Teachers Convention: The Best Day!
Jonah could hardly contain his excitement on November 9. School was closed for Teacher’s Convention, but for the first time, LifeTown was open. “LifeTown is his place,” said his mother. “He’s safe here, he’s growing, and he knows everyone here. He can be independent when he comes here.”
Opening LifeTown for Teacher’s Convention provided a fun day filled with activities and friendship for participants off from school. And for tenth graders at the Ramaz School, a Jewish day school in Manhattan, it offered a unique opportunity for students to step out of their comfort zone, volunteer, and explore their responsibility to help build a better world.
When Jonah arrived, the tenth graders were lined up, ready to greet them. There at the entrance was Asher, 15, one of the Ramaz students. “I know him, I know him!” he excitedly told his mother. Asher and Jonah have spent the last three years meeting regularly online, reading books together, and chatting about everything and anything. Asher had combined his love for reading with chesed and came up with an online buddy reading program that Jonah has been participating in.
Until November 9, they had never met in person. They rushed to greet each other. “It’s so exciting to get to see Jonah in the flesh,” said Asher, and Jonah reflected back, “It’s great to see you in person!” The pair grinned through their whole day together, wandering through the LifeTown shoppes, jumping in the playground, baking challah, doing arts and crafts.
The rest of the students buddied up with participants, and before long, they were all bonding. Ramaz tenth grader Sarah Gizal, paired with Josephine, said the day changed her perspective. “At the beginning, I didn’t know what to expect. I was nervous and unsure. But when I met Josephine, she was just the cutest. She smiled at me and gave a high five and a hug and that was it. We’ve been shopping, playing, dancing. I can’t wait to come back!” she said. A resident of Fort Lee, she is considering becoming a regular volunteer.
George Meyer had come previously with his family as a youngster, and he acknowledged he wasn’t always eager. “When I was younger I was scared the kids would not like me. But I realized it’s such a big mitzvah and it’s really amazing to play with kids who have special needs. It’s a great opportunity to stretch out of my comfort zone!” he said. He and Jake Gindi were paired with Max, and the threesome were busy making door signs in the art room together. “I thought we’d have a nice day here,” said Gindi. “But it’s really crazy what they do here, giving kids the opportunity and chance to learn to navigate in the world. It’s so beautiful!”
Dr. Nancy Block, grade dean and director of chesed and community outreach for Ramaz, said, “If it’s part of our mission to instill a sense of responsibility for the world in our students to do chesed, then we can send a loud and clear message by spending class time to do it as a group.” She added that on this day in particular, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism, “This is our Jewish response. They hate us, we give with love.”
She expects students to explore what it means to bring an idea for a better world into reality, and understand “the vision, the unbelievable, creative brain power of the people who started LifeTown in the most beautiful way.”
Teachers observed that in this different environment, the teens could access a different part of themselves. Kids who are part of cliques stepped away to help a child, and kids who often find the classroom setting challenging, suddenly had an opportunity to shine.
As the day drew to a close, parents arrived to pick up their kids and the benefits were abundantly clear. Jonah’s mother and sister, Emersyn, 17, arrived with smiles on their faces. They got to have a rare girls’ day together at the mall.
And Eliana Kissner, cantor at Oheb Shalom congregation, came to pick up her two young children. Having grown up in the community, she volunteered as a teen. “It had a really deep impact on me,” she said. “I connected with those kids on a deep one-to-one level.” She acknowledged that she still thinks about some of them.
“Now, it feels very full circle. I was paired with a child obsessed with trains and transit and now I have a child obsessed with trains and transit!” She bowed to the life cycle. “It’s the spirals of Jewish life. We tap into different places in different parts of our lives and we play different roles at different times.”
She’s grateful to have the space to return to with both of her children, one of whom has a rare genetic disorder. “It’s amazing to have a place where kids can be celebrated both as kids with special needs and as their siblings.”
As she embraced her two children, Maayan, 6, and Raz, 3, they called out, “We made a tower of blocks, we made a foam pit, we painted our nails,” and volunteer Francine Tawil, giving Maayan a hug, and said to one of her friends, “This was the best day!”