I grew up surrounded by the study of Torah, amidst a constant flow of people coming to learn in our home. I woke up early to the sound of my father’s learning, and I fell asleep to the tune of his laining practice. My father learned with me and my sister on a regular basis for all the years that we lived at home, with my mother encouraging us. Both of my parents were powerful believers that everyone---boys and girls, no matter what their abilities---should have access to a strong Jewish education.
My love of Torah learning grew in my year in Israel following high school and throughout college, but I struggled to choose a career path. What did I want to be when I grew up? I majored in math and was considering becoming an actuary, when my eyes were opened to the world of special education in my second year of college. In addition to my regular course load, I was taking evening courses at the Board of Jewish Education of Toronto. One evening, a woman from one of my classes approached me. She explained that she worked in an after-school Jewish Studies program for children with special needs, and she knew of a job opening for a classroom assistant. “These are kids who can’t attend Jewish schools; there is no school that can address their needs. They come twice a week - we teach them to read Hebrew and about the chagim; we sing with them. You’ll see, they’re really adorable. Are you interested?” Yes, I was!
Still a college student, I was getting hands-on experience in the classroom with beautiful children who had a range of disabilities, but who all thirsted to learn. At the same time, I was being schooled in special education by a mentor whose approach was based on the belief that everyone has the ability to learn, no matter what “disability” he/she has, that intelligence is something that can be taught, not a fixed quantity, and that cognitive pathways can be modified.
As promised, the children in my after-school program were, indeed, adorable, and as they learned the Aleph-Bais, I began to see their unlimited potential. I practiced breaking down the cognitive processes of learning, and teaching my students to generalize them, so that learning became easier as their processing improved. I loved the optimism of it all, and the overpowering feeling of accomplishment I experienced when a child suddenly “got it.” What did I want to do when I grew up? I wanted to work with these children. I wanted to change the world.
Years later, this is still what I want to do.
I’ve seen incredible things in my career. A child who was told she had “the potential of a tree stump” solving algebraic equations. A child whose parents were told he would never learn to speak giving a speech at graduation. A child who rarely spoke, and then only in whispers, performing in the school play. A child labeled “limited” explaining a Rashi.
Today, my former students include moms and dads, nurses, doctors, designers, technicians, mashgichim. Some work in business, some in computers. Many are teachers. One is an architect. One is a photographer. One is a rocket scientist - literally. Some lain. Some sing. Some are gabbaim and shlichei tzibbur in their communities. One showed me a worn, folded paper he kept in his wallet: a note of encouragement I wrote to him when he was in eighth grade, twenty-five years ago. Another sent me a message through a cousin of mine: “Please, please tell Mrs. Rothschild that I’m married with children. That I have a doctorate. And you have to tell her that I still use the strategies.”
I have been an administrator for many years now, and over time my work has changed. Yet our children remain the heart of it. I feel so blessed to be a part of the new SINAI family at YCQ, because SINAI as an institution shares my beliefs in the ability of every child to learn, given the right support and guidance. Everyone, from the Dean, Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, to all of my teachers and therapists, to every individual working in the business office to support us, is deeply dedicated to helping every individual child.
All I need to do is to walk into one of our new SINAI at YCQ classrooms and spend a moment with a child, and I’m right back where I started, marveling at the magic of helping a child learn. It’s what I want to do when I grow up. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to do it.
Gittie Rothschild is the Director of SINAI at YCQ, one of eight schools for children with complex learning disabilities and special needs operated by SINAI Schools. She has over 30 years of experience working in special education, and she finds something new to learn from her students every single day.