In an age when fewer people are walking through synagogue doors, it’s time to examine whether those doors are accessible to each and every Jew.
Approximately 150,000 to 200,000 Jewish families across the United States include a person with special needs, according to Matan, a nonprofit organization based in New York. Too many of these families are opting out of — or unable to opt in to — Jewish learning and engagement.
Our intentions are noble, but turning those intentions into meaningful action remains the most challenging piece of the inclusion puzzle. The challenge is especially acute at supplementary religious schools, where a thorny dilemma arises for parents and educators alike.
Picture this scenario, which plays out in schools across the country: It’s a weekday afternoon at 4 p.m. Parents of children with special needs keep their fingers crossed, hoping their child will check their diagnosis (ADHD, autism, etc.) at the synagogue entrance. It’s “just Hebrew school,” the thinking goes. “What does it matter, really?”
The education director, meanwhile, keeps his/her fingers crossed, hoping that the parent will share relevant information. Without it, how can the director possibly help the child — and the child’s teacher — be successful?
Things go south, for a multitude of reasons. The parent pulls the child out, and drops out of synagogue. Or perhaps the family remains, feeling isolated and resentful about the lack of appropriate education available for this child. Either way, the child’s Jewish identity is at stake.
Sometimes, the opposite occurs: Parents eagerly provide a copy of the 50-page long IEP (individual education plan), filled to the brim with acronyms that most religious schools are unable to decipher. Resource-room teachers, tasked with supporting the Hebrew learning process, are few and far between. Too often, the solution is finding a teenager to “shadow” the child — and, once again, fingers are crossed.
Knowing how to appropriately support a child with special needs may seem like a monumental task at first glance. For those of us who work in the field, however, it is second nature to provide the small, inexpensive tweaks to the educational setting that make a large difference for the child’s success.
• Making sure children’s feet are touching the floor when seated in a chair, because dangling feet are not conducive to focus;
• Ensuring that the distractible child is seated away from the buzz and glare of the fluorescent lights; and
• Providing positive reinforcement when a child is “caught being good,” so that the successful moments will multiply.
None of these cost any money, but they do require a proactive approach.
We in Philadelphia are making huge strides in facing the challenges head-on. On April 28, the Opening the Gates of Torah Conference will mark its fourth year by expanding to an entire day of sessions for clergy, educators, lay leaders and parents.
The special needs consortium of local agencies and the Special Needs Philly website (specialneedsphilly.org) are all tremendous steps that have changed the landscape. The number of inclusion committees in area synagogues continues to grow. Our day schools ensure that the OROT program is an option that is offered when a child has special needs and challenges.
But we also have much to learn from cities as large as Chicago and Los Angeles (and as small, relatively speaking, as Minneapolis and Phoenix). The Jewish communities in these cities benefit from the existence of nonprofit organizations devoted exclusively to providing a more extensive and sustainable network of supportive services across day schools, supplementary religious schools and camps.
Gateways, an organization in Boston devoted to special needs children in Jewish settings, has not reinvented the wheel but instead infused the wheel with Jewish content. For instance, social stories — simplified picture stories that prepare children with autism for a new situation or setting — have been created for use prior to attending a Purim carnival or a seder. Use of visual schedules — step-by-step pictures to indicate the order of activities — can help relieve anxiety about what is coming next during a religious service.
Because the parents pay a fee to Gateways for individualized occupational therapy and speech therapy to be provided onsite in Boston’s day schools, the model has been sustainable over time.
Because Matan provides methods of engaging all children based on their learning styles (be it visual, auditory or kinesthetic), every child — and adult — in the room benefits.
How can Philadelphia continue to grow in our ability to support all the Jews in our midst? Considering the size of our population, it is time to explore how we all — parents, clergy, educators — can add to our toolbox of existing strategies. The upcoming conference will provide some “food for thought,” targeted to each group of stakeholders.
Keeping the doors open is only the first step; opening our minds is every bit as critical. l
Jaime Bassman is an occupational therapist providing support to children with special needs in religious schools and camps. She will be a featured presenter at the Opening the Gates of Torah conference on April 28 at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington. For more information: www.jewishlearningventure.org