Wednesday, August 25, 2010

First Grade Blessings at Chanaton

Just a quick positive note before I go to bed to balance the negativity in the previous post...

We had an experience this past Shabbat that made me really happy to have made Aliya and come live at Chanaton. All the children at shul who were about to start first grade were invited up to the bimah before Maftir (part of the weekly Torah reading) for a special blessing, and then they were each given a spoonful of honey so that the words of learning and Torah that they were about to begin studying would be sweet in their mouths. (similar to a traditional ritual for 3 year olds before they get a hair cut and begin Hebrew school). Having Yonah join the other children and beam with pride (after he got over the confusion of what it was all about and the excitement of being able to go up close to and touch the Torah) was really nice. I know that similar brachot are bestowed in shuls all over Israel this week and next, but I just felt at home and that Yonah was safe and loved at that moment - and he seemed to know it too.

Special Ed in Israel - Not as smooth as we thought

Ian and I have been quite positive about our experiences here so far. We were interviewed by HaAretz yesterday and had great things to say. However, now it is almost 2:30 AM and I can not sleep over worry that we made a big mistake that our son Yonah will have to pay for in the long run. I hope that I am wrong about this and that in the coming days things will work out.

One of the reasons we made Aliya is that we thought living here in Israel, and particularly on this Kibbutz in the North would be particularly beneficial for our son, Yonah, who was recently diagnosed with PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder, on the Autism Spectrum without meeting all the criteria). Yonah has been receiving early intervention services for undifferentiated developmental delays since he was one, but we had not been able to get a clear diagnosis in the states, and the classes being offered to him were for multiply disabled kids, with good services, but nothing directly related to communication disorders. There were no services available to Yonah in a Jewish environment in our part of New Jersey either. (I have noted to many people recently that Yonah is my most religious child and is excited to learn how to read just so that he could learn and read Torah, so staying in the states would have meant a major trade off).

Our past year in Jerusalem was quite good for Yonah. He was in a Gan Tazpit (Diagnostic Gan). We had to fight the beurocracy to get him in (with some help from an educational consultant who was working with us), but it was ultimately a great experience. Yonah had a wonderful teacher and staff and learned alot. More importantly - they put us on the right path to get him diagnosed and get Vaad Hasama aproval for a Kita Tikshoret (communication class for kids on the autism spectrum). It turns out that Israel and the Israeli schools are quite advanced vis-a-vis educational opportunities for kids with PDD and that by law - students classified with PDD must be provided with a special class designed for them. (Typically there are 8 kids max, specially trained teachers and staff, and since the classes are in regular schools, opportunities for mainstreaming in selected subjects as appropriate). The availability of these services reinforced our desire to make aliya.

When we became intersted in Chanaton and moving north, I had repeatedely said that the one thing that would prevent us from coming here is if we can not find a good school for Yonah. I was concerned that it was a more rural area and may not have the same opportunities as Jerusalem. The system of Kitot Tikshoret is supported by a national law, however, and I was reassured that these classes exist throughout the country. I also hit something of a brick wall in trying to identify specific schools or classes before we made a decission to move. People that Nefesh B'Nefesh referred me to about special needs in the North were not particularly knowledgeable about specific schools with Kitot Tikshoret, and when I spoke to the education officials in the Moatza (equivelant of county government), they basically said that they would help - but could not do anything concrete until we had an address in the North. So we took a leap of faith and arranged to find a house and get a lease signed as we were completing Vaad Hasama processes in Jerusalem. We got the lease and also classification by the Vaad Hasama so then the Moatza psychologist and special ed placement staff were available to help.

