Elana Naftalin-Kelman has been working at the intersection of special education and Jewish education for over 15 years. She directs the Tikvah program for kids with disabilities at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California, which includes a camper program, a vocational program for young adults, and a camp for families that have children with disabilities. Elana also consults with multiple Jewish institutions to aid them in thinking about how to be more inclusive of Jews of all abilities. She has taught professional development courses in differentiated instruction, behavior management, and teaching Hebrew. She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and three sons.
In the following interview, we chat with Elana about the importance of starting with a conversation when engaging in professional development, the small changes every school can make right now to create a more inclusive space and the need to get everyone on board, to make true change. And, as a special added bonus, Elana interviews her mom, 2003 Covenant Award Recipient Vicky Kelman, on her work at the Ohr Lanu special needs family camp at Ramah. Don’t miss it!
What does professional development for educators in synagogue schools generally look like?
Whenever I begin working with any new community, I start by having a conversation with members of all parts of that community: lay leaders, professionals, parents and teachers. I like to get a full picture of what’s going on in that particular space. There’s no way to understand the practices of a school or synagogue by reading a mission statement—everyone has good intentions and likes to think of their school or community as inclusive, but what that actually looks like in practice, varies widely. Often, it’s easy to say, but not so easy to do.
What we tend to find when we interview teachers and directors of religious schools or synagogue school communities, is that Jewish institutions are very good reactively. However, what we are working toward in the inclusion space, is teaching the Jewish communal world how to be proactive: how to identify — in advance — those adjustments that would make a school, a synagogue, a community center more inclusive, without waiting for a particular kind of student to walk through the door.
It’s important for a school to be able to anticipate the kinds of students that will walk through their doors and my role is to give teachers and administrators the general tools to meet the needs of all students, to figure out how our classrooms can be ready for each and every learner.
Are there challenges that are particular to educators working in supplementary school settings, when it comes to making their schools more inclusive?
First, as we know, there’s a high level of teacher turnover at both religious schools and preschools. And because of this, when offering professional development, there’s a need to repeatedly re-teach techniques. It’s hard to institute long-lasting change when there isn’t much institutional memory in any given place.
Also, a religious school classroom is busy. There’s so much to do in such a short amount of time. But one easy change: take breaks. For kids to truly absorb what they’re learning, they need to stop and reflect every so often. And by the way, this isn’t something that just benefits a student with a disability. This kind of attention to quiet space and reflection will benefit all students. And this is essential to keep in mind, because we don’t always know if there’s a student in our classroom who has a diagnosis. Often, especially in a religious school setting, teachers don’t have this information. So why not adjust the classroom for all students?
Another simple change that every school can make to benefit all students: be sure that there’s a quiet space somewhere in the school building where a child can go to calm down. Put some pillows, books, coloring books and play dough in the room. Make it open and available to any student who needs to take a few minutes to breathe and relax. That’s one small step toward inclusion right there.
It’s also important to remember that predictability in the classroom is key. Keeping to a schedule helps all students. Kids like to know what’s going to happen next. Often, for children not knowing the routine leads to anxiety and negative behavior. But if you set expectations at the start, this can help calm and center a room full of anxious and rowdy kids.
Another great idea: remind your students of the class contract. Talk about best practices. Teachers often do this at the beginning of the year, but then might not go back to it. But it’s important to keep reminding students of behavioral expectations, and of class goals.
These are all relatively simple ways that a busy school can make immediate changes to benefit not just students with disabilities, but all students. I tell everyone I work with: if you have a team of really great educators, you can meet all kinds of students at the door.
What are some of the unique aspects of working to make a Jewish preschool more inclusive?
For most of our Jewish families, preschool is their first foray into Jewish life, their first look into what it means to live within a Jewish community. For families that have children that are either about to be diagnosed or have already been diagnosed with some kind of disability, its essential for them to feel supported by their preschool community. In most cases, this will determine whether the family remains a part of that Jewish community or not. If a school tells a parent that they cannot offer the kind of support that child needs, that family will understandably look elsewhere, and often elsewhere will not exist within a Jewish space, and that’s unfortunate.
We know from the research that early intervention is so important. Preschool is much more than just childcare. It’s the start of an incredibly important and formative journey for any child. As such, preschool teachers and directors need appropriate training and support so that they are fully equipped to accommodate a classroom of diverse learners and learning styles.
How does your Judaic knowledge inform your work?
I can uniquely understand the needs of a Jewish preschool and help a preschool staff balance both the Jewish content piece along with the needs of an inclusive early childhood center.
For example: I recently observed a Shabbat morning service at a preschool. The service lasted a half hour. The four year olds were restless. A half hour is too long for 4 year olds! I sat with the educators and together we considered: what are the goals of the Shabbat morning service? What can we do to make it more interactive? How can we make it shorter but also substantive?
How does your work at Camp Ramah Ojai inform the other parts of your professional portfolio?
All of my inclusion work is informed by my work at Ramah—my experience as a camper at Ramah in Ojai is what inspired me to enter this field in the first place. Camp Ramah taught me what it means to be a truly inclusive community, where everyone is respected and honored as important members of the community.
What my experience at Ramah has taught me has become central to my philosophy of inclusion. Creating a truly inclusive school or camp or synagogue community requires a cultural shift on the part of everyone in that community. The onus isn’t on any one sector alone—it’s not just the responsibility of a director, or a teacher, or a parent liaison, or a board or a consultant. Everyone needs to be committed to change.
“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