MAKING MEMORIES: Amanda, left, and Michele, members of the choir at the Quest Center in Hollywood,perform at Gator Run Elementary School in Weston. "It gives them a chance to shine," teacher David Lazerson says. Photos/Ginny Dixon



From Crown Heights in New York, to Hollywood’s Quest Center, a Jewish teacher uses music and his faith to break down barriers.

By Jamie Malernee - Education Writer – SunSentinel

Some of his students can't move, their bodies forever trapped in wheelchairs.
Some of them can't speak, the connection lost between their minds and mouths.

But something special happens when teacher David Lazerson walks into a room and plugs in his guitar.

"Get down!" he shouts, music pouring from him, as he stands on the cafeteria stage of the Quest Center in Hollywood, a school for profoundly disabled students.

Crooning songs from the Beatles, Bob Marley and Sesame Street with equal joy, Lazerson -- better known as Dr. Laz -- bounces over to one disabled boy, gently takes his hand and helps him beat out a rhythm on a tambourine. He passes the microphone to an autistic child who seldom talks, hoping that maybe, just maybe, he will today.

Always, Laz hopes. Where other people see impossible, he sees a challenge. It's one reason part of his life has been made into a movie released this year. It's one reason colleagues say he makes magic with music.

"The kids don't want to leave him. They get so motivated," says Principal Linda Walker. "Music is a universal language. Everyone understands it and feels it and he has brought that to the school."

Laz's philosophy is simple: "I'm not a teacher, but an awakener."

When Laz isn't singing, he's cracking jokes, purposely falling off his chair and bumping into walls. Imagine comedian Robin Williams as a tall hippie, and you're on your way to picturing Laz. Now add a full beard and a yarmulke. Laz almost always wears the tiny cap because, in addition to being a 54-year-old goofball, he is a Hasidic Jew whose faith is at the core of the passion he brings to his job.

The Hasidic movement teaches that true religion lies not in knowledge of doctrine, but in a sincere love of God expressed in exultant prayer and joyful living. Laz embodies this and explains his special affection for the disabled using a story from the Talmud, a collection of Jewish laws and traditions:

"There's a story of someone who is mentally handicapped who walks by a famous rabbi and his students. The rabbi stands up [as a sign of respect]. The students ask, `Why? This person can't even read.' And the rabbi says, `How could I not stand up for someone who is 45 years old and has never committed a sin?'

"In the Jewish tradition, they are a pure soul," he adds. "Everyone is important."

Laz didn't always work with the disabled.

He first made headlines and music in his hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y. Back then he worked with at-risk teens. Race riots struck the Crown Heights neighborhood in 1991, born of a schism between the Hasidic Jews and blacks who lived together but seldom spoke.

Laz used music to prompt a different kind of awakening. He helped form a band made up of students and community members from the two camps. They composed raps, interjecting language from both cultures -- "Yo!" and "Oy veh!" -- to catch people's attention and make them smile.

It worked. The band improved race relations as it performed around the area and spawned a Showtime movie that aired this year, with Howie Mandel playing Laz.

ZEST FOR LIFE: David Lazerson, known as Dr.Laz, teaches music with humor and passion to students at the Quest Center, a school for the profoundly disabled. "I'm not a teacher, but an awakener," he says.

All of which seems a world away from the Quest Center and Laz's work with disabled students. But it's not. The music continues. A challenge continues. Laz, who still travels with the Crown Heights groups on weekends and during vacations, moved to Florida to work with at-risk students in Miami-Dade County in 1996. During a summer camp, he worked with special-needs kids.

One thing led to another, which led Laz to the Quest, a school for profoundly handicapped students from prekindergarten to age 21. Laz hoped music, which sparked peace between two distrustful cultures in Crown Heights, would spark something in the minds and hearts of these children.

At first, he wondered whether he was reaching them. Then one day, after three weeks at Quest, he dropped a bunch of books on the floor in front of a class. One boy who seldom even moved started laughing.

"I thought, `Oh my God, not only are they processing [information], but they have a sense of humor,'" he recalls. "It showed me that they were aware of their environment. I was the one who was unaware."

Since that day about three years ago, Laz has learned the importance of simple things. He imagines the frustration of one little girl with cerebral palsy, who lives in a body that struggles to function even though she is bright enough to spell out words on a special computer. So he gives her a set of bells so she can at least shake them to the beat of a song. He imagines not being able to speak well, so he arranges for another teacher to show students how to do sign language to the lyrics of a tune.

Most recently, Laz created a choir for some of the higher-functioning students and they travel the county, visiting other campuses and senior centers.

"It gives them a chance to shine," Laz explains. "They are finally in a role where they are not on the receiving end of something. They are the givers. At our last performance, some of the other students asked people in the choir for their autograph."

Sabrina Ariza, a fifth-grader at Gator Run Elementary, was impressed at the group's knowledge of sign language. By the end of the show, everyone in the audience smiled and clapped along to the music.

"I learned that just because they're different on the outside doesn't mean they are different on the inside," she says.

"They use what they have and they enjoy life even though they have a disability."

About a week after the performance, the choir is rehearsing. As Laz plays rock 'n' roll, a boy with Down syndrome wails on his air guitar, just like any other teen who dreams of being a rock star. As they practice a Phil Collins melody, You'll be in my Heart, a boy who someday hopes to marry a girl in the class turns to her and serenades her.

"Perfect!" she gushes.

Two students high-five each other. Together, everyone signs one of their favorite songs as Laz and those who can, sing:

Give a little love, have a little hope,
Make the world a little brighter,
Try a little more, harder than before,
We'll do it together.
"Give yourself a round of applause!" Laz shouts, face aglow. "Hoo-hoo-hoo!"

Jamie Malernee can be reached at or 954-356-4849