For the second time in a month I found myself covering a program the other night on increasing inclusion for children with special needs in Jewish schools. Part of the reason this isn’t a coincidence is that some of the same people were involved in the planning. But anecdotally, there also seems to be greater consciousness and emphasis on addressing the burdens of such families in the observant Jewish community, who face all the same pressures of affiliated life, and then some. One of the biggest challenges is finding a place for their children to learn that meets both the child’s developmental and religious needs without sending them off on long bus rides.

Some of those challenges were spelled out eloquently at a panel discussion Monday night at Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan. Rabbi Dov Linzer, who with his wife Devorah Zlochower wrote a galvaning call to action in The Jewish Week on the subject last year, noted in his presentation that while chesed programs that require students to work with kids who have special needs are important and welcome, they run the risk of teaching those students that their obligation is over once they have accumulated the mandatory volunteer hours. True inclusion, he noted, is a day-in, day-out process that means mainstreaming kids and families with special needs not only in the classroom but in every aspect of communal life, from the playground and ballfield to, perhaps most importantly, synagogue life. Some audience members talked about being chastised by synagogue leaders because their children, who can occasionally be disruptive, have "invisible disabilities" that affect their behavior but are not apparent to the untrained eye.

But what was most encouraging was that a majority of people in the audience, as polled by the moderator, were present out of interest rather than self-interest. Only a handful said they had special needs children. A portion of them, based on their youth, likely have no children at all as of yet. Several said they wanted to know what they could do to help, in terms of advocacy or deeds. Not to fulfill chesed hours on paper but to satisfy their own moral requirements of living a fuly Jewish life. One woman said that although her children have no special needs, she felt they were being deprived because they lacked the opportunity to help and interact with those who do.

And that’s how it begins. A lunch invitation here. A playdate there. An understanding intervention or offer of assitance. And sooner or later, a sense that unless everyone is fully included, none of us are.

For a short video from the panel discussion, click here.