Unfortunately at this point they informed me that because the Moatza was so sparsley populated they did not have enough kids Yonah's age for a Kitah Tikshoret in any of the Moatza schools (issues of data/chiloni/Tali were not even on the table). so the will find him a placement in a nearby municipality - as they are obligated to do by law. OK - I could live with that - they would arrange transportation and it would not be that far anyway. First they mentioned a school in Tivon that had a great program, but after a week or so they said that the Tivon class had filled up and Yonah was bumped out because kids in Tivon had priority. Then they wanted him to be placed in a Kita Mitkademet (akin to a multiply disabled class without any specific focus on communication disorders). This would be in this Moatza (so easier to secure a placement) in a place not too far called Kfar Yehoshua (rural town with farm animals or something in or near the school so that would be nice for Yonah). I spoke to Yonah's teacher from Gan Tazpit and she said that Kitah Mitlademet is probably too low functioning for Yonah and he would not be likely to get the specific supports that he needs, so she suggested I insist on Yonah's rights for a Kita Tikshoret. The placement official at the Moatza then suggested either a class in Karmiel (to our North) or outside of Haifa in Kiryat Bialik (both about a 25 to 30 minute drive). In the end they detrmined that Kiryat Bialik was the place and that they had a spot for Yonah.

They needed to send final reports to Kiryat Bialik but all seemed in order. The week before we left for New Jersey (end of July) they asked for a follow up letter (to correct an error) from the Vaad HAsama in Jerusalem, which we got and my understanding was that the placement was on track. When we got back to Israel - I got back in touch with the Moatza to find out who to speak to in Kiryat Bialik so that I could arrange a visit for Yonah before school starts and get supply lists and meet the teachers, etc... and then I was told by the placement coordinator that he was still waiting for a final aproval. I am not sure what he was doing for the last month (or why it took this long to get a placement when they knew about Yonah as early as last April) but suddenly he was busy making calls and then today he tells us that in fact, Kiryat Bialik has decided to reject Yonah because it says in his final report from the school that he had been working with his teacher on some potty training issues (and made considerable progress). The placement coordinator sounded skeptical that this was the real reason.

Regardless - we are starting over again from the drawing board. Ron (placement guy from the Moatza) will make calls to schools in Haifa and Acco. Ian and I have been reaching out to Nefesh B Nefesh education people and other special ed support contacts, and we are also remobilizing folks with connections to Leo Beack - in an efffort to get him into that school (a great place that was booked up by the time I learned about them and applied - but where we would love for Yonah to be able to learn). (More on Leo Beack in another post I hope - - but for now, a kibbutz member who works there and was also assigned to us as our partner family to help with Klita spoke with the principal who said that he would love to help but they are full and they promised other families not to increase class sizes (part of why they are so popular I suspect) so unless someone drops out at the last minute - they can not help. I understand that - but argh!)

Bottom line - Less than a week before the start of school and we are starting over from scratch - again. Other familes are buying books and supplies and school shirts to get their kids ready for school. Other first graders are getting geared up for their new adventures, and we are gearing up to fight beurocracy to get a placement for Yonah that by rights he is entitled to. Most people are sleeping and I am awake and frustrated and very worried about my beautiful, kind, little boy.For the first time since we decided to make Aliya I am seriously wondering if we made a huge mistake. (I imagine most Olim wonder about this at some point - but this is little solace at he moment).

OK - now that I got this all out - I need to get some sleep so that I can fight this fight more energetically tomorrow (but if any readers have suggestions - they will be welcome!). I will try to add more details (and correct my grammar) when I am more awake some time tomorrow.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Beurocratic Snafus or Discrimination???

I have to say that thanks in large part to the help of Nefesh B'Nefesh, the paper work/beurocratic component of our current adventure has been surprisingly smooth.

There were some minor exceptions to this rule. We needed to pull together all the documents relating to conversions, adoptions, religious weddings, domestic partnership (in NY and NJ), civil union, and finally - our Connecticut wedding (done last month - on the third or fourth day of our most recent trip to New Jersey). We also needed apostiles (internationally recognized governemnt certifications that documents are legitimate) for each of these documents and so we (mostly Ian) were running around until the day before we left gathering documents and apositiles (including requiring a judge to issue a court order to open Eli's adoption records so that the original court order ordering his adoption could be checked!)

