Thirteen years ago Temple Beth-El in Somerset County, New Jersey, recognized the need for a special education expert in the religious school and hired me to help build and run a program to meet the needs of children who were not experiencing success in traditional classes. We have developed a multi-layered program with various options and we work to meet every student’s needs. In addition, we strive to ensure that our inclusive practices extend to the synagogue at large. While we have experienced growing pains, especially in our early years, it has been rare for us to be entirely unable meet a family’s needs. The story shared below is only the third time in my tenure that we have had such an experience.
I am struggling to write this. I know that there is value in honestly sharing some of the genuine challenges to inclusion of Jews with disabilities, and yet I find it very hard, even a year later, to accept what feels like failure.
We are proud of the special education program that we have built within our Religious School. We are pleased that we do not turn families away from our congregation; instead, we are a beacon for those who have not found a comfortable place elsewhere. When we say we are an inclusive community, it isn’t a goal but a reality that we are continually trying to improve.
And yet we have had the experience of not being able to make it work.
About a year and a half ago, a parent met with me at the synagogue, eager to join our congregation as she had heard specifically about our extensive special education program. Her son has Autism along with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD is an ongoing pattern of anger-guided disobedience, hostility, and defiant behavior toward authority figures that goes beyond the bounds of normal childhood behavior). We knew that integrating him mid-year would be challenging, but we brought him into the school.
It became clear very quickly that he wasn’t ready. Even with a ratio of one teacher and a teaching assistant to four students, he would dart out of the classroom. On a few different occasions he hit the classroom teacher. We immediately began private tutoring for him with the teacher for three months so that he could become familiar with her and ease back into her classroom setting. Tutoring began in his home and transitioned to the classroom, so that he could get to know both her and the space. However, even after three months, he displayed significant anxiety and resistance to re-entering the classroom setting.
Tutoring continued for a few more months and we began to speak about what the following school year would look like, but as the year drew to a close, his mother decided that they would not return. We spoke openly and honestly about her son’s needs and she appreciated all that we had done and were willing to do. She left knowing that she can rejoin the congregation and that her son can reenter the school. Still, I can’t help but feel the sting of failure. We didn’t meet their needs.
So often we are hard on our institutions and particularly our schools for not making the effort, not finding ways to meet every student’s needs. And while I am often at the front of the line encouraging Jewish schools and professionals to do more, it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t acknowledge that sometimes we just can’t make it work.
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/