For those in the know, February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, and two Maryland natives and educators are right now making a difference in the lives of special needs children in Israel.
Ross Kazer, originally of Owings, about 40 minutes south of Annapolis, and Miriam Dannenbaum of Pikesville accepted fellowships with Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, helping Israeli special needs students with their English skills.
After six years in the Army, Kazer began working at a corporation in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I was quite miserable,” Kazer said of corporate life. While looking for a reset, he recalled his time spent in Israel on a backpacking trip and later on Birthright. Remembering the connection he’d felt to the country, he chose it as the setting for the next chapter of his life.
While researching possibilities for himself in Israel, Kazer came across the MITF program and the opportunities it offered in teaching special needs children. He decided to pursue the program.
Kazer arrived in Israel in August of 2020, and after a mandatory two-week quarantine, he began his new work with MITF in Jerusalem. At first, he worked with students in person, but when Israel went into lockdown toward the end of December, he switched to all virtual learning.
Kazer normally works with between one to seven students from third to sixth grade. His teaching style focuses on the specific needs of an individual student. He tries to identify what they enjoy and leverage that in his lessons, he said.
There exist some notable cultural differences between American and Israeli classrooms, Kazer explained. Whereas stateside classrooms typically see students quietly listening to a teacher at the front of the room, Israeli classrooms tend to exhibit “controlled chaos,” with enthusiastic students loudly yelling out answers. In time, Kazer learned that this wasn’t the students intentionally being disrespectful, but rather an expression of their excitement to be learning in the classroom.
Dannenbaum grew up in Pikesville, a member of Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim, and received her degree in education from Maalot Baltimore Women’s College, now the Women’s Institute of Torah Seminary and College.
“I have always loved working with all children,” Dannenbaum said, “no matter their age, background or if they have a disability.”
Dannenbaum went to Israel after high school and has been wanting to go back ever since.
“I chose MITF to get a unique experience in my field while living in the country that I love and feel connected to,” she said.
She arrived in Israel in the late summer. Dannenbaum currently works with third through sixth graders, including two special needs students, a pair of fifth-grade boys.
“I most enjoy having the opportunity to create close bonds with my students,” Dannenbaum said. “I often feel that I learn so much from them even though I am the teacher.”
The ongoing pandemic has been particularly hard on Dannenbaum’s special needs students, she said. The switch to Zoom classes following Israel’s most recent lockdown has cut them off from contact with their friends at school, negatively impacting their social-emotional learning.
Despite everything in their path, Dannenbaum feels “inspired to see my students work hard to understand something that is difficult for them. Their determination is admirable and reminds me how much we are capable of when we really try.”