We hear parents say it time and again: “There is no place for my child in the Jewish world.” They “think it’s a losing battle to keep these kids in the Jewish community.” And the ultimate gut punch? “Why would they want to stay in a place where they don’t feel like they belong?”
At the core of the success of educating all people with disabilities is an inclusion mindset. We must make inclusion our default position. Imagine the discouragement of a parent who hears a hesitating response of, “We’ll see if we can include your child in our setting.” This response starts from a place of deficit or limitation. An educator with an inclusion mindset, in contrast, responds, “Yes, we want your child to become part of our community . . . let’s figure out how to make it happen!”
It is with this mindset that we are building out the curriculum for the first ever cohort of students in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s (JTS) Disabilities Inclusion and Advocacy concentration within our master’s program in Jewish Education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. Starting this fall, future educators in the concentration will learn not only how to teach formal Jewish education, but how to empower parents and their children with cognitive, learning, and/or physical disabilities.
As Jewish parents of children with disabilities navigate the complex, already fraught decisions about how to educate their children, we must rise to meet their challenges. We must create educational and communal settings that are welcoming to the range of ability and disability that exists within the Jewish community. From Jewish day schools, to congregational schools, to camps, youth groups, and travel programs, to ensuring every child can become bar or bat mitzvah, improvement must happen on many fronts.
As Jews, we have a responsibility to educate and embrace all and treat all people as created in the image of God. As groups like the Ruderman Foundation have taken a leading role in efforts like self-advocacy organizations, denominationally-affiliated initiatives, consultant/support organizations, and ensuring individual day schools, congregational schools, and camps are inclusive, JTS will strive to fill a major gap: educating the educators.
We know that educational leaders and front-line educators are lynchpins of successful cultural and institutional transformation. So, in addition to our current emphasis on pedagogy, leadership, and Judaica in The William Davidson School’s graduate programs, the new concentration will address three major areas: accessibility, systems-level needs, and advocacy. First, there are concrete steps that any educator can take to make their work accessible to a broader range of learners. Many of these can be quickly integrated into practice; educators often see benefit for learners overall, not only those with disabilities. Second, educational leaders need to understand systems-level needs in order to infuse inclusion throughout their settings. Third, all educators should be advocates for individuals with disabilities. They need not only to gain expertise, but to share it, particularly in places such as camps where they may supervise part-time staff without the luxury of intensive staff training and supervision opportunities.
At the foundation of each of these three elements—and indeed at the core of the whole endeavor—is the inclusion mindset; teaching teachers to say “yes.” Inclusion is not always easy. Sometimes a quick fix is possible, for example: “We can meet in the library because it is more accessible than the chapel.” Many times, however, inclusion may involve rethinking the nature and priorities of the community. Changing norms requires participation in the process by individuals with disabilities, parents, clergy, and other constituencies. This institution-wide collaboration and buy-in, starting with teaching teachers the inclusion mindset, will begin to change the conversation at all levels of organizational and synagogue life.
From the incredible inroads already being made on both small and large scales for individuals with disabilities and their families in the Jewish world, the benefits of inclusion—for all—are clear: doors are opened, Jewish connections are forged, and communal ties are strengthened. The strength of Jewish community comes from building connection, not fostering alienation, and living by these values requires greater attention to the varying needs of the individuals within our communal umbrella. We aim to help educators spur meaningful change and, skillfully and compassionately, meet this communal responsibility.
Dr. Jeff Kress is the Dr. Bernard Heller Chair in Jewish Education and associate professor at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Dr. Abby Uhrman is assistant professor of Jewish Education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.