Sasone program spreads joy to children with special needs through education

Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) takes place every February. While the spotlight shines a little brighter on the community’s special needs population during that month, the Sasone program works year-round in the Kansas City Jewish community to make sure Jewish education is available to young students with special needs. 

“Sasone means joy,” said Sandy Passer, a co-founder of the program and a co-chair of its public relations and fundraising committee. “We created Sasone so this population can have the joy of a Jewish education.”

This year the Sasone committee hopes the JDAIM spotlight will help children learn to understand and befriend others in their classrooms who may be unique and special. Sasone, a program organized under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, commissioned a book it hoped would be a good way to educate children and families in our community about those among them with special needs.

The book is titled “The Special Needs Acceptance Book — Being a Friend to Someone with Special Needs,” written by Ellen Sabin. Several hundred copies of the book were delivered during February to the Jewish religious schools and preschools in the Kansas City area that have children with special needs who are served by Sasone.

“As it says in the beginning of the book, to the parents of children with special needs, Sasone brings the joy of raising Jewish children,” Passer said. “To teachers, it brings the joy of changing lives. To fellow students, the joy of discovering some of the smartest, funniest, sweetest and truest friends they’ll ever have.”

In celebration of JDAIM one copy of the book per family was distributed at each of these programs: The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah; Congregation Beth Torah; Congregation Beth Shalom; Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy; the Jewish Community Center’s (The J) Child Development Center; and Chabad House Center of Kansas City. The program also serves The J’s summer campers. Along with the book families received a letter explaining Sasone and what supporters hoped they would do with the book.

“We hope you will share (this book) with your children as a resource for learning more about individuals with disabilities and join us as we continue our mission to ensure that the doors to Jewish education are opened to every child,” the letter said.

By distributing this book, the committee is hoping to spread its core message that every child is different and special and deserves to be understood as well as treated with kindness and respect, Passer said.

“It is our mission, and it says so in the book, to continually open the doors to possibilities for new and valuable friendships, greater acceptance of children with special needs, and therefore greater quality of life for all,” she said.

By distributing the book, the Sasone committee hoped parents would read it together with their kids.

“We also hope teachers find ways to use it as a tool in their classrooms,” she said.

The book addresses a wide range of subjects, including walking in other people’s shoes, lending a hand, being a friend, being patient and treating others as they want to be treated, Passer said. It explains various kinds of special needs, such as learning disabilities, emotional challenges, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, blindness and deafness.

“It uses informative narrative and engaging activities to help them develop understanding, compassion and appreciation for people different from themselves,” she said. “It lets them use their imagination and journal exercises to more fully comprehend some of the challenges people with special needs might face. It also empowers children by helping them understand the power of their actions and how they can be a good friend to others. Finally, it shows children that we are all different, all special, and all of us like to be accepted and understood.”

Sasone is in its 23rd year. Passer’s husband, Steve Passer, and Alan Edelman also co-founded the program and are co-chairs of the committee. The program supports between 150 and 200 children each year with special needs, Passer said.

She explained that Sasone embraces the importance in Judaism of gemulit chasadim, performing acts of loving kindness. This is often demonstrated by fellow students who don’t have special needs who sometimes help those who do by acting as peer models. Passer said doing so was considered a “holy act.” One of the subjects tackled in the book, she explained, is letting children figure out ways to be helpful to people with special needs. 

The Sasone program is important to the local Jewish community because, Passer said, “all students seeking a Jewish education deserve the opportunity for a Jewish education.”

“It’s a priority of our community to accept and include (children with special needs) in formal and informal education,” she said. “Our part of acceptance and inclusion is to open the doors to them. We are lucky we have one communitywide program. That’s not always the case in other cities.”

Over the years one funder that’s been especially supportive of Sasone is the Menorah Heritage Foundation. Sasone is also funded by the Federation, the Kenneth L. And Eva S. Smith Foundation, the Lowenstein Family Supporting Foundation, the Marion and Henry Bloch Family Foundation, the Sam Price Family Foundation, The Sosland Foundation and hundreds of individuals.

Maxine Benson, who was director of The J’s Child Development Center from 1998 through mid-2014, was a member of the Sasone’s first committee 23 years ago and still volunteers to help with the program.

“I’m glad Sasone is coming out into the sunlight because it’s a game changer,” Benson said.

She is passionate about Sasone, and believes its praises should be shouted from the rooftops.

“I think that’s what Sasone is trying to do now, to make people realize this is here and not take it for granted,” Benson said. “It’s a very delicate balance to provide a service while respecting the privacy of the families involved. Sasone has done a wonderful job of doing that. That’s what has always made these families very comfortable.” 

Benson said Sasone has enabled the children and families who receive its services to feel included instead of being “on the outside looking in.”

“To allow the children to be part of sitting in a large group of 200 kids for Shabbat (and other celebrations), no matter what their disability is — that’s really in a nutshell the beauty of Sasone,” Benson said.

Sasone has a few extra books, Passer said, and families with children who do not take part in one of the programs where books were distributed are welcome to request a copy of the book. To request a copy of the book, to receive more information about Sasone or to express interest in joining the Sasone committee, contact the Passers at

Reprinted with permisison from The Jewish Chronicle