For those of us in the field of Jewish Inclusion, this is our hectic time of year – like tax season for accountants. Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion month (#JDAIM18) has just ended and we’ve been busier than usual raising awareness, promoting programs, celebrating inclusive Jewish organizations, and, overall, helping the entire Jewish community understand how (and why) to implement successful and meaningful inclusion.
We know that 1 in 5 people have some form of disability. 1 in 68 individuals is diagnosed with Autism and 1 million children in the US are Jewish; minimally, 200,000 school-aged Jewish children grapple with disabilities. We also know that an individual with special needs has a profound effect on how the entire family is (or is not) included in Jewish life.
Imagine the drastic repercussions when Jewish parents are told – again and again – that their child cannot be served in Jewish preschool or religious school, or that there is not a place for their child (and therefore their family) in the Shabbat service, or the teen youth group, or any number of opportunities that are afforded to families with more “typically-developing” children.
Many years ago, a Matan board member explained how having a Jewish child with Autism felt to her family. “It’s like having our noses pressed up against the window of a beautiful restaurant, but never being able to walk through the door.”
I never forgot that, and all these years later this notion of creating opportunities for meaningful inclusion guides my work daily.
Photo courtesy of Ilana Trachtman
For families, the path to finding the right Jewish education and involvement for your child and your family is not always easy. You might meet people along the way who don’t yet understand how your family’s participation will make their community stronger, and how your child’s individual gifts will create a more vibrant Jewish education for everyone. But you will also meet people who renew your faith, strengthen your resolve, and accompany you on your journey. Forging partnerships with the latter will have ripple effects that not only benefit your family, but the entire Jewish community.
Jewish institutions – schools, synagogues and even larger “umbrella” organizations – often tell me that inclusion feels overwhelming; that there are so many different aspects to consider, such a wide range of possibilities, so many variations on where to begin. They feel they can’t do everything, so they sometimes become stuck and don’t do anything.
I understand that feeling.
Certainly, though, as a Jewish community, we cannot afford to exclude 1 in 5 families from the fabric of Jewish life.
So what do we do?
We take the first step. Ask yourself what feels like a manageable place to begin. Maybe it’s having signage around your building that makes navigating the space easier; or a clergy member talking about inclusion from the pulpit. Perhaps it’s inviting an outside speaker to help open the conversation at your synagogue, religious school, youth group or day school; or perhaps you create an inclusion committee. Sometimes that first step is as simple as asking questions, encouraging open, honest communication – and actively listening to the answers. Remember that parents are the experts on their child. Don’t make assumptions: families with children with special needs are told “no” so often in their lives, they truly don’t know that you want to be inclusive unless you show them and tell them.
Photo courtesy of Ilana Trachtman
Say yes. Parents don’t expect you to have all the answers right from the start. Say yes instead of being yet another no in their lives. And then show families that you mean it. Communication is as much about the words you say as the environment you foster. Consider having a clearly marked and easy to find “quiet room” in your building where people can go when they feel overstimulated and need a break. Create a basket of fidget tools for your sanctuary or your classrooms, with an explanation of why it’s there and how to use it. Be sure your libraries include books that have characters with varying abilities (Matan is giving away a set of our favorites this month!), and that toys/materials in your classrooms or Shabbat babysitting rooms represent the wide gamut of people created in God’s image.
Examine your own marketing materials and literature about your Jewish organization. Do you have an inclusion statement? Is it easy to find? Do your programming fliers, bulletins, announcements and other means of outreach display verbiage related to inclusion? All of these things will “pop out” to families with a child with special needs; they are not used to experiencing these efforts towards inclusion, and you may be the difference for them between connecting to Jewish life and turning away from it.
We can easily be deceived into thinking that inclusion creates a better Jewish experience for individuals with special needs. Look again, though, and we begin to understand that inclusion benefits everyone. Indeed, 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 Polsky 2017 Covenant Award Recipient
National Director of Institutes and Training, Matan
Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“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