now that he has real friends at Reishit."
"When you raise a special needs child," said another, "you suddenly realize how much mind-body coordination it takes to do the simplest thing, from a baby's lifting its head to walking or talking."
"Down's children are very sensitive to other people's feelings about them – they have a high level of emotional intelligence and are hurt easily, but people think they don't understand what is being said around them," said one of the experts present.
The sister of one of the students talked about the condition she has that doesn't let her bend at the joint. She showed the children how she manages to write and told them how every time she goes to a restaurant the waiter asks the person she is with what to order for her – and she has to assure them that her body is problematic, but her brain is not.
While mostly composed of regular needs and intellectually gifted children, the fifth grade at Reishit is the educational environment for three Down's Syndrome children and to a group of pupils with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders and communication problems. As the children mature, the school's faculty felt that it was time to talk about what had been accepted naturally and teach them – in an interactive way - about the various problems with which they are familiar on a daily basis.
The children told us that they had had workshops on learning disabilities and syndromes. They learned how to identify special needs, hidden and obvious challenges facing some of their friends, and the techniques and strengths that can help them compensate for these problems.
Rafael Cohen, a National Service volunteer at the school (yes, Israel has national service programs for the challenged and Reishit absorbs them beautifully) who has Down's, talked to them about his way of coping socially, and described the kind of sensitivity he needs from those around him.
The children gained much from the fact that at the workshop it was perfectly legitimate to raise all the problems they saw facing challenged students.
And at their own initiative, the children wrote a letter to Israel's Supervisor of Special Education, describing the close friendships they have with their mainstreamed friends – and the benefits to both sides of the mainstreaming.
The parents were a crucial part of the program and were amazed to discover the wonderful world of children who have never seen a classroom that doesn't integrate special needs friends. The parents had dilemmas that never crossed the children's minds, so that the adults learned a great deal from their offspring.
A parent reported that at the workshop, he asked his son what to do about the fact that the special needs child in their group didn't understand the rules of the game they were playing. "Just change to rules that he does understand", his son answered with aplomb – and they did.
When the issue of violence from a special needs child was raised, the children said that one must not react aggressively, but must also not capitulate. "Deal with the event without patronizing them", they explained, sounding almost professional themselves..
And, despite the fact that Reishit functions in old caravan-type buildings in a terrible state of disrepair on Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim in Gush Etzion, that is just what they do.