Editor’s Note: Below, Reform rabbi and social worker Edythe Mencher writes about how shaming Jewish institutions that aren’t welcoming enough to people with disabilities can be painful and non-productive in the way that families suffer when rejected by those very institutions. If this subject interests you, please also read Joanna Dreifus’ post, “Raised Reform, A Mom Finds Her Kids’ Disabilities Give The Lie To Labels.”
The New Normal has featured some powerful stories about how children and families with special needs have been treated in a variety of Jewish settings. We all can learn a lot from these, often painful, and sometimes deeply affirming, experiences in Jewish communal settings. At the same time, we need to be cautious about using labels. Whether they identify our disabilities or our Jewish affiliations, labels can easily emphasize differences and failings, rather than unique possibilities.
Although it is helpful to recognize the distinctions in how individuals may learn, think, seek social contact or approach Jewish life, what is most important is that we understand each person’s need to belong, to learn, to have friends and to develop and sustain faith. Each stream of Judaism and each communal setting has the potential to respond sensitively and effectively to myriad needs.
But we all need to do better, learning to provide understanding and compassion when they are most needed. How can we all work effectively to move closer to these goals while avoiding shaming the individuals and Jewish settings that have not yet evolved to a place of awareness, acceptance and welcome?
Some children have quite discernible disabilities that more obviously require special accommodations to allow them to participate and feel accepted. Others have more subtle sensitivities and needs that can lead to isolation and discouragement. When we respond to all of these differences, we reduce stigma and can be a model for those that do not yet provide this kind of inclusion.
For example, my younger son was sensitive to noises, and at the suggestion of a friend, I enrolled him at the congregational school of a local Reform congregation. The warmth and kindness demonstrated at this synagogue preschool were so evident that my son, now 25 and a successful graduate student, still remembers the experience as one where he felt completely at home. I shared his feelings to such a degree that I was inspired to become more involved in my Reform community and, ultimately, to become a Reform rabbi.
But I also recall that when some children were upset by the screams and repetitive drumming of a classmate, likely autistic, the very caring director counseled the family to seek a therapeutic setting. Although such advice was completely the norm at that time – teachers had no training to deal with autistic children – this family likely felt the pain of rejection.
I am certain that, even then, the family was encouraged to stay connected to the congregation, but we are all still learning how best to make those invitations meaningful. Some congregations now provide inclusive Jewish programs for young children with special needs, even if their preschool education is being provided in a different setting. Others are able to provide for both the behavioral, social and educational needs of children on the autism spectrum right in the same classroom or in a specialized setting within the same preschool.
Offering support and encouragement while also insisting that change must happen and demonstrating that it is possible are true Jewish routes to teshuvah and growth. Demonstrating clear steps that can be taken, offering training for how to include people with disabilities, helping to secure funds and establishing mentoring relationships between successful inclusive communities and those that are not yet there are all effective paths to change.
Neither the nature of the disability nor the denominational affiliation determines whether families find a sensitive welcome or painful exclusion. What is essential is the synagogue’s, school’s or other organization’s openness to recognize children’s challenges and differences while also focusing on their similarities, and unique gifts.
In reading the New Normal, we learn that some families find what they need not just in one Jewish setting or movement, but rather in many diverse settings, all of which can learn from one another about different kinds of inclusiveness. When it comes to providing sacred and sustaining experiences for our children, we are most likely to reach our goals when we start from a place of encouragement and move beyond labels and shaming.
Rabbi Edythe Mencher, LCSW, serves on the faculty at the URJ, offering consultation to congregations, lay leaders, educators and clergy on creating caring communities that address the concerns of individuals and families.