Text Box: (C) Yeshiva Bnei Simcha 2010

YBS in the News



Fri., July 22, 2005 Tamuz 15, 5765












“We teach them to go beyond what they were told they could do”


The beit midrash in this small, converted yeshiva is hardly bustling, with just two students and another two teachers. On one side, a pair is hunched over an open Talmud, but they make a point of taking many breaks. Across the table, a rabbi teaches a mishna with pictures, sometimes speaking so loudly that he seems to exhaust himself just getting one point across. It's an unconventional scene, to be sure, but then again, Yeshiva Bnei Simcha - the first yeshiva for English-speaking men with developmental disabilities in Israel - is an unconventional place.

Aimed for young adults with various levels of autism and similar disabilities, the yeshiva, which is housed in a Ramat Beit Shemesh apartment, offers an alternative for special needs post-high school religious development. Many adult males, yeshiva administrators explain, could not function in a regular classroom, but want something beyond the menial work they are expected to do when they finish their high school program. And so for many "high functioning" cases, special attention, more one-on-one work and a framework that caters to their disability, provides an environment that allows them to thrive in a way they otherwise wouldn't have.

"The teachers here are very patient with you," says Benny, a 20-year-old student with Asperger Syndrome who had difficulty being mainstreamed. "Before, if you didn't understand something, the teacher wouldn't stop and you would have to ask a friend. But it's hard to learn and sit in a place where you don't understand anything."

The yeshiva, which opened in the fall, moved from the Old City to its current location because the hustle and bustle of the Jewish Quarter provided too much distraction for the two men who are currently enrolled. It was founded by Avi, a 28-year-old student with autism, and his mother - who to date continues funding the entire institution. And as Avi explained, there were simply no other options open to someone like him, who still dreams of becoming a rabbi, despite the very obvious disabilities he lives with.

"Usually, people with special needs end up working bagging groceries, or going to live in a group home after they finish high school," Rabbi Eli Lepon, director of the program said. "There's no existing framework that we know of, especially not in Israel, for these guys to keep studying Torah. There are elementary schools and high schools for special needs kids in the religious world, but there isn't really anything for those looking to continue their religious education past the age of 18."

Rigid schedule

The educational philosophy of Bnei Simcha (literally, "children of joy") is simple. The staff, which outnumbers the students by more than three to one, has backgrounds in psychology, special education and methods of alternative healing. All classes are taught on a one-on-one basis, and though they tried a group format with the two students together, teachers quickly discovered that it wasn't as effective.

In the Bnei Simcha study hall, mishna, for example, is studied with pictures, and stories from the Bible are always accompanied by lessons about charity and helping others. Classes are also always buffered with a sufficient number of breaks, and perhaps most significantly, staff members come equipped with seemingly endless supplies of patience.

"There are men who come to us and we teach them to go beyond what they were told they could do," Lepon said. "They have a chance to learn and study here and we accept them with completely open arms."

The Bnei Simcha schedule is intentionally rigid to fit the somewhat obsessive character of those who have autism and similar disorders. The day begins with prayers, breakfast and then three hours of studying "with many breaks" in the beit midrash. Lunch and free time are then followed with more class time, which in the afternoon is usually dedicated to learning life skills, such as going to the bank, writing a grocery list, or making a trip to the pharmacy to pick up anything as simple as toothpaste.

Part of the community

The evenings are filled with a night activity, like swimming, bowling or playing pool in nearby Beit Shemesh. Twice a week, the students go to the Old City for a therapy session with a psychologist and a visit to the Western Wall, and once a week, the students make food packages for needy families in their neighborhood.

"They like helping people, feeling part of the collective and being part of the community," says Reuven Ashenberg, the yeshiva's director of special needs, who also has a graduate degree in developmental disability. "They try to break through their disability and we know that they can go to the next level - however small a step it is to that next level."

This yeshiva, though, is struggling to get increased funding and recruit more students who can afford to pay the steep tuition of $3,000 a month. The students' two mothers have been fund-raising in the U.S., and Lepon is in touch with religious special needs high schools throughout North America to raise awareness about this new alternative. They're looking to accept another five or so students for next year - which administrators say will also create a more social environment for those currently enrolled.

"This is an important institution," Ashenberg added, "that's unfortunately very needed in the Jewish community at large."




"This is an important institution," Ashenberg added, "that's unfortunately very needed in the Jewish community at large."

"Yeshiva Bnei Simcha for men with Aspergers Spectrum Disorders

 and Learning Disabilities."