When Ayelet Mottahedeh’s oldest daughter was transferred out of the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County to a school that had the resources to fit her educational needs, she told her mother how much she missed the yeshiva experience. “She wanted to be back at HANC,” the West Hempstead mother said.
Among her neighbors, there are dozens of families whose children attend local public schools, which have resources to address special needs and learning delays. In these schools, they thrive academically, but there is no chinuch. “I met a mom who had a siddur play for her son in her backyard,” Mottahedeh said. Rites of passage such as a Chumash play and a siddur play are absent in the lives of observant public school students. “We almost take these milestones for granted. They create a special memory,” she said.
Last Friday, HANC hosted 21 students from local public schools, from pre-k to sixth grade, pairing them up with HANC students from their grades. Together they sang songs, learned about the parshah, and had their names announced by Rabbi Ouriel Hazan, the principal of HANC. They walked to the stage and received a personalized siddur with their names written in Hebrew.
“The whole concept was incredibly thoughtful,” said Yoni Statman, whose son attends first grade at the Cornwell Avenue School. “We have a picture of his older brother at his siddur play. This is what Jewish kids do. Our [younger] son was proud and happy to have his siddur.”
In West Hempstead, the local Chabad House has a Sunday morning learning program and at HANC the Sunday Smiles program also attracts many young public school students. “The Sunday program is structured, while the Shabbat Assembly is more informal,” Mottahedeh said. Among parents whose children attend public schools in West Hempstead and Franklin Square, there is a Facebook group and WhatsApp groups where parents discuss their children’s’ needs and their Jewish education.
The Sunday Smiles program started with Rabbi Moshe Gottesman zt”l, who founded HANC, and is run by Annalee Ickowics. Rabbi Gottesman really believed in the mission of educating all children in their own way. It is for children ages five through ten,” said Assistant Principal Michal Wasser. “It is for all the Jewish neshamos who do not have the opportunity to attend yeshivas.”
While the children sang and learned, their parents met with HANC staff in an open forum to discuss their children’s needs and educational goals. “We did not ask why they are in public school. We want them to feel loved and connected to Yiddishkeit,” she said.
In this tight-knit neighborhood, people understand that when a boy with a kippah and tzitzis attends the local public school, there is a specific reason for it. This boy davens at home, attends Sunday Hebrew school, and understands that the songs of the winter holidays were not written for him. Having an event inside a yeshiva strengthens his Jewish identity and the siddur becomes his companion at home and on the road.
“It was a wonderful, joyful, impressive event,” said Barry Schneps, whose son Shimmie attends public school. “They had pizza and played games. It gives him the confidence that he feels included. It was very personal.”
Wasser said that the school is considering having more events for public school students and noted the role of her students in hosting their guests. “They were excited about it for the whole week,” Wasser said. The students embraced them, they sang together, building connections with their peers.
“They benefited tremendously from this event in their role as ambassadors,” Mottahedeh said. “Since then, I’ve received calls from Great Neck and New Jersey about having similar events there, where yeshivas can present siddurim to public school students.”
By Sergey Kadinsky