On Tuesday, December 8, The Jewish Theological Seminary hosted the Jack and Lewis Rudin Lecture, titled “Disabilities, Inclusion, and Jewish Education.” As an educator and researcher, I was honored to moderate the program with an esteemed panel of guests: Howard Blas, director, National Ramah Tikvah Network; Dori Frumin Kirshner, executive director, Matan; Arlene Remz, executive director, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education in Boston and Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, founder and head of school, The Shefa School in New York City.
I am sure many of you echo my enthusiasm when I say, “At last!” While disability issues are becoming an increasing priority on the communal Jewish agenda, we admittedly have a long way to go.
Our event, however, served as an important opportunity to broadcast the progress that has been made in improving access to programs, offering a broader array of services for individuals with disabilities and their families. Sponsored by JTS — one of the educational and institutional pillars of the Jewish community the message of inclusion was given a rousing endorsement: Yes, there is much to do, but we commit ourselves to this vital endeavor and will continue making meaningful strides forward.
Our panelists offered a genuinely encouraging portrait of the communal landscape: Howard discussed the advancements in Jewish camping, noting the broad spectrum of camping programs for children and young adults with disabilities both within the Ramah movement and beyond. Dori shared improvements in teacher training and Matan’s work to support a growing cadre of educators dedicated to inclusive practices and equipped to accommodate a wider diversity of students. Arlene described the Gateways model, a central agency for individuals with disabilities in the Boston area that ensures appropriate placements are available for every Jewish child that desires a Jewish education. Ilana shared the story of The Shefa School, the first Jewish day school for children with language-based learning disabilities and the work she and her team is doing to support other day schools in their inclusion efforts. No doubt an impressive and inspiring group. Finally, each of the panelists noted that an increasing number of like-minded professionals share their vision and are equally engaged in this important work.
As the field continues to evolve, several areas in need of greater attention and innovation emerged through the panelists’ remarks and our ensuing conversation:
1) Support for individuals across the lifespan: While the Jewish community has done much to increase and improve the offerings for children with disabilities, there are insufficient opportunities for these individuals once they “age out” of the community’s existing programs. Greater focus needs to be given on how to better support individuals into adulthood and throughout their adult Jewish lives.
2) Training: While there has been some progress, educators are still in need of further support in learning how to best accommodate a wider diversity of learners in their classrooms. Whether through formal training or ongoing professional development, there is much that remains to be done, and greater inclusion requires that staff development be an increasing area of focus.
3) Mental Health: There was unanimous agreement that the Jewish community has a long way to go in the area of supporting individuals with mental illness. In addition to the work of providing programs and services, greater sensitivity and awareness needs to occur. This extends beyond the field of Jewish education to the Jewish world at large—an often-overlooked group, this area deserves far more attention and care.
4) Families: For parents and caregivers, navigating the world of disability services can be vast and overwhelming. How can the Jewish community be a welcome exception in this area? How can we help families in their searches and educational decision-making? How can we become increasingly open and accessible, ensuring that families do not feel alone in this process?
Although not entirely rosy, our panelists are proof of the progress that has been made. As we continue making strides forward, I hope we — the Jewish community continue to pay increasing attention to the issues of inclusion and the ways in which we can embrace a wider circle of diverse individuals. The potential, and the potential benefits, are immeasurable.
The Davidson School is the largest multidenominational school of Jewish education in North America, granting master’s and doctoral degrees and providing professional development to educators currently in the field. Drawing upon cutting-edge thinking in both Jewish and general education, its pedagogy emphasizes experiential education, is informed by best practices and new developments in teaching, and engenders leadership in a variety of educational settings from day schools to summer camps, Jewish community centers to congregational schools, Israel experiences to environmental education, and early childhood to adult Jewish learning.