The payoff - in theory - is that we get recognized as a married couple by the Israeli governement and of course - both get listed as our kids parents, and get all the necessary legal documents on this side. This is a big payoff so it was worth jumping through all the hoops. We are still wating to confirm that this will actually happen. We received some documents at the airport - including a Teudat Oleh (immigration certificate that allows us to receive all the immigration rights granted to new Olim/ new immigrants)... now - if I understand correctly - this is normally given as one booklet (it looks like a passport) per family, but since the Israeli computer system does not know what to do with same-sex couples - it could not be issued - so we received one booklet for Daniel and the 3 kids, (listing me as married) but Ian received a separate official looking document in lieu of a teudat Oleh - also listing him as married, but not necessarily linked up to ours. OK - we could probably live with this as we were assured that it would be adjusted once we get our permanent ID cards (from the interior ministry) and go to the absorption ministry to begin processing the rest of out immigration benefits. ...

Then we try to carefully follow the steps recommended by Nefesh B'Nefesh - so the next hurdle is medical insurance. (Yay Israel for having National medical insurance at reasonable rates and free for us for the first year as new immigrants... though we will pay for an upgrade to "gold status" but compared to US rates the cost is laughable!). OK - it is a beurocracy heavy country so we need to take the insurance vouchers we received at the airport and then go to the post office to choose which insurance company we want it processed through (we are choosing Macabbi for now, perhaps another blog post will discuss insurance options)... Then we need to take the form from the post office to the offices of the insurance company to officially sign up...

This brings us to our first real problem.... The kids' and my insurance is processed fine, but the temporary immigration document issued to Ian (because the computer system did not know how to process gay families) was not acceptable to the clerk at the post office or her supervisor. We are there for about an hour - but despite the fact that they try to call all sorts of officials at the absorption ministry and elsewhere - they say their hands are tied. We call Nefesh B'Nefesh (we left the number at home so I called my mom - who did not have it - and then my sister - who just returned from London - but was able to get it from her husband at work who looked it up on line (!)) and the woman who answered the phone (cousins of congregants from both our South Orange and Jerusalem synagogues) passed us on to a woman who I think is the legal counsel (or something like that) who also had to call the absorption ministry and others - she finally called back and basically said that there was not much we could do at this point. Ian is technically covered - but until he is signed up for a specific Kuppah, if there is a medical emergency - we will need to lay out funds and then fight to be reimbursed later. Presumably - once we get our teudat zeihut (identity card) Ian will also be able to sign up for insurance (another visit to the post office and then the insurance company office)... but we will keep you posted.

I have to say - that we have not experienced much (if any) homophobic discrimination in Israel (part of our decision to make Aliya) and we are still hopeful that when our papers are all processed we will retain the married status (despite US governments refusal to respect us with the same treatment)... but we presume the straight couples with kids on our aliya flight did not have these same problems.

Meanwhile - people at stores and offices still recognize us from TV as a family and are really nice and warm and welcoming to us... so Bravo for Israeli society. (I am proud to be an Israeli!) so I am now voting to attribute this to annoying beurocracy - but the jury is still out. I will try to keep the blogosphere posted of upcoming developments.

We did it!

OK - We are now officially Israeli citizens (as of last Thursday, in fact). We flew to Israel on a Nefesh B'Nefesh charter flight. Everyone on the flight was making aliya. Almost half the passengers were children! The flight was relatively smooth (much smoother than when I flew back to the states last month: alone with the 3 kids on Lot airlines with a 4 hour layover in Warsaw!). (See picture above of Ian, Yonah and Tamar - getting along grandly on the ElAl plane!)

We are slowly getting settled in and wading through errands and red tape. We should get our teudot zeihut (citizen identity cards) by Wenesday, and that will hopefully smooth out some of the beurocratic obstacles. The kids start school September 1.

Cheers -