HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Inclusion in Jewish Education
Each day when we recite the sh’ma, we repeat the words “v’shinantam l’vanecha v’dibarta bam”, loosely translated “we shall teach the lessons of the Torah diligently to our children.” The sh’ma, of course, does not differentiate between any of our students, nor does it delineate that there are some students we should teach while others may remain out of our reach. One would be hard-pressed to find any Jewish educator who believed our heritage implied such a sentiment! However, when our schools neglect to consider serving the needs of students with special needs, we inadvertently choose some of our children over others. In so doing, we unintentionally send the message that some of our families belong in the Jewish community more than others.
One need not be an expert in the field of Jewish education or special education to know that the task of serving all of our children is a daunting one. There are financial hurdles, philosophical implications, and a variety of other potential stresses on schools that are often already stretched to their limits. In all likelihood, it is not that we do not want to serve all of our children, but that the very idea of doing so seems so far out of our reach.
There are several, albeit too few, extraordinary examples of day schools including children with a range of significant special needs. To look at the Sinai School in New Jersey or the Keshet program in Chicago is to witness a miracle in Jewish education. Twenty-five years ago, parents could have only dreamed of providing such a high quality Jewish education to their children with special needs. Now, parents uproot entire families to move to these cities where all of their children can learn together in a Jewish day school environment. For these families, the dream of an inclusive Jewish community is fulfilled.
What if the creation of these types of programs in our school is, for the moment, unattainable? What if it is financially unrealistic and professionally out of our reach? How can we begin to think of Jewish special needs education as an obligation and not a field too daunting to approach? Perhaps the answer is in ceasing to think of inclusion as an “all or nothing” proposition. Perhaps it is in feeling a sense of proud accomplishment if we reach one more student than we did last year.
The possibilities for new approaches to special education in your school are practically endless. For you, it might mean the beginning of a resource room, the addition of Judaic studies support, or a renewed effort to enhance the communication between resource room teachers and classroom teachers so that students can begin to feel successful no matter where they are during the day. For others it might mean putting your resources towards the successful inclusion of a child with Down’s Syndrome in your kindergarten for the first time. For you the first step might be inviting children with special needs into your school community for after-school activities, teaching your students that there are all kinds of people who make this world as special as it is. Or, a first step for this year might be a teacher workshop designed to educate the faculty about learning disabilities that will likely appear even in their mainstream classes.
As with the schools mentioned above and so many others, inclusion in Jewish education almost always starts with one child. If we can cease to be overwhelmed by what we think the end result should be, we can begin to improve our own school communities by taking small steps towards ensuring that everyone can be a part of them. Our students – our current typically developing students and our future students with special needs – all benefit from our diligently teaching a greater understanding of similarities, differences, and learning the Torah’s beautiful lesson that each of us is created in G-d’s Image.
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