HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Educational Innovation in Special Education: Turning It Around

by Esther Jakobovits Issue: Educational Innovation Beth Jacob Institute of Jerusalem

Visionary programs of inclusion can be found in all kinds of Jewish schools. HaYidion asked the developer of one such program at the Beth Jacob Institute of Jerusalem, among the “Ivy League” schools of the chareidi world, to contribute this description of their pioneering work in the field.


The striving for integration of mentally, emotionally and physically challenged individuals into society is one of the noblest innovations of the modern world. Many programs have been developed in an ongoing search for the most appropriate and effective ways to do this successfully. Most of the work involves integration in the classroom and the workplace; significantly less research and experimentation has been done on the inclusion of people with disabilities into society as a whole. An exception to this is the work of the Beth Jacob Institute of Jerusalem (Machon Beit Yaakov Yerushalayim), a girls’ high school and advanced education school, with more than 3,000 students. Of these, 280 compose a special education department, serving a very broad range of special-needs students, aged 14 to 20 and older.

Thirty years of experience with a variety of methods at the Beth Jacob Institute have honed the sense that current methods—which generally define the aim as “acceptance of the other,” “removing the stigma,” and “helping the disadvantaged”—are qualitatively insufficient. They perpetuate in the special-needs individual an inferior status, which can and should be eliminated. Beth Jacob has developed a groundbreaking program which has as its goal the equal-status, genuine inclusion of people with special needs into society, to the benefit of both.

The Beth Jacob Institute of Jerusalem constitutes a microcosm of religious society in Israel. Because of its educational emphasis on acts of kindness and good deeds, it provides an excellent environment for testing ideas about social integration of the specially challenged. The Special Education Department was renamed as the Telem Center of the Beth Jacob Institute of Jerusalem, using a Hebrew acronym for “Individually Adapted Programs.” Many transformations accompanied the name change. In the past, integration programs at the Institute included part-time, individually suited inclusion of special-needs students in the formal academic classes of the mainstream school, technical training classes, informal school activities, pairing of students in tutorial relationships, etc. These programs were in line with the most advanced studies in the literature, but there was still considerable frustration, resulting from the obvious gaps between the abilities and skills of the general and special student populations. Invariably, there lingered a sense that mainstream students were being asked to assist the special needs students as an act of kindness. To the degree that the interaction between able and disabled students was achieved, it was strictly limited to the times of the integration activities and did not carry over to relationships beyond the prescribed frameworks. Barriers were penetrated but not removed.

Driven by the conviction that further progress could be made toward genuine inclusion into normative society, the Telem Center concluded that what was required was a new and more sophisticated methodology. To make the leap to a strategy that could take participants beyond the impediments and limitations of previous interactions, three prerequisites were emphasized:

  • Factoring in the needs of both mainstream and special needs students
  • Expanding the interaction to areas well beyond academics
  • Addressing authentic needs of all participating students

Abraham Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of human needs was used as a starting basis for constructing a program for participating students. But Maslow based his analysis of human development on studies of the most able and accomplished human beings. The hypothesis on which the Beth Jacob Institute’s new work was based was that, when applied to the points of excellence which are present also in disabled individuals, the same ladder of needs can be climbed by all, leading to satisfaction, recognition and equal-status interaction.

The Yad leYad Theoretical Model

Extrapolating from Maslow’s hierarchy, a theoretical model, called Yad leYad (Hand to Hand), was developed by the Telem Center to direct an equal-status inclusion program, named Yedidut (Friendship). The Yad leYad model is composed of ascending, interacting levels.

Level 1 – Hierarchy base: Formal and informal studies, language development, capability-building and empowerment, including “mainstreaming” experience at the school, as a basis for future inclusion in the community.

Level 2 – Physiological needs: Organized and well-structured basic conditions. A network of workshops planned and directed by a professional team that directs all the activities at the school.

Level 3 – Safety: Mutual goals with normative students, creating a safe space for participants with special needs to join in normal activity. The organized network of workshops with professional guidance supplies the security needed for functioning properly.

Level 4 – Belonging: A joint product in exhibitions and performances fostering group cohesiveness and communal belonging that transcend the boundaries of the proposed program, revealing the strengths of the student with disabilities, and enabling the mentors to understand their differences and see the whole person. This understanding sets the stage for a relationship to form, and fosters openness and communal involvement.

Level 5 – Esteem: Providing positive feedback to the participants as to their areas of strength, boosting their efforts to keep up the relationship and enhancing their ability to give, love, demonstrate patience and empathy, and more.

Level 6 – Self-actualization: Through the sense of capability born of the relationship and the connection to the program’s community, fostering an inner emotional gratification, a connection to one’s own personal abilities and personal empowerment, and fortifying the participants’ desire and ability to develop more social relationships.

The Yedidut Program

The Yedidut program is a real-life embodiment of the Yad leYad model, enabling participants to build genuine mutual friendships that are meaningful and lasting. It has effectively broken down barriers between the two student populations at the Beth Jacob Institute.

