Inclusion of People With Disabilities and Judaism Belong Together

My personal vision as a Jewish Educator is to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity; Removing the Stumbling Block
I "met" Emily Ladau online several years ago. I was instantly impressed by her commitment to self-advocacy. She openly and honestly shares her experiences as a person with a disability with the goal of raising awareness and pushing forward the agenda of disability rights in American society. I was so pleased to learn that Emily had participated in an accessible Birthright trip to Israel, and it made perfect sense to feature her story as my first guest post. I was flattered when she offered me an opportunity for a “post exchange”.  I sought her thoughts for a topic and she posed the following question: “How did it come to be that you care so deeply about Judaism and inclusive education?”

Wow. Where do I start?

At the age of seventeen my parents gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and it truly was a life-changing experience. I spent six weeks of the summer between my junior and senior years of high school participating in NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth) Urban Mitzvah Corps, an intense summer 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 choose jobs sites and volunteer for three weeks at a time. I spent three weeks at Camp Daisy, a day camp for children with developmental disabilities, and that was it. I was hooked. My track was set. 

Little did I know that my professional life would eventually come full circle.

life comes full circle; Removing the Stumbling BlockAfter high school I went on to Rutgers University to master in Psychology while pursuing certifications in both special and elementary education. I worked for six years in a public school district renowned for its special education programs and I remained focused as a classroom teacher while completing a Master’s program in Counseling Psychology.

I left the classroom when my son was born, only to quickly realize how much I missed it. Not ready to return to full time work, I called my local synagogue to explore the possibility of substitute teaching. To my surprise, they were seeking a seventh grade teacher. I immediately conveyed my interest, sharing that I had been a middle school special education teacher. To this day, I still joke that I could hear my now colleague drooling over the phone when she heard me say “special education”.

You see, like many congregations, ours was struggling to meet the needs of diverse learners. Most professional Jewish educators and teachers did not have any mandatory training or formal experience with learning challenges or disabilities (they still don’t – but that’s another story for another day), and as a result, synagogues were often turning families away.

And so my worlds collided, beautifully. I brought my experience and expertise in special education to the world of Jewish education, and discovered that it was a perfect fit.

My personal vision as a Jewish Educator is to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to attend a safe, challenging and engaging program, where they can explore their heritage, form authentic relationships and live meaningful Jewish lives. 

I am so fortunate to be able to share what I have learned with others. It is an honor that our synagogue’s program and inclusive practice can serve as a model to others. I take great pride in opportunities to consult with other congregations seeking to do this work. I love leading workshops and training sessions for teachers, teens, clergy and lay leaders to help them to do what I know is right and just. 

Inclusion of individuals with disabilities and Judaism belong together. 

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