For the first time in 115 years, Rosh HaShanah occurs just after Labor Day and coincides with the beginning of school for children and teachers in many states across the country. While Rosh Hashanah is always a time for reflection, this Jewish New Year provides us with a unique opportunity.
Many people think that anxious parents have anxious children – but the opposite is just as true: anxious children make anxious parents. My daughter Lucy started second grade last Monday and we spent much of the summer preparing for the transition to her new school. As parents, we knew almost as little about what to expect day to day as she did. We asked anyone we saw any question we could think of that might help Lucy better envision this new environment. During the summer months, we practiced going to the bus stop, played on the school playground, worked with a tutor so she’d have a preview of the math curriculum, did “morning work” at home, toured the school, etc. We asked for help from anyone we could think of.
For Lucy, though, one of her greatest anxieties is asking for help – especially when it comes to school. So we prepared for that, too. She decorated a card and decided what would be written on each side. One side says, “I need help” and the other side says “I’m okay.” Before school started she wrote a letter to her teacher explaining that it’s hard for her to ask for help, but her “helping card” will make it feel easier. (The goal, of course, is that by practicing with the card she ultimately will be able to do without it.) Her teacher wrote back to her (!) and Lucy felt confident enough to bring the card to school on the first day.
As we approach Rosh HaShanah this year, I reflect on my three children in their three different schools (one in Jewish day school, one in public school and one in Jewish pre-school) and everything – the good and the bad – that led us to this point. I reflect on my work as a Jewish special educator – in what ways I have been successful, and in what ways I need to work harder. And I reflect on Jewish communities across the country who are learning when and how to ask for help, what they might expect and what they can’t yet anticipate when it comes to the inclusion of children with special needs.
And in each of these realms, I think back to Lucy’s helping card. None of us need to have all the answers; we don’t even need to know all the questions. But we do need to make a commitment to the ideal that every person – in spite of and because of their unique challenges – adds value to our Jewish communities and to our lives. We may need help asking the questions, we’ll certainly need help finding the answers, but we won’t be able to turn our cards over until every child can be included in the fabric of Jewish life. Then we can say “we’re okay” – and we’ll be better than okay, because we will all be reaping the benefits of an inclusive Jewish community.
Meredith Englander Polsky co-founded Matan in the year 2000 and currently serves as the Director of Training and Advocacy. She holds graduate degrees in Special Education and Clinical Social work and, in 2001, was one of eight national recipients of the first fellowships awarded by Joshua Venture: A Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurs. She currently resides in Gaithersburg, Maryland with her husband and three children.