A legacy, a lifeline, and a lot more work to be done. Looking at the past 25 years and the next 25 years to come, these are the words that embody the work of Sha’arim + Gateways. Looking at the landscape of our Twin Cities Jewish community today, it is unrecognizable from what stood here 25 years ago. Over the years Sha’arim has helped families raising children with disabilities find a home here. Where once we would have those families would have left our community entirely, now they are strong and active members.
This year’s Sha’arim Annual Auction Fundraiser will be held on Sunday, January 7th 2024 from 6:00-8:00pm at Machine Shop. Visit www.shaarim.org/auction for more information.
Sha’arim began as a humble organization founded by seven pioneering families who came together to imagine a Jewish educational experience that could support their children’s learning needs. One of those pioneers was Chana Shagalow, an experienced educator with a masters in educational leadership, and herself the mother of a child with a disability. Chana bravely took on the helm of the organization, a foray down a yet unpaved path into special education in the Jewish world, beginning in 1998 by providing formalized special education support to eleven students in one mainstream Jewish school.
By 1999 the organization formally adopted the name Sha’arim, a Hebrew word meaning Gateways; signifying their mission of opening doors to inclusive Jewish educational opportunities. The organization, led by Shagalow, quickly grew and within a few years saw successful partnerships develop with Jewish educational institutions on both sides of the river and across the spectrum of religious affiliations. In 2003 Sha’arim became recognized as a partner agency of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, as the centralized agency for disability inclusion in the Jewish community. Since its inception, Sha’arim has partnered with 9 Jewish educational programs across the Twin Cities and provided individualized educational and behavioral support to hundreds of Jewish students in grades K-12. But they didn’t stop there.
With a primary focus on supporting students within the mainstream, Shagalow was surprised to be approached by a group of parents whose children received their education in self contained educational settings. Their ask: the opportunity for their children to access a Jewish education and build Jewish community. Recognizing that every member of our Jewish community deserves access to a meaningful Jewish education, Sha’arim expanded their mission and developed a highly supportive, side stream Hebrew School experience for students with moderate to severe levels of need. The program, housed in partnership with the JCC, became known as Darkaynu, Our Way.
As the only organization of its kind in the Twin Cities, Sha’arim’s Partner School program, with the addition of Darkaynu, proved masterful in its support of Jewish students. But having established a tradition of responding to new challenges of inclusion, more work was on the horizon.
As Sha’arim’s partnerships continued to deepen across the community and communication came directly from parents, a new challenge began to make itself clear: the need for social support for children with disabilities. As the call grew louder and the need more pressing, Sha’arim took a daring step forward by pioneering a new format for supportive socialization for children with disabilities in the form of a program called Friends ‘N Fun. Developed by Shagalow’s daughter, Layah Shagalow, current Associate Director, the program brought together Sha’arim students from across the community and teens from Jewish youth groups to get together for fun, guided, social outings.
Friends ‘N Fun became the playdate, the birthday party, the fun together time that these children so desperately craved. Friends ‘N Fun remains a vital part of Sha’arim, now run by Program and Events Coordinator, Maggie Dries. Friends ‘N Fun proved so crucial to the social needs of children with disabilities that soon a new group of parents came forward: the parents of adult children with disabilities.
Having seen the positive impact of Friends ‘N Fun, parents of young adults with disabilities wanted the same opportunity for their children who grew up before Sha’arim and missed the opportunity to build community among their Jewish peers. Never deterred, Sha’arim went to work and once again expanded their organization’s mission to include Jews with disabilities of all ages. In partnership with the community’s young adult programs, Adult Friends ‘N Fun began. Sha’arim reached a new iteration, as a life cycle inclusion organization.
With the expansion of Sha’arim’s offerings to include adult programming, Chana Shagalow found herself in a founder’s circle yet again. Parents of adults with disabilities, brought together by Sha’arim programming, began to imagine an independent living experience for their adult children. Serving on the board for nine years, Chana saw the physical residence of Jewish Housing and Programing (J-HAP) become a reality in 2017. Sha’arim quickly became a partner, providing Jewish holiday programming for residents throughout the year.
Meeting more adults with disabilities quickly led to yet another new avenue of service for Sha’arim, the Gateways Vocational Training program for adults with disabilities. Led by Shira Benzaquen, the program partners with community businesses to offer adults with disabilities job and life skills training in real world working environments. Partnerships and opportunities continue to be built within the community as this year saw Sha’arim’s first partnership with a Jewish day camp.
Sha’arim also offers a personal approach, through offering direct parent support. This guidance has helped families in the Jewish community advocate for more inclusive community spaces, find appropriate referrals for mental and developmental health professionals, access funding sources, understand and implement assessments and recommendations among others.
While working hard to provide opportunities to community members with disabilities, Sha’arim wears a second hat, one that tips towards the neurotypical community. The result of a strong belief that meaningful inclusion requires commitment and acceptance on behalf of community members without disabilities. Sha’arim has consistently provided community workshops, educational seminars, teacher training, facilitator support and interactive peer experiences to help increase disability awareness and inclusion education in the broader community, all free as free resources.
These valuable resources have led to tangible results in inclusion competence. The deep ripples of Sha’arim’s influence on disability inclusion in the broader Jewish community have become more and more apparent. Because of Sha’arim a precedent has been set community wide. A needle has been moved, slowly, but significantly.
Sha’arim continues to be an innovative leader for disability inclusion in our Twin Cities Jewish community. As the Twin Cities Jewish community commemorates 25 years of Sha’arim’s invaluable contributions, it is essential to recognize that their work is far from over. The journey towards true inclusivity is ongoing, marked by continuous learning, adaptation, and innovation.
For a quarter-century now, Sha’arim has been at the forefront of advocating for and implementing disability inclusion initiatives within the vibrant tapestry of the Twin Cities Jewish Community. As it marks 25 years, the organization celebrates a legacy of an enduring commitment to ensuring that every member of our community feels welcomed, valued, and empowered.
The 25th anniversary of Sha’arim stands as a testament to the power of advocacy, community collaboration, and the unwavering commitment to creating a world where differences are celebrated, and every individual is valued for their unique contributions. As they continue their journey, the impact of their work will undoubtedly ripple through generations, leaving an indelible mark on the Twin Cities Jewish Community.
Join Sha’arim in celebrating 25 years at Machine Shop on January 7th, 2024 – for more information visit www.shaarim.org/auction