By Elizabeth Kratz
Students with special needs often feel overwhelmed and helpless; many roadblocks can appear to block their way to success and cause them to think that the world is against them.
But Yaakov Guttman, an Israeli firefighter who served with distinction in the Israel Defense Forces, seeks to bring attention to the way his teachers built him up, enabling him to overcome the stigma about his own learning disabilities, and be able to thrive and serve in Israel, his chosen country.
“In every child, in every person, there is value,” stresses Guttman. “My teachers decided that I was worth something. If you believe in a child — if you believe in what they can do — and you show them that you believe in them, then they will start believing in themselves and move forward.”
To support the school he attended, Guttman agreed to star in a recent documentary made about his life, highlighting the challenges he endured that ultimately led to his success.
The film describes an illiterate child who lost his father to a heart attack at the age of 10, bringing sadness and confusion to his family life. It follows him until his IDF service and current work as a firefighter.
The now 34-year-old returns, again and again, to the lessons his school taught him, working to provide inspiration and support to students who might be struggling with similar challenges.
Guttman graduated from Sinai Schools at Kushner, a Jewish day school for students with a wide range of special needs that is part of the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, in Livingston, NJ.
In the film, he describes his severe learning disabilities, including dyslexia, and credits Sinai staff with teaching him to read at age 10 after multiple false starts and emotional upheavals.
After succeeding there and then being mainstreamed at Kushner for multiple subjects, including as a star on the school’s basketball team, he gained more and more confidence in his abilities.
“Inclusion plays a vital role in our work at Sinai,” explains Rabbi Yisrael Rothwachs, the school’s dean, noting that Gutmann’s ability to “feel normal” and enjoy and excel at activities such as basketball, became a way for him to thrive in and relate to his larger community.
Rothwachs adds that Sinai Schools now operate six “inclusion-by-design” programs for elementary-age and high school students inside Jewish day schools in New Jersey.
The school will open its seventh outpost this fall, inside SAR Academy in New York City.
Guttman came to Israel 14 years ago, where he first attended Yeshivat Lev HaTorah as part of a gap-year program. He says he felt immediately at home in Israel, benefiting from a close friendship with Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the founder of Nefesh B’Nefesh, who was one of his teachers.
Guttman used his time in yeshiva as a springboard to join the IDF as a lone soldier, eventually serving with distinction.
“He got into a unit that usually breaks people,” says Fass, “and I thought he would ask to be transferred to a different unit. But his determination pushed him through and he didn’t quit.”
“Yaakov is the soldier I would want to have with me in battle,” says Amitai Shohat, Guttman’s commanding officer. “I know that no matter what, Yaakov would lift me and carry me on his back if necessary.” Guttman served as a commander after his regular tour in the army and was injured in the line of duty.
In the film, Guttman’s mother, Sheila, says she thought her son would only get into harm’s way if he were trying to help someone else — which is what happened. Guttman was injured while pushing a soldier out of the path of a boulder being thrown by a terrorist. It wound up ripping into his shoulder.
After a difficult recovery, Guttman was adamant that he continue to serve Israel. He now works as a firefighter in Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
Last month, Guttman returned to New Jersey to be honored by Sinai Schools and to attend the debut of the documentary, “Walking Through Fire.”
In the audience of more than 1,000 people was none other than Fass, applauding and continuing to support Guttman’s achievements.
The film describes the challenges Guttman has faced and how his teachers worked to address his social anxieties before offering him academic support for his reading disability.
“What I learned at Sinai, I took to the army,” Guttman says. “It took a lot of focus — a lot of blood, sweat and tears going into it — but I took myself by the reigns and said, ‘All right, you’ve got to start doing well here. You’ve got to start building yourself strong.’”
He adds that the lessons he took away “helped me to become the person I am today.”
Sam Fishman, managing director of Sinai Schools, and the school’s communication director, Abigail Hepner-Gross, co-wrote and co-directed the film.
“We hope that [it] will help children and teenagers who need uplifting, who need to see that it is possible to get past the darkness and have an incredible future,” says Fishman.
“We also hope that the film will inspire parents, who are [often] frozen by the fear of stigma, to finally get the help they need for their children.”
As for Fass, this longtime friend notes that “Yaakov teaches us that no matter what obstacle is placed in front of an individual, if you have the spirit, and the love and the support, you can overcome it.”
The documentary is available via www.sinaischools.org/walkingthroughfire