Fighting fire and stigma: How overcoming obstacles to learning inspires all

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.

Yaakov’s unit at the Tel Aviv-Yafo fire station.

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, N.J. 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.

‘Determination pushed him through’

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 yeshivah teachers. Guttman used his time in yeshivah 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 himself after his regular tour in the army and was injured in the line of duty.

Yaakov Gutmann’s unit in the IDF. 

In the film, Gutmann’s mother, Shelley, offers her theory on why her son would likely be too careful to be injured on his own. She thought he would only get into harm’s way if he was trying to help someone else. Presciently, that’s what happened; Guttman was injured while pushing a soldier out of the path of a boulder being thrown from above by a terrorist. It wound up ripping into her son’s shoulder, she said. After a difficult recovery, Guttman was adamant that he continue to serve Israel, now by working as a firefighter in Tel Aviv-Yafo.

He returned to New Jersey this past week to be honored by Sinai Schools and to attend the first screening of the documentary, titled “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 rabbi notes that has a family connection to Sinai; his father-in-law, Leo Brandstatter, was the founding president of Sinai Schools 35 years ago).

The film, told dramatically, 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, making his grit and determination to succeed part of his life story.

“What I learned at Sinai, I took to the army,” says the star of the film. “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.”

Rabbi Yehoshua Fass (left) and Yaakov Guttman. 

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 Rabbi 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.”

Past documentaries by Sinai Schools have been accepted into the Director’s Circle Festival of Shorts, the Accolade Global Film Competition, the Eerie International Film Festival, the Impact Docs Awards Competition and the Best Shorts Competition. Last year’s film won six awards of excellence and two special mentions.

The 17-minute documentary is available here: https://www.sinaischools.org/walkingthroughfire

This article was originally published at JNS.org.