London special needs school is where haredi, secular Jews meet

Published date20 September 2022
Publication titleJerusalem Post, The: Web Edition Articles (Israel)
To give him the Jewish education her family believed in, she could either enroll him at a regular day school that wasn't set up to accommodate his needs, or she could put him in what was then London's only Jewish school for children with special needs. But the latter, Kisharon, catered mostly to children with more severe disabilities than her son faced

"Like many others, we needed a middle option that just didn't exist at the time," said Sultman, a 45-year-old mother of three and former insurance executive.

So she and another Modern Orthodox mom whom she had met on a playground in 2013 set about opening a new Jewish school called Gesher, Hebrew for "bridge." Since its opening in 2017, the school has filled a gap in London's otherwise robust array of Jewish education options — and in doing so, it has emerged as a rare hub of interaction among Jewish families of vastly different religious observance.

A Modern Orthodox approach to make everyone comfortable

Gesher has students from insular haredi Orthodox communities who normally never consider non-haredi yeshivas, and it also enrolls children from secular homes. The school aims to make everyone comfortable by committing to a Modern Orthodox approach.

"Haredi communities are very protective of outside influences. You wouldn't find haredi Jews with other Jews," said Josh Aaronson, a Manchester-based Jewish journalist and activist for people with disabilities who comes from a haredi home and has an autism spectrum disorder. "Maybe at restaurants they'll be sitting at separate tables but the children especially don't mix. So a place like Gesher is very, very rare."

A boutique school of about 50 students ages 4-12 in northwest London, Gesher is in some ways a testament to the shortcomings of London's Jewish day schools. Many of them cannot adequately serve students with autism, attention disorders and other learning disabilities.

But the school also adds to an increasing number of programs that suggest the Jewish education sector is taking special education more seriously. Like Shefa, a Jewish school founded in 2014 in New York City that serves children with language disorders, Gesher aims to ensure that children don't have to give up Jewish education to have their disabilities addressed.

Housed on the grounds of the recently closed Moriah Jewish Day School, Gesher has inherited a spacious location complete with play rooms and a large auditorium, as well as a formidable security arrangement that is characteristic...

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