Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi

Jewish tradition offers ample precedent for including, and gaining from, people with disabilities. Moses had a speech impediment; Jacob walked with a limp. Yet, despite that history and the fact that twenty percent of Americans have a disability, the Jewish community is only now beginning to fully include people with disabilities into our religious school programs. For reasons of civil rights and Jewish survival, that needs to change.

Still, this is an issue where it is far easier to “talk-the-talk” than to “walk-the-walk”. Meeting the needs of children with disabilities can be infinitely complex: a child with physical challenges has very different needs than a child with intellectual or mental health challenges or a bright child who happens to have dyslexia or autism.

Not every Jewish institution can meet the needs of every child with special needs. That is why each community needs a strategy to ensure that every child has an option to a religious school education someplace in their community. And that special “someplace” will need additional funding and professional supports to make it happen.

For example, in Washington, DC the Jewish Social Service Agency refers families with a child with special needs to Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD for full inclusion in Jewish learning. It is a gem in the Washington area in terms of full acceptance and services for children with special needs and can serve as a model for other communities.

Given the wide variety of support offered, it is challenging to identify the exact cost and needs of full inclusion in programs each year until the applications come in. Put simply, it depends on who applies and what needs they bring to the table. Some of the costs will be salaries of special education teachers, resource room staff and madrichim, while other expenses will be from manipulatives and materials.

Parents are your partners and can bring the schools the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) from their secular school, and provide short “how-to” guides to how to work with their child. Parents can also answer questions about sensory overload, diet restrictions, preferential seating and other “accommodations.” All of this is part of the language of the special needs community. If your religious institution doesn’t have people who speak that language, you need to get them or refer children with special needs to other institutions that can meet their needs.

Once you think you have all the systems in place, you need to check them. Nothing will help a program more than constantly asking the children and their parents, “How’s it going for you in this religious school? Is there anything we can do to make it easier for you here?” A little tweak can go a long way in ensuring that Jewish children with special needs not only survive in our religious schools, they thrive.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the founder and president of A proud parent, she knows the joys and challenges of ensuring a good Jewish education for a child with special needs. She has a degree in Judaic Studies, taught religious school for eight years and also co-founded

Published by EdJewTopia.

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