On Sunday May 4 and Monday May 5, over 120 Jewish educators in day and supplementary schools came together with special educators and professionals working in inclusion issues in Newtown, MA for Hebrew College’s sixth annual GISHA conference. (Gisha means "good ideas" in Hebrew.)

“The Inclusion Capacity: Building Capacity for Inclusivity in Jewish Education” attracted participants from as far as Texas, Florida, Illinois and Michigan.

Conference Coordinator Edyie Balsam describes the conferences’s goal as not only highlighting the need for inclusion in our schools and synagogues but also giving participants skills and tools needed to leave the conference and implement inclusive practices in their communities.

Conference highlights included a panel discussion “Making Jewish Education Inclusive: Organizing for Advocacy and Transformation,” featuring Elana Naftalin-Kelman, Arlene Remz and Dr. Donald Wertlieb, that shared the history of Jewish special education in the context of general special education. It showed the transformation from the 19th century’s focus on individuals with disabilities as being “defective” and needing to be segregated to progress in the 20th century’s mainstreaming models to a new 21st century paradigm in which we now recognize that inclusion of people with disabilities is a social justice, human rights issue.

Sam Gelfand, a sixteen-year-old who has Aspergers Syndrome, delivered a powerful, inspiring, humorous keynote address. Gelfand described with insight and wit what it’s like to live with Aspergers — his tics, lack of coordination and perseveration on limited topics — and how he’s worked tirelessly, with his mother’s efforts — to succeed academically and socially (he has a date to prom!), despite his challenges. Sam also described the bullying he experienced in a variety of settings and emphasized the need to teach children about accepting differences. He received a standing ovation.

Dr. Sandy Miller-Jacobs, a former professor of Special Education at Hebrew College and an educator with over forty years of special education experience, was recognized with her years of service and received the S’fatai Tiftakh (Open My Lips) Award.