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.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit, 7a)

Each year the congregation where I am the co-director of education joins with a few others to run a retreat for young high school students. We spend Shabbat together outside the walls of our synagogues; we sing, laugh, learn, pray and play. 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 us.

Over the years, I’ve come to learn that there are many misconceptions about this kind of inclusion. Most people agree that it benefits people with disabilities, but some think it’s a favor we do them, or that education is somehow compromised for “everyone else” when all are included. This really couldn’t be further from the truth.

Case in point: at one of our weekend retreats a little over a year ago, I stood in the Shabbat lunch line alongside a student from my religious school who 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,” he said as he gestured at his stomach. This young man is often misunderstood and judged based on his appearance.

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 in that very moment it dawned on him! I watched as his face lit up and his demeanor changed. 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. It was clear that including my student was about so much more than her experience. This young man came away from the retreat with an even deeper sense of the importance of character over looks, and the ability to articulate it. And as for my student, she felt deep pride in knowing that she does not need to deal with all the superficial aspects of relationship building.

The weekend could have ended there and I would have considered it a success.

This is a vivid example of why inclusion doesn’t take anything away from the experience of the “other” students. It is really just the opposite; it teaches those students – and their teachers – priceless lessons.

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/