When Lianne Heller found out that her 3-year-old son had a learning disability, she was dismayed that there was no Jewish school that could cater to his needs — an example, she said, of isolating developmentally challenged children rather than including them in the larger Jewish community.
That is changing, according to Heller, because of schools like Sulam (“ladder” in Hebrew), which offers the opportunity for kindergarteners through 12th graders with learning disabilities to receive an individualized education while at the same time being a part of the community with their peers.
The South Africa native is the new director of the school-within-a-school housed within Rockville’s Berman Hebrew Academy.
Her son is now 21 and a pre-med student at Yeshiva University. He was 12 when she attend courses with him at Montgomery College and observed how a school like Sulam could benefit Jewish children with learning disabilities.
“I began to understand the needs of a child who is gifted and talented but learning disabled, and I began to understand that there isn’t a program out there that provides for children like this and these children really can become the visionaries of our community,” said Heller. “They’re very powerful, very bright as you can imagine and unfortunately many of the schools lose these children. The Jewish schools lose these children because they just can’t function in their environment.”
Sulam, founded in 1998, calls itself the only Jewish school in the greater Washington area for students with learning disabilities. Heller said that there are currently 30 full-time Sulam students but that the 35 staff members also help non-Sulam students enrolled in Berman who might need support in particular classes.
Heller said the Berman students benefit from their school hosting Sulam.
“Research tells us children who are exposed to children with differences tend to be much more empathetic and have a much stronger sense of justice and fairness,” said Heller. “So our belief is that by having children in a traditional environment, we are building a better society one child at a time.”
Heller, who lives in the Kemp Mill section of Silver Spring, has four sons with her husband, also a native of South Africa. Her third son, 17, is a senior in the gifted and talented program at Sulam.
Donors have taken an interest in Sulam, allowing the school to offer scholarships to many families, according to Heller, who said her goal is to expand Sulam to all the Jewish schools in the area.
Said Heller: “Sulam ought to be in all of the community schools in our area and I’m working very hard towards that objective. I believe that every child has a right to be included in the Jewish
community school of their choice.”