Almost thirty years later, Jewish education across denominational lines finds itself facing the challenge of inclusion, modification, adaptation, and a vast, new lexicon of educational terms. To date, Jewish education has advanced only baby steps toward the inclusion of all students. The time has come to confront this need and move from being Jewish educational institutions of inclusion by default to ones of inclusion by design. The time has arrived to formally address the challenge of inclusion by providing our educational leadership with the proper training and knowledge in order to welcome all students into their schools. Jewish educational leaders need to be both educated and welcoming; to be both cognitively aware of the needs of all students and able to expend the emotional investment to invite all students into a warm and inclusive community.
Where does the transformation need to take place? The first place is in the formal training of our educational leaders. Just as innovative and up-to-the-minute pedagogy, with its strategies and philosophies, are a necessary and integral part of the education of these future leaders, special education experience and training also is an essential component. Providing the terminology, definitions, strategies, and approaches of special education and how it can be adapted to Jewish educational settings is critical. Tools and practice in communicating with parents of special needs students also is essential for the development of a successful inclusionary school. Educating these leaders about the difference between a self-contained classroom and inclusion, the benefits of each, and when each is necessary or preferred are other aspects of this education.
The second level of education needs to be directed towards the entire faculty. Statistically, 4-5% of every classroom consists of students with some special needs, diagnosed or undiagnosed. Sometimes we know who these students are and sometimes we do not, however, teaching to reach all students and to the multiple skills and intelligences in the average classroom is a charge to each and every Jewish teacher. It is up to the Jewish school and its educational leader to provide appropriate and regular guidance and education in how teaching to all can maximize the learning of all.
The demand for successful inclusion is not new to Judaism. The mandate for inclusion is steeped in Jewish tradition. Within the bounds of Jewish law, rulings specifically are articulated regarding the disabled in Jewish ritual law. Leviticus 19:14 specifically prohibits cursing the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind. Rather than ignoring those with disabilities, the body of Jewish law specifically addresses those who are blind, deaf and/or mute. While these categories of disabilities certainly are not exhaustive and do not address the scope of the disabilities found in our society today, it is a beginning, based on what was known then.
We are well past the beginning of fulfilling the mitzvah of inclusion. It is time that we are proactive and assertive in both our philosophy and in our actions as we move towards Jewish educational institutions of inclusion by design.
Fran Pearlman is the Director of Education at Oceanside Jewish Center, NY, and serves as a consultant for MatanKids, which provides consultation and direct service in the area of special education in Jewish educational settings. Fran@matankids.org