Advocates of inclusion practices often speak of the need for holistic inclusion—looking at not just one aspect of a child’s disability, but rather, at the entire scope of factors affecting that child and his or her family.
For Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, a holistic approach isn’t just pedagogy, it’s intrinsic to her life.
Gabby’s son George was diagnosed with Autism when he was three years old. At the time, Gabby was working part-time in Jewish education but it wasn’t until George began expressing a love for Judaism, that Gabby started considering how to integrate George’s needs with a Jewish education.
“When George was younger, he had really limited communication,” Gabby shared. “But I could feel how important Jewish connection was to him. He would light up when I played Jewish music in the car, and when we recited Shabbat blessings, it was clear how excited George was at hearing them.”
At the time, George was enrolled in an in-home daycare that wasn’t quite equipped to handle his needs, which included sensory processing therapy, play skills and language acquisition. Ultimately, Gabby and her family found a therapeutic program for George that was housed in a synagogue, Bright Horizons at Temple Beth-Hillel in Wynnewood. When her family moved one year later, they found another great classroom in a synagogue preschool Sinai at Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park.
“When we found Bright Horizons and then the Sinai class, we exhaled,” she said. “We thought, ‘These are communities that care about us,’” Gabby said. “We connected to the parents at both schools, and being in a Jewish environment that also provided a structured and supported classroom made a huge difference in George’s life and in ours.”
Through the preschool program, Gabby started attending Shabbat morning programming with George.
“Every Friday there was a Shabbat activity at the synagogue,” she shared. “I had the chance to see the class in action when George was the ‘Shabbat star,’ and I realized how important it was for us to have that experience together. One of George’s amazing teachers, Barbara Greenberg (z’l), created a structured Shabbat program that the kids looked forward to, with just the right amount of songs and ritual for kids with short attention spans. She found a way for everyone to have a role in the Shabbat circle, whether it was passing out kippot or holding up the kiddush cup.”
Gabby realized then that she could put her Jewish education experience in conversation with her experience as the parent of a child with a disability. George would be graduating from preschool and attending public school—but she imagined that within her synagogue, Mishkan Shalom, there was a place to create a monthly Shabbat experience for families like hers.
Together with Rabbi Michelle Greenfield and with help from Rabbi Margot Stein, she developed a monthly Shabbat experience that was designed to be sensory-friendly. Not too many loud noises, lots of space to move around, a place where children who were nonverbal could smell and taste and experience Shabbat, where those with intellectual and cognitive challenges could access Jewish experience by doing, where it was okay to leave and take a walk and come back because everyone in that space would understand.
That is how the Celebrations! Program at Mishkan Shalom was born. Established in 2010 as a family education program for children with special needs, their parents and their siblings, the program is designed for students who have cognitive, learning or developmental disorders, including but not limited to Autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy and Down Syndrome.
In 2011, Gabby applied and received a grant from The Covenant Foundation to expand the program.
“It was very affirming that someone outside our community recognized the worth and the potential of the program and that inspired me to think bigger,” she said, reflecting on that initial grant.
The Celebrations! program, where Gabby is the Project Coordinator, is still thriving at Mishkan Shalom and now, several other Philadelphia area synagogues offer the program as well. Mishkan Shalom also runs a program called Mitzvah Menshes, which is geared toward young adults, in the 18-30 age bracket, who have significant disabilities and a high level of support needs.
“It’s been so neat to see those same young adults who began in our Celebrations! programs back in 2010, still with us now, at our dinners, havdalah programs and participating in social action projects,” Gabby said.
For someone who doesn’t have a degree in Special Education, Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer’s training has truly been defined “on the job.” In 2011, while working part time for the Jewish Learning Venture in Philly on family engagement work, Rabbi Phil Warmflash approached Gabby and asked if she might be interested in working as an Inclusion Specialist for the Whole Community Inclusion program at the agency.
An initiative of JLV, Whole Community Inclusion serves all of greater Philadelphia, a five-county area, which includes over 50 synagogues. As Gabby explains, there are three distinct branches through which the staff aims to make change as it relates to disability inclusion: supporting professionals, direct service and support to parents and families and advocacy and awareness.
Along with a team of consultants and other professionals who provide trainings for staff, Gabby’s work is to integrate those three different columns.
“We’re focused on how to bring the task of inclusion onto the radar of clergy and educators in the Jewish community,” she said. “This might happen through a monthly gathering of agency professionals across the field where we get together and create community-based programming, or it could be via different trainings that we conduct for clergy, educators, and teachers, or via a webinar and seminar series for parents, and of course, by hosting sensory friendly events.”
Gabby emphasized the inclusion work JLV is doing is unique, because it synthesizes family engagement and congregational support with content in a truly specific way.
For example, on President’s Day, Gabby and her team will partner with jkidphilly to host a “Sensory-Friendly Access Day” tour of the National Museum of American Jewish History that’s completely geared toward kids who are have special sensory and cognitive needs. The tour will be short, and will take the group to specific spots in the museum where they can learn quietly, in a tactile and experiential way—a covered wagon they can sit in, quiet places where parents and kids can learn together, at their own pace.
“Our goal is to give families an experience that they might otherwise never have considered, given the particular needs of their child.”
A Bar Mitzvah is a particular Jewish experience that families of children with special needs might also consider impossible. But two years ago, Gabby’s son George celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, in a carefully curated and meaningful way. With the encouragement and support of their clergy and George’s teachers, Gabby and her family created a unique service that celebrated this rite of passage with music and visuals, in way that spoke to George.
Gabby and Rabbi Greenfield have since created a training for tutors and clergy about creating accommodations and modifications for B’nai Mitzvah services for young people of all abilities.
“Family is at the center of all of these experiences,” she said, reflecting on both George’s Bar Mitzvah but also on her inclusion work throughout greater Philadelphia. “We want families to feel connected to Judaism and supported by the community. We want them to feel like they can access Jewish education, and we work hard to make sure that happens.”
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project