HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Enemies a Love Story: The Family’s Perspective
Many families confide in me, as a rabbi, about their issues and challenges. One of the greatest problems families have shared with me in recent years has been that of special needs children and Jewish day schools. Families have told me about being turned away from Jewish day schools, being “counseled out” of Jewish day schools, being welcomed into Jewish day schools with inadequate special education programs and living in communities where they simply could not find a Jewish day school that had any kind of special education program.
I am dismayed when it comes to the complacency of the Jewish community in terms of working with children with special needs. With all of the concerns our community has about assimilation, how can we turn Jewish children away from a Jewish day school simply because they have special needs?
I am dismayed when it comes to the complacency of the Jewish community in terms of working with children with special needs. With all of the concerns our community has about assimilation, how can we turn Jewish children away from a Jewish day school simply because they have special needs? Also, how can Jewish day schools take children they are not in any way capable of dealing with? What is the answer? How do we solve this problem?
Jewish day schools need trained professionals in special education to create and run special education programs. Nothing short of this should be accepted. Too many Jewish day schools are unable to work with children with special needs and turn them away. Everyone in the Jewish community needs to do something about this problem. I have encountered Jewish day schools that are large and well-funded and yet have special education departments led by people without special education degrees. In at least one case there is an administrator of a special education program in a Jewish day school without any education degree.
Special education, especially in a Jewish day school setting, is expensive. Class size obviously has to be smaller. Teachers need more advanced degrees and training. Therapists, psychologists, and other specialists all need to be part of the full time faculty of any substantive special education program. The fact that we are talking about private schools and not public schools makes the burden of funding these programs huge. Some local public school boards may give some funding to children with special needs, even when they are attending Jewish day schools. However, this is only part of the solution. Many Jewish day schools are already over-burdened economically. Perhaps a solution is for the greater Jewish community to help fund special education programs in Jewish day schools. Jewish foundations need to make this a priority.
The Jewish community needs to be more inclusive of children with special needs. While this can partly be accomplished through creating appropriate special education programs in the context of Jewish day schools, this alone is not enough. Jewish day schools as a whole need to create a culture of inclusion. This is not just important for the children and parents who are dealing with these issues but it is also important for children, parents, teachers and administrators enrolled and associated with mainstream educational settings. They need to be sensitized to respect different types of learners.
Arguably one of the biggest problems in dealing with special needs is the issue of stigma. Parents often hide their children’s issues to prevent them from being stigmatized. These parents are doing a great disservice to their children by preventing them from getting the help they need.
Some of these parents find help for their children privately and quietly outside of the school setting. In some cases they are truly able to help their children. However, more often than not, this method does not work. People who hide their children’s issues from their school are obviously not able to communicate and coordinate with the school. So with all the help these children are getting outside of school, they are still at a disadvantage in the classroom.
Furthermore, parents who hide their children’s issues from the school are probably hiding them from friends as well. As a result, they are isolated and their children are isolated. This isolation prevents them from learning from other parents who are facing similar challenges. Jewish day schools exacerbate the issue of stigma by creating a non-inclusive atmosphere for children with special needs. However, what is even worse is when day schools know the children in their care have issues, but the parents are unaware and the day schools do not bring it to the parents’ attention because of the issue of stigma.
Stigma also prevents the creation of special education programs in Jewish day schools. One of the reasons you hear for why many day schools are reluctant to start a special education program is they feel the numbers do not justify it. Perhaps the reason the numbers do not justify it is that so many parents with children with special needs in the Jewish community are hiding their children’s issues. If these parents would come forward, it might become clear that the numbers often do justify the creation of such programs.
There are some Jewish day schools that are dealing well with children with special needs. Such schools truly understand children with special needs. They have special education programs that encompass general and Jewish studies. These programs are staffed by trained professionals including all of the necessary specialists, a director, special education teachers, occupational therapists, speech therapists, reading specialists and a psychologist. Every student is considered as an individual learner. These programs try to make sure that all students get what they need to optimize their learning experience. To accomplish this, students who are in such programs for certain subjects may be in the mainstream program for other subjects. It is even conceivable that a child can be in the special education program and the gifted program at the same time.
However, it is not just that these types of special education programs are high quality. As a whole, schools that have such programs make a major effort to be inclusive. They try to create an environment where children are taught inclusivity and the importance of respecting different types of learners. Such schools are inclusive to children’s learning, physical, medical, psychological and emotional issues. I do not believe this is a coincidence. You will also find that schools that are inclusive to these types of issues are also inclusive to diversity in terms of the way families approach Judaism. Usually such schools will attract families from many different types of Jewish backgrounds, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, post-denominational, trans-denominational, non-denominational and unaffiliated. The faculties in such schools are also diverse. In these types of schools, whichever approach a given family has to Judaism, it will be respected. The children are also taught to respect different approaches to Judaism. When you are a truly inclusive school you are inclusive to any issue. Inclusivity cannot be determined on a case by case basis; it needs to be systemic. One such school is Carmel Academy (formerly Westchester Fairfield) in Greenwich, Connecticut.
On the Shabbat before Purim, Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat of Remembrance), we read Deuteronomy 25:17-19, which tells the story of Amalek, a group that attacked the Jewish people when they were traveling from Egypt to Israel. Amalek is considered the definition of evil because they attacked the Jewish people from behind, focusing on the people who were in the back of the line. Who was in the back of the line? The weak, the sick and the physically challenged. Why did the Israelites leave the weakest individuals in the rear? Why did they leave them open to attack? Why did they not position them in a place where they could be protected?
The commentary Itturei Torah says:
If the community of Israel had not forgotten these stragglers, but rather, had brought them close under the wings of G-d’s Presence in order to return them underneath the clouds of glory, that they would be together with all the house of Israel, then Amalek would not have overcome them and beaten them. But because these stragglers were left behind, that is, you let them be left behind and you forgot them… this is the forgetting. The people of Israel were “weary, tired and not G-d-fearing” and forgot these brothers and sisters so Amalek was able to cut them off. Therefore, the Torah commands us to remember Amalek. And with this, warned us never again to forget our brothers and sisters in need of support and help, keeping them within the camp. Never Forget.
This understanding of the text forces us to think about what our responsibilities are towards the weakest among us. We must realize that we, as individuals and as a society, often leave the weakest behind. There are also times that it is not the weakest that we leave behind; sometimes we leave behind people who are just experiencing challenges.
When a Jewish day school does not provide appropriate services for children with special needs they are leaving them at the back of the line. Let’s stop leaving children with special needs at the back the line. Let’s bring them up front where they can learn and enjoy the beauty of Judaism like every other child. ♦
Rabbi David Kalb is Director of Jewish Education at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. He can be reached at DKalb@92y.org.
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