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Meet Rena Allen: A Conversation with our Director of Developmental Learning and Special Education

February 17, 2022 | General News

Can you introduce yourself and speak a little about your role here at Central? 

I'm Rena Allen, Director of Developmental Learning and Special Education at Central Synagogue. I work in the Youth and Family Education Department to make sure that our educational programs are inclusive of all kinds of learners. 

What is your professional background? How did you come to work with Jewish populations and children with learning disabilities? 

A fun fact about me is that I worked in fashion for exactly one year, before deciding to go to graduate school to become a teacher. I realized quickly that the schooling structure of my generation didn't work for a lot of kids. I became passionate about changing that and ensuring access for many types of learners. While I started my teaching career at Ramaz, I didn't always work in Jewish education. I worked for NYC Early Intervention and learned so much about children and families and the services and supports that make a difference. I connected with Central in 2013 because of their engagement with Matan and the rest is history. One of the greatest gifts that my parents gave me was my Jewish education. I feel strongly about lowering the barrier to this gift for all families. 

What kinds of accommodations and accessibility measures does Central undertake for students and adults in its community? 

At Central, we don’t have a formula. We take the approach that meeting children where they are is an art and not a science. Children have specific needs, and we try our best to be flexible and accommodating to their individuality. In the LCLJ, I meet with every family that indicates their child has any kind of special learning need. I listen to their story, and we strategize together to make sure their child is set up for success. In the May Family Nursery School, I work with the teachers and administrators to make sure our classrooms are inclusive, flexible, and accommodating to all learners. I work to support parents as they advocate for their children, and as they approach parenting challenges day to day.  

Are there projects and organizations in the Jewish world that offer good resources for Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month? 

Yes! People should check out Matan and The Ruderman Foundation. Another amazing accomplishment of the Jewish community is the Shefa school. They are doing groundbreaking work both literally and figuratively! 

How can members of the Central community and the wider Jewish community be more engaged around disabilities advocacy and honor Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month? 

There are two lessons that I take with me everyday. First, to greet everyone with a “hello.” Sometimes when people look or act differently it may be instinctual to shy away or not to get in the way, but everyone deserves a hello. Even if you aren't sure if one can or will respond, say hello from a place of love and friendliness and the world will be a better, bigger, and warmer place. The second lesson is that we have to aim for more than tolerance. No one wants to be tolerated. We all seek belonging. If your words and actions can cause someone to feel that they belong, then we're moving in the right direction. 

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