Keshet to hold special Hanukkah party
By TOM HEINEN
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Saturday, December 8, 2001
More than one miracle will be celebrated Sunday as some special children gather at the start of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.
As darkness falls and stars sparkle, Jewish people throughout the area will think back more than 2,000 years to when the temple in Jerusalem was recaptured from the Syrians and one day's worth of oil burned for eight days in the temple's menorah.
At Congregation Beth Israel in Glendale, grateful parents and their supporters also will think back nearly six years to the creation of another miracle, Keshet of Wisconsin.
Born of hope and dedication, Keshet provides ways for children with a wide range of developmental disabilities to be warmly and actively involved in the educational, cultural and religious life of the Milwaukee-area Jewish community.
On Sunday, one of the special-needs children whom that organization serves will proudly light the first candle in a menorah and be transformed by that action into an equal participant in an ancient community of faith.
As part of that ceremony, a child will sing or say the traditional prayers for the first night of the eight-day festival:
"Blessed are you, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light.
"Blessed are you, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who has wrought miracles for our forefathers, in those days at this season.
"Blessed are you, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season."
Although Hanukkah is neither a major Jewish holiday nor the "Jewish Christmas," it is celebrated and observed widely in homes and at public events where people pray, eat, sing, play games and sometimes exchange gifts.
"It's pretty significant in that it commemorates a miracle, and actually was the last overt miracle that we believe God did for the Jewish people," said Rabbi Yerachmiel "Rocky" Anton, a Keshet committee member and parent of a boy with Down syndrome who is able to attend Yeshiva Elementary School because Keshet provides special teachers and aides.
"Keshet has always used that to compare to the fact that Keshet is a miracle -- a few people devoted and committed to an idea, and over the years developed a whole program. It's a dream, a dream come true, and the board feels that it's a miracle."
Many cities larger than Milwaukee haven't had that miracle, he added. Jewish families in Miami and Detroit, for example, have told Anton that they have no organization like Keshet. Chicago, however, has a program that Milwaukee used as a model.
Keshet, which in Hebrew means rainbow, serves 11 children in Jewish day schools and four public-school children who attend religious classes on Sundays at Congregation Shalom, said Flora Abramson, executive director. Events and programs, including the Sunday school, serve people from all of the Jewish faith traditions - - Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.
"Our organization started because a group of parents wanted their children all to have the same Jewish education, and the Jewish day schools in Milwaukee were not equipped to take care of children with disabilities," Abramson said.
For the day schools, Keshet provides two lead teachers, a Judaic teacher and five full- and part-time aides. For the Sunday school, it provides a lead teacher, another teacher and four aides. And next week, another aide will begin accompanying a child at a Jewish preschool in Mequon as a pilot program.
"These are children who have been diagnosed with some type of disability that otherwise would be in a public school in a special- education program," said Jody Margolis, Keshet educational director. "Moderate to severe learning disabilities, to very severely cognitively disabled."
Now in its sixth year, Keshet has a budget of $320,000. It relies on individual contributions and grants from Jewish and non-Jewish foundations, corporations and community organizations, Abramson said.
Gathering of supporters
Support comes from many parents who do not have special-needs children themselves. That's why Sunday's Hanukkah party and dinner at Beth Israel, which begins at 5:30 p.m., is expected to draw at least 150 people.
"We try to bring everybody together," Abramson said. "It's to celebrate who we are and to show appreciation."
Anton's 11-year-old son, Meir, who reads both Hebrew and English, has said the Hanukkah prayers and lighted the candle at some of the group's previous parties. That has provided golden moments for him.
"He looks forward (to it) for months," Anton said.
Peter Frazin, 10, of Bayside enjoys such parties, too. A public- school student with a genetic disorder and learning disabilities, he attends the Keshet Sunday school. And he's looking forward to eventually making his bar mitzvah just like an older brother who does not have his challenges did last month.
"He just loves Keshet, and he just loves going on Sundays," said his mother, Jayne Jeffery, a Keshet board member who wishes that more Jewish parents with special-needs children in public schools were aware of the program. "They have music, and dance, and cooking, and library and different things like that. He has an aide, Alex, who is a high school student, and they are very good buddies.
"I believe that all children need religious education. And for Peter, this allows him to feel like he is part of a group, that he's not missing out on anything, that he is still getting the kind of religious education that his brother got, that he will be able some day to make his bar mitzvah and be part of a religious community."
Two of the founders of Keshet, Joyce and Bruce Lefco, will be honored on March 14 at a "Legacy of Leadership" event at Bryn- wood Country Club. For reservations or for other information about Keshet, call Abramson at (414) 289-8649.
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