Ok, now that I’ve answered that question, let me elaborate: every disabled child whose family wishes them to have a Jewish education should be able to receive one in some capacity.
A recent article in The Forward examined the offerings (and limitations) of Jewish day schools in serving children with disabilities. These disabilities range from mild learning disabilities such