Did She Just Say That? - Inclusion Has its Challenges

They aren't all success stories.

 The awful things people say; Removing the Stumbling Block

Jewish inclusive education is a process and a journey. It would be unfair of me to paint a picture that doesn’t share the struggles and challenges. It took us time to get to the point where we are now, both in scope of what we offer and acceptance within the school and our synagogue community at large. 

Life Lessons in the Lunch Line

Unexpected moments; Removing the Stumbling Block

Each year the congregation where I am an Education Director joins with a few others to run a retreat for young high school students. We spend Shabbat together outside the walls of our synagogues and we sing, pray, learn, play, laugh and build community. We have been fortunate to be able to offer an extensive special education program within our religious school for the past twelve years. Including students from our school that have special needs and ensuring that they are fully included in this retreat experience is a high priority for me.

So I’d like to share a story. Our weekend retreat was well under way and it was lunchtime on Shabbat. I stood in line alongside a student from my school that happens to be blind. A young man from another synagogue stood in front of us and offered to let us go ahead of him because he “certainly didn’t need to get to the food first.” (This was a young man who is often misunderstood and judged based on his appearance and weight, rather than the quality of his character.) My student leaned in to me to say that she didn’t understand what he meant.  I had to explain to her that he had just made a self-deprecating remark about himself in reference to his weight. Her response was “Oh”, and while it was clear that this made her feel bad, she just had no real frame of reference for what he was saying. And that’s when it dawned on him.  I watched his face light up, his whole demeanor change and he addressed his next comment to my student directly. “Wow,” he said to her, “You are so lucky! You never have to judge people on their appearances!” 

I won’t lie, I still get goose bumps. And honestly? The weekend could have ended there and I would have considered it a success.

Rabbi Chanina taught, "I have learned much from my teachers. I have learned more from my colleagues than my teachers. But I have learned more from my students than from all of them." (B. Talmud, Taanit, 7a)

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that inclusion “takes away from” the learning of the other students. It’s just wrong.

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Why I Chose Special Education

Why I Chose Special Education; Removing the Stumbling Block

When I lead a workshop or presentation on Jewish disability inclusion and education, I begin with a little background about myself. I share the obvious credentials of where I went to college (Rutgers), where I got my Master’s degree (again, Rutgers) and where I have worked. But I also really like to share the Jewish part of my path, because I’m a NFTY kid through and through.

NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth, is the Reform Movement’s national youth organization, and my participation throughout high school helped to shape me into the adult I am today. 

At the age of seventeen my parents gave me a significant opportunity, and it was truly a life-changing experience. I spent six weeks of the summer between my Junior and Senior years of high school participating in NFTY’s Urban Mitzvah Corps, a program designed to “provide participants with an authentic opportunity to explore their Jewish identities through the lens of social justice and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).” Participants in this program choose jobs sites and volunteer their time. Together we built a community that made a difference in the lives of the mentally and physically challenged, the underprivileged and the elderly. Our evenings were spent learning, enjoying social activities, and discussing current social justice issues. And, of course, as a Jewish community, our weekly celebration of Shabbat was a highlight.

My job sites were the New Brunswick inner-city parks & recreation program and Camp Daisy, a day camp for children with developmental disabilities. Daisy was my first experience with individuals with physical and developmental disabilities. All these years later, and I can still picture, like it was yesterday, the joy of splashing in the lake with my campers.

Three weeks at Camp Daisy and that was it. I was hooked. 

So after years teaching special education in New Jersey public schools, I jumped at the chance to shift into the role of a Jewish professional within the Reform Movement, knowing I would once again get to be a part of such life-changing experiences - except this time, I would be able to bring them to others. It was like coming home.

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