Blog

by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
Special to WJW

At a recent seminar for nonprofit leaders, I heard a leader who oversees some 40 Catholic schools in Australia tell of a boy with Tourette Syndrome who, in the midst of a school assembly, stood up and screamed a string of obscenities. When the child finished, the school's director rose to address the students. "We have just heard from Johnny," he said gently, "and he is a valued member of our community."

I couldn't help but wonder whether the head of a Jewish school - or any Jewish organization - would have reacted with the same equanimity.

According to the U.S. Census, one in five Americans has a disability, with one in 10 categorized as severe. For reasons of genetics and environment, the rates may be even higher among Jews. Yet the larger Jewish community has failed to adequately recognize that welcoming and serving these people is not only the right thing to do, it's essential to Jewish survival.

Our tradition offers ample precedent for including people with disabilities. Moses had a speech impediment; Jacob, walked with a limp. And Torah is rife with injunctions that we treat people with disabilities with sensitivity ("Do not curse the deaf nor put stumbling blocks before the blind." Leviticus 19:14), and a spirit of inclusion ("For my house shall be a house of prayer for all people." Isaiah 56:5).

Despite that history, the Jewish community is only beginning to take seriously including people with disabilities. We need to - in the same way we are tackling civil rights issue such as fully including women and gays. Yet it's more complicated. Jews often prize achievement above inclusion. It's painful to see how many Jewish schools measure success only by how many students gain admission to Ivy League schools and win achievement awards, in the process excluding a full range of others who achieve in different ways.

Of course, talk is easier than action. Including people with disabilities can be infinitely complex: a child with physical challenges has very different needs than a child with intellectual challenges or bright child who happens to have dyslexia or autism.

How to proceed? The Jewish community needs a national strategy to serve and include people with disabilities. One model to consider is the public school system, which by law they must offer services to children with a full range of challenges. In some cases, neighborhood home schools can meet their needs. But when children have deeper issues, often special private and public schools do the job. Even the biggest education budgets do not assume that every school can accommodate every child. The social contract is that every system needs to be able to accommodate every child.

That should be the Jewish community's approach. Some Jewish schools, synagogues, camps and youth troops can meet the needs of children with special needs alongside their typical peers. But the reality is that only major Jewish population centers can afford to offer a full range of services to meet the needs of children whose more significant special needs require increased professionalized talents and resources.

And for all the advantages of including special-needs children with typical peers, there are also benefits to having enough kids with differences at a school or camp that they can support each other. Just as Jews require 10 people for a prayer minyan, a group of 10 or more children with a range of special needs within a school can create a cohort of compassion, a safe space to learn together. As Jews, we understand the uncomfortable feeling of being a token representative to give the appearance of inclusion. Children with disabilities deserve authentic life experiences.

Still, due to the intense needs, public and special-needs schools are often a better option for Jewish children with special needs than Jewish day schools. That makes after-school and weekend programs important components in fostering ongoing Jewish learning and relationships and setting the stage for inclusion, interest.

Some models are already emerging. Exciting work on this issue is being done in Boston by Barry Shrage at Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Jewish Funders Network has also played a serious role as a convener of ideas, talent and funding. However, Jewish Federations are uniquely positioned to play a central and successful role in these issues. Fortunately, William Daroff at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) is aware of the issues and wants to make a difference. But he needs more partners.

Given scarcity of resources and demographic realities, it's not realistic to make every Jewish institution fully inclusive of every kind of different ability. But creating central policy and focus can help create change. Local communities, too, needs strategies in sync with national efforts.

In the District, the Jewish Social Service Agency refers families with a child with special needs to Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, for full inclusion in Jewish learning. Rabbi Jack Luxemburg, along with director of religious education, Kim Roberts, and the congregation have become a center of excellence in offering services to that population. It is a gem in terms for children with special needs and can serve as a model.

The Jewish camping movement is also leading the way in efforts to include children with special needs. The National Ramah Commission (in 1970!) began creating a network of camps throughout the United States and Canada where children and young adults with autism, intellectual impairments and other disabilities participate alongside their typical peers. There they can learn the teachings central to our precious tradition, one, that teaches over and over to honor the talents and blessings of all.

There are inspiring examples of Jews serving people with special needs all around us. But the time is now to pull it together in a national system that makes sense for Jewish dignity, respect and survival.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the founder and president of laszlostrategies.com. She a proud parent who knows the challenges of raising a Jewish child with special needs.

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