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 special 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 of our programs within the school and our synagogue community at large. 

I have so much respect for the lay leaders of our community. They have trusted me from my very first day to lead, and have always shared in the vision that everyone is entitled to an appropriate Jewish education. As a result, we have been able to take risks and experiment. I firmly believe that building trusting relationships with families and honest experimentation is what has led us to experience so much success. 

But I remember a particularly challenging experience from the the time that we were actively developing our inclusive practices. We had a student who was really struggling to learn Hebrew. Our traditional afternoon model of Hebrew School wasn't working as he had both processing and attention issues. We advocated for him to move into our Alternative Hebrew program so that we could address his individual learning needs. It was the right placement. The class was much smaller and met on Sunday mornings (rather than a weekday afternoon) with a trained teacher and numerous teen madrichim (assistants).  

But this student’s mother was unwilling to consider this placement. Her response to my recommendation was that she, "would not put her son in that class with those kids".  

I honestly had no idea where to go from there. I think I said something about her statement being untrue and that all students have a right to learn in a supportive and accepting environment. At least I hope I said something like that. The truth is that I really can't remember anything other than her awful statement.  

I keep that memory close as I advocate for inclusion. “Those kids” are our kids. “Those kids” are smart and creative and funny and passionate and spiritual and JEWISH.  

How did it end? This family did not stay in our synagogue community. It wasn’t a good fit.  I wish I could have had the opportunity to help her change her attitude. I wish we could have had the chance to educate her son, because we would have done so successfully. But most of all I wish she could have learned what my community knows; that every child is a precious gift from God.

It's Time to Make Our Move!

Most of the time I see the Jewish world through my Jewish Special Educator lens.  For me, this past weekend’s NFTY Convention and Youth Engagement Conference was no exception. 

Three significant things happened:

1.  Rabbi Rick Jacobs spoke of special needs and Jewish Disability Awareness Month from the bimah on Shabbat morning.  He shared the bimah with Evan Traylor, NFTY President, and the focus of their d’var torah was the gifts that each of us has to offer. (To read the entire d’var torah, click here).  Here is a portion of what he said about special needs education:

Three weeks ago, in Washington D.C., Jacob [a student with special learning needs] joined the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar to learn how to raise his voice for justice and for what’s right. He looked around and said, ‘My gift is that I love to be part of this youth community. Even though it’s been painful that I haven’t always been let in and included, I feel a part of who we are.’…Jacob spoke up about Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, which we are in the midst of right now, about what it means to have special needs, what it means to have special gifts that are not appreciated. He said it was for our country, as well as our Jewish community, to make sure that we are inclusive of all the gifts that people bring.
…There are people who came to this NFTY Convention who weren’t sure that their gift would be understood and accepted. And there are many who didn’t come at all, because even as great as we are, we haven’t convinced the entire teen community that every single one of those gifts not only belongs, but that those gifts are needed. For Jacob, for us, for those here and for those not here, let us appreciate all of the gifts, all of the unique gifts that make us who we are, the ways in which God made each of us, that if we bring those gifts we can build a community of purpose and meaning, we can build a world of purpose and meaning.

2.  NFTY participants were given the opportunity to visit HaMercaz and learn about this wonderful organization.  HaMercaz is a one-stop resource in Los Angeles that provides ongoing assistance, advocacy and support for families and teens with special needs and developmental disabilities.  They offer Jewish holiday celebrations, support groups and counseling, parent and professional workshops, social programs and connections to Jewish community programs including those at synagogues, Jewish schools and camps.

3.  NFTY participants heard from Marc Elliot, author of “What Makes Me Tic”, who spoke about life with Tourette Syndrome.  He brings his message of creating a culture of tolerance around the country.  The students that I spoke to after his presentation were powerfully moved by his inspirational presence.

So here’s the thing.  While all of this is wonderful, I find myself thinking that each one existed as its own separate entity.  There was no enduring understanding, to my eye, that drew all of these moments together.  Don’t get me wrong; there was a time when inclusion and special education was an afterthought, if a thought at all, in our teen experiences.  These are huge strides and I do not want to oversimplify any of them.  But the message of NFTY Convention was “Make Your Move”.  It was a call to action for our teens to make difference in the world, using their Jewish values as their guide.  
Now it is our turn.  We serve our teens best when we lead by example.  The time has come for a concerted and unified effort across our Movement to bring awareness and full inclusion to every facet of Reform Jewish life.  Can we make our move?

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.

Let Every Voice be Heard

Let Every Voice be Heard; Removing the Stumbling Block

Since starting this blog I realize that I am noticing inclusion, and the absence of inclusion all the time. It kind of reminds me of being pregnant and noticing other pregnant women everywhere you go. But more on this in a moment.

I have spent this Shabbat in Los Angeles at the URJ Youth Engagement Conference and NFTY Convention. To be honest, I was a little bit skeptical about coming to YEC. I wasn't sure what to expect. As a full-time Educator, my role is certainly one of engaging our youth. I understand the value of supporting our youth director and our program. I am vested in the value of seamlessly fusing our formal and informal education models together and creating multiple, meaningful entry points for all of our kids. But I was worried that in the sessions themselves we might get stuck. I was concerned that we might not be able to move past programming to tackle some of the bigger questions and that we would find ourselves perpetuating more of the same; just coming up with new ideas within our old structures. 

Then I had the good fortune to spend an hour and a half learning with Jon Hausman. His workshop was called "Forget the phrase think outside the box; there IS NO BOX!"  Jon led us through a significant exercise that taught us to empower our children and teens in a new and exciting way.  But the truth is, the content of his workshop wasn't that important.  What he did in that 90 minutes was model intentionality. Everything he said and did, from his silly noises to get our attention to his quirky stories, was shared in a way that brought us, the participants, into his world and made us feel safe, important and connected. 

We played a game and did some word associations; and in the end, we had some neat ideas for potential new programs.  But if the participants go home saying, "I went to this fun workshop and here are some new ideas for great programs," then they will have all missed the point. 

The gift that Jon gave to us was a process. He brilliantly modeled how to empower his participants and in doing so he brought energy, excitement and engagement to the room.  

So here's where my eye for inclusion kicked in. His model left room for every learning style and every ability. He leveled the playing field making it possible for everyone to participate, for everyone's contribution to matter.  

That's it. It's that simple. It doesn't always take complicated lessons with differentiated instruction. Sometimes all it takes is a willingness to be sure every voice is heard.

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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