It’s all too familiar. It’s 5 on a Tuesday afternoon. A room full of fidgety fourth graders. A teacher going around the room, student by student, asking each one to practice reading Hebrew. And to make it harder, there is one student in perpetual motion who disrupts everything, by climbing out of his chair and crawling under the desks. Fast forward seven years.
This boy, now a young man, stands proudly on the bimah to receive an award as the synagogue’s first “Youth Person of Honor.” Educators and clergy are thrilled to share with the congregation that he became bar mitzvah and continued his formal education through Confirmation and Post-Confirmation. He attends Torah study a few times each month. He is described as dependable and responsible, serving as a madrich, or guide, in the religious school and a positive role model for younger students. He has an active leadership position in the youth group, is involved in NFTY, Reform Judaism’s youth movement, and is more or less a “go-to” around the synagogue to get things done.
How did we get from one point to the other?
It wasn’t always easy. But he was never labeled “that difficult kid.” We referred to him by his name, not by his behavior. When he crawled under the tables, we strategized with his parents to meet his needs more effectively, rather than deciding his needs couldn’t be met. We offered a program that tailored instruction in a way that helped him to find academic success. We embraced his energy and found ways for him to express it. We never spoke about him in terms of his ADHD, but rather understood that ADHD made it necessary for us to continually revise our strategies. Most importantly, we never gave up. And as a result, he learned to believe that he was worth it.
By recognizing that not every child can learn Hebrew or Jewish Studies successfully in a traditional classroom setting, we send the message that a Jewish education is important, important enough to make the grown-ups respond to the child. When we work hard to meet each student’s unique learning needs, we demonstrate the Jewish value that every soul matters. Every one of us a gift from God.
Including students with disabilities enables us to teach all of our students that they can find success, that they matter and that they are valuable members of our community.
Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. She oversees an extensive special needs program within the religious school, with programs designed to help students learn about their Jewish heritage, feel connected to their Jewish community and successfully learn Hebrew. Additionally, Lisa facilitates conversations about inclusion throughout the synagogue as whole and helps the congregation to shape its best practices. Lisa writes a blog about her experiences in Jewish special education: http://jewishspecialneeds.blogspot.com/