Editor's Note: Last spring we shared a blog about the Shefa School written by Director Yoni Schwab.
I just opened an e-mail inviting me to this year’s GISHA conference for Jewish educators entitled “Excellence in Inclusion.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, GISHA is a well-known educational conference that is held and organized by the Center for Jewish Special Education at Boston's Hebrew College. When I read the title I happily thought to myself, “Yay! A Jewish educators conference focusing on inclusion of kids with disabilities.“ Then I read that the keynote is entitled “To Be Inclusive or Not To Be That Is The Question – Inclusion in Jewish Education, Making it Work and Recognizing When it Doesn’t.” The address is to be given by the Assistant Head of a new Jewish school in Manhattan for children with language-based learning disabilities.
Within seconds my initial excitement waned, rapidly replaced by feelings of disbelief and anger. Inclusion of children with disabilities in Jewish Day Schools is an area in which our community lags behind where it should be. So how is it that our Jewish communal educators convene a conference on Inclusion and invite a keynote speaker who will justify exclusion? When will Jewish educators understand that it is time to stop saying it's okay to exclude Jewish children from our Jewish communal/educational and religious infrastructures? When will the time come when our educators realize that separate is not equal?
Yes, children with developmental and learning disabilities may need smaller self-contained learning environments. But they do not need to be in separate buildings where they are kept apart from their neuro-typical peers. The children who need to learn in smaller self-contained classrooms should feel they can attend the same Jewish schools that their siblings go to. They should and can be mainstreamed for lunch, gym, tefillah and any additional subjects they can handle.
Jewish educators need to encourage a “school-within-a-school” model that a number of communities like Gateways in Boston and Sinai Schools in New Jersey have adopted. Their programs are not perfect, but at least families with children who have disabilities feel their community is making an attempt to include their children in the Jewish educational framework.
Creating new stand-alone Jewish schools for children with disabilities, though often started with the best of intentions to help Jewish children with language-based learning difficulties attend a Jewish school, has in essence muddied the waters. Instead of adopting new pedagogies into their schools that include differentiated and project-based learning so that they can teach to a wider level of learners, Jewish educators in the exclusionary schools now get to counsel children out of their schools and say “go to the new self-contained school because we can’t give you what you need.”
There are school models out there that exhibit inclusive settings for all types of learners in both the public and private sectors like The Henderson School in Boston, The Luria Academy in Brooklyn and Tech High in Los Angeles. Jewish educators need to hear the directors of these schools give the keynote address at their conference on how they succeed in creating inclusive learning models for different learners. With constantly evolving pedagogical methods for children with developmental and learning disabilities it is time for our Jewish educators to create conferences that underscore new best practices in the field of inclusion rather than justifications of why our old exclusionary methods are the answer.
Shelley Richman Cohen is the founding Director of The Jewish Inclusion Project, an inclusion training program for Rabbis, and other communal leaders funded in part by the Ruderman Family Foundation.