What started as a grass-roots effort by two moms who have children with special needs has grown into an agency that provides a multitude of resources, programs and services to help children and adults with disabilities be included in the Valley’s Jewish communal life.  

And now, with Executive Director Becca Hornstein having retired last week after nearly three decades at the helm of the Council for Jews With Special Needs, the agency prepares for its future, led by Executive Director Gail Gilmartin.

“I’m very comfortable in leaving my position as executive director because Gail brings to the job all of the skills and all the experience, as well as her natural warmth to take the council to an exciting new direction,” Hornstein said.

In the beginning

CJSN – started by Hornstein and Joyce Berk (now Berk-Lippincott) in 1985 – first created an inclusive summer camp experience at the old JCC on Maryland Avenue in Phoenix, Hornstein recalls, and then established special education assistance for any religious school that accommodated special needs children. 

“One of things that Joyce and I said in the beginning was, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could create services that help a family from the moment they have a child with a disability – either born with a disability or diagnosed with a disability – and help them all the way through their lives?’ ” 

Providing support where needed

Now, 29 years later, CJSN staff works with Jewish preschools, religious schools, day schools and summer camps, as well as sports and recreation programs. It also owns two resident homes for Jewish adults with disabilities – and coordinates programs for residents of a third group home run by the state – and offers two adult social programs, Yad B’Yad and Keshet (one geared toward lower-functioning adults and the other toward higher-functioning adults). 

“We don’t just support [the individual], but we support their family members,” said Hornstein, whose son, Joel, who has autism and lives in one of the group homes. “We’re really trying to cover the spectrum of life needs of people with disabilities.”

The agency aims to bring its services to “existing Jewish life and Jewish settings, as opposed to our creating something brand new and segregating them,” Hornstein noted. “Our primary thrust is to find the supports that are needed and then take them into Jewish schools and camps, youth groups [and] congregations.”

For example, if a child is struggling in a Jewish day school, preschool or religious school, a CJSN education inclusion consultant will visit the school to observe the student and meet with the teachers to discuss strategies. The council’s special education staff also trains teachers and classroom aides. All special needs, including learning disabilities and behavioral issues, are addressed.

No one person makes the agency a success, Hornstein said, and many of the nine staff members have been with the agency for several years. “People take this job because they’re passionate about helping people with special needs feel included in Jewish life.” 

An example of one of these programs is the monthly Simchat Shabbat, a Shabbat service with a “no-shush” rule, that is co-sponsored by Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale and Temple Emanuel of Tempe. The next one is noon-1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, at Congregation Beth Israel. 

CJSN also serves as a resource for information and referrals about disability-related concerns, and the agency often receives out-of-state inquiries from those planning to relocate to the Valley, Hornstein said. The agency also offers sign language interpreting services, family education programs and community education workshops. 

“We thank and congratulate Becca Hornstein on completing three decades of service to CJSN, in which she greatly improved access to disabilities resources and services in our community,” wrote Richard Lustiger, CJSN board president, in an email.

Lustiger’s son, Robbie, who has autism, lives in the CJSN’s Keshet House, and he’s known his fellow residents since he was a child in Hebrew school, said his mother, Rachel.

Robbie, now 26, learned to read from the Torah and became a bar mitzvah through a CJSN program at Temple Chai. “It was magnificent,” his mother said. “He was so proud.” Residents of the Keshet House also share Shabbat dinners each week, celebrate holidays together and participate in Keshet social group activities.

Future expansion

To help Gilmartin prepare for her new role, Hornstein created an instruction manual, “a booklet I wished someone had given to me when I started doing this job.”  

Gilmartin has 20 years of experience in nonprofit management, special event production, volunteer management and community relations. She was most recently the director of special events for the National Kidney Foundation of Arizona, and before that was a vice president of volunteer programs at Special Olympics Arizona for five years. 

“I’m hoping I can bring my corporate background and fundraising and event planning into the pool,” Gilmartin said. “Taking the legacy that’s already been built by Becca and Joyce and now bringing it out into the community. ... It’s time to take the council to the next level and to the next generation of volunteers, of sponsors, of board members.”

Since the CJSN started in 1985, “the Jewish community has expanded physically and now the council is ready to follow that expansion – literally follow where the clients moved to,” Hornstein said. Gilmartin, who is a member of Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley, would like to see the CJSN expand its services into more of the East Valley, as well as the West Valley and perhaps even throughout the state.

“We are very excited to have [Gail] join us to use her skills developed at Special Olympics and the Kidney Foundation to build on the solid footing created by Becca Hornstein,” Lustiger wrote.

Legacy to the future

After retirement, Hornstein plans on doing a lot of reading – she runs a women’s book club and is considering joining a second one. She is also active in adult Jewish studies and at her synagogue, Temple Chai. She is actively involved in the life of her son, Joel – who has worked in the county library system for several years – and hopes to spend more time visiting her daughter, Shana, who is a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. Shana worked for CJSN when she used to live in the Valley and has her doctorate in special education. 

“I really can retire because Shana is my legacy to the future,” Hornstein said. “She’s going to carry on the family passion for helping people with disabilities.”

For details, call 480-629-5343, email info@cjsn.org or visit cjsn.org. A closer look: special needs is a series focusing on special needs in the Jewish community. Visit jewishaz.com.


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