The program begins by pairing mainstream students and students with special needs for activities outside the classroom in which they have a common interest. To this end, Yedidut offers a large number of weekly workshops in activities such as acting, dancing, painting, choir singing, clothing design, acrobatics, fruit arrangement, cooking and drama. Each pair of friends-to-be chooses the workshop of their liking together. Thus, from the outset, Yedidut identifies and brings into focus points of excellence in all participants, points that can be cultivated and that jump-start meaningful relationships.

At a later stage, group events are held to bring the participants together. These activities are accompanied, guided and carefully calibrated by skilled, experienced and motivated staff. From these beginnings, friendships expand exponentially to voluntary, self-motivated, all-week-long interaction, both in and out of school, and to wider and wider circles of friendships, thus effectively infusing the future lives of the participants, their families and communities, with the compelling energies generated by their inclusion experiences during their school years.

Here is the sequence of stages that the Yedidut program follows:

Stage I: Common interest. A “mentor” and a “mentee” register jointly for a workshop of their choice in an area of common strength and interest.

Stage II: Common goals. Developed in the course of the workshops, a common goal creates reciprocity and interdependence for the achievement of the goal, under the guidance of the professional team.

Stage III: Joint action. The students bond over activities in the various workshops—not based on language or academic studies. Dance, drama and cooking help the girls learn socialization techniques and discover solidarity and close social contact.

Stage IV: A product. Throughout the duration of the workshop, students work in unison to produce a performance, an exhibition, etc. Joint products allow the students to experience success and help expand the communication circles on both sides.

Stage V: Communication circles (in the chosen field of interest). The students’ joint activity in areas of mutual strength and interest, the pleasure derived from the workshop, and the social empowerment fostered at each stage of the program all merge to form a relationship that expresses itself also outside the actual framework of the workshop.

Stage VI: Broad natural-communication circles. In this stage, some of the partnerships expand to develop communication circles outside the specific area of interest represented by the workshop. These communication circles may include activities such as mutual home visits and shopping together, with the goal of deriving another positive experience from the friendly relationship. This is the deepest and most significant stage of the integration. Moreover, this friendship brings with it a network of friendships and acquaintances that encompasses the students and further integrates them into normative society.

The effects of the Yedidut program have been extraordinary. A new world of joy, achievement and personal growth opened up to all participants. The mother of one student with special needs noted that inclusion programs had not worked for her daughter because “putting them in a regular classroom means putting them in a place where their differences are very pronounced. Instead of highlighting similarities, this highlights differences.” The Yedidut program altered this dynamic completely.

Mainstream students and students with special needs alike have been energized and newly empowered. They discovered that everyone has something to contribute, that their friendships are truly friendships and mutually enriching and that everyone is, indeed, an equal-status member of a many-faceted society. One participant observed, “I was taken by the fact that when the girls focused on their strong points, their weaker points seemed to fade into the background. And this helped me to relate to my own weak points. I discovered my own weak points, and I learned to deal with them and see them.” Another commented, “This is actually what happened to the girls in the regular classes. They said, ‘Just a minute. It’s true that she talks slowly, it’s true that she thinks slowly, it’s true that she looks different. But as soon as she picks up that knife and starts cutting the cakes and creating those petit fours, she’s amazing at what she does. So she’s not just disabled.’ They began to relate to the bigger picture, to see the whole person. They realized that these girls can be much better than them at other things.”

Parents have been happy to find that formerly introverted, insecure and non-communicative daughters, including those on the autism spectrum, suddenly developed greater self-confidence. One student explained, “My communication with people simply changed. It has become so much smoother. The moment I realized that people enjoy being with me, as I am—the way the girls accepted me as I am—it gave me something that extended beyond. It impacted my more extended environment as well.”

Perhaps the most significant success of the program was the diminution of differentiation outside of the classroom. One mother described, “It created a brand-new possibility for her: ‘Yes, I can! I can be together with them.’ Because it’s not in a framework of studies. It’s in a fun, enjoyable framework. And even in the workshops where she actually does something, they do it with her. It’s the pinnacle of social interaction.” A participant elaborated, “In the past, I never saw these girls going out to the yard during recess. Never. Since this started, they go out—ecstatic! When they’re there they feel like they’re really part of things. They’re really together with everyone else. And for our part, as well—you know, everyone asks me, ‘Wow, you have other friends?’ I feel like they are my friends just like any other regular friend.”

In the three years since its inception, the reverberations of the Yedidut project have touched and significantly improved many lives. As one mother explained, “I have a cousin here, somewhere in this massive school, in a regular class. Every time I meet her, I say, ‘You have no idea how great it is for Racheli that you’re here.’ She tells me, ‘Racheli doesn’t even need me. Racheli has tons of friends here, everyone, all the girls in the hallways.’ But in her former school, Racheli was the kind of girl who was always on the sidelines. She wouldn’t talk. We didn’t hear from her. No self-confidence. Before she came here, she was like a little invisible dot in the corner of the room. Now she’s a flower.” Another mother added, “She says, ‘When I go into a room, they notice me. I walk down the hallway and someone says hello to me.’ This sense of belonging, we know what a basic and fundamental need it is.”

The innovative Yad leYad theory of equal status inclusion deserves to be widely adopted in the Jewish educational world and beyond. The trailblazing Yedidut project can serve as a model for others to emulate.

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Educational Innovation

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