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.