HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Raising Awareness, Changing Attitudes: The Time Is Now
Fourteen years ago, while working at an overnight Jewish summer camp, I (Dori) met a boy named Josh. Josh was 8 years old and struggled with learning disabilities and attention issues that impacted his interactions with other people. Although he loved camp and tried hard to fit in, Josh was asked to leave eight days after he arrived. Months later, I called a friend of mine who was a teacher at the Jewish day school Josh attended. When I asked my friend how Josh was doing, he responded that he didn’t know: Josh had been asked to leave the school. Where would Josh’s committed Jewish family turn next? Would they even remain a committed Jewish family?
The Learning Disabilities Association of America reports that 15% of the population has a learning disability. 1 in 110 individuals—of that, 1 in 70 boys—is diagnosed with autism. Approximately 988,000 children in the US are Jewish. Although the Jewish community has not done a full census for this information, it is safe to assume that the Jewish population mirrors the general population; minimally, 150,000 school-aged Jewish children grapple with some form of disability. People say that change in the Jewish community will only occur once a critical mass has been reached. As professionals who are completely committed to the Jewish future, we all must look at these numbers and understand that the critical mass has indeed been achieved. For Jewish educators, the tipping point is here.
As secular American educational institutions are making leaps and bounds in their efforts to accommodate students of diverse learning capabilities, our Jewish educational settings lag behind. Faculty lack specialized training, background knowledge or the tools to best serve students with special needs. Our Jewish educational institutions bend under the pressure to provide high quality education to the majority of students. The needs of the many trump the needs of the few. Families are turned away again and again from a Jewish education they so desperately want and their children deserve. This far-too common occurrence is unacceptable and is avoidable.
Conversations about including children with special needs in Jewish education often quickly turn into a discussion about money. How can we possibly afford inclusion? With the previously cited percentages, we would argue that the real question is, how can we afford not to include these children and their families? While we recognize that there is a financial component to having the proper resources in place to accommodate all learners, we feel strongly that the major barrier has much more to do with attitude. As a community, we must reach the point where we all see the absurdity in picking and choosing which types of children are entitled to a Jewish education, which families are welcomed into the fabric of Jewish life and which ones are relegated to watch from the sidelines. So how do we get there? Here are several suggestions for the consideration of day school leadership.
- Have a strong grasp on how your school currently approaches special needs. Is there a stated school policy? What does it say? Does your school have a specific system of accommodations in place for children who learn differently? Do you have open dialogue with your parents about the positives and negatives of how the school is accommodating their children’s learning needs? Do you know how many children have been “counseled out” of your school because of special needs?
- Moving beyond the policies and population of your own school, utilize local Jewish agencies to understand the larger community. Familiarize yourself with the resources in your area and find out where gaps in service exist. What percentage of families send their children to Jewish day school? What percentages of families have a child with special needs? Of those, how many have been turned away from day school education, or would be interested in that education if they thought it was available to them?
- With all of this information in hand, understand that the best solutions are often those that take a communal approach. Not every school has to become an expert in every type of learning need. In geographical regions where more than one Jewish day school exists, create teams of internal leaders who are committed to addressing this issue. Think about which schools are in the best position to accommodate different types of learners. Create action plans whereby one school’s goal is to serve children with autism and communication disorders, another’s is to serve children with moderate to severe learning disabilities, and so on. Parents of children with special needs are usually willing to cross denominational lines if it means their child will be included in Jewish education.
- Utilize Jewish special needs resources such as Matan, Gateways, Hidden Sparks or your local central agency to help determine what steps should be included in your action plan. How many new staff members would you need? How many children could you accept? How do you plan for successful integration into your school? Don’t reinvent the wheel. There are inclusive Jewish day schools (such as Carmel Academy and the Sinai Schools) that would be happy to share their methodologies, how they took their first steps and how they maintain success.
- Invite your entire parent body to be part of the discussion. Parents of typically developing children who believe in the power of inclusion can be the best advocates for welcoming children with special needs into the school. Organizations and schools such as those mentioned above, as well as parents in your school who work in education or related fields, can help answer questions from parents who are new to the idea of inclusion.
In parashat Shemot, G-d charges Moshe with leading the Jewish people out of Egypt. In turn, Moshe responds (loosely translated!), “G-d, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I don’t speak so well. I have a stutter, and being a public figure might not be the right job for me.” G-d tells Moshe, “Yes, I am aware of that because I created you this way. In you, I see all of your abilities, not simply the things you struggle with.” G-d recognized Moshe’s unique abilities and did not define him by his disability, and that is how the Jewish people came to view him as well.
With the proper support, determination and belief, individuals with special needs will surpass your expectations. Could Josh have been the next great Jewish leader? What Jewish institution is going to say yes so that he—and all those who come after him—won’t be lost to us? ♦
Dori Frumin Kirshner, Executive Director of Matan, holds a master’s degree in Jewish education, is a former day school and Hebrew school teacher and Federation professional, and is the parent of a day school student. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meredith Englander Polsky, Special Needs Coordinator, co-founder of Matan and parent of a day school student, holds master’s degrees in special education and social work and has extensive experience in formal and informal Jewish education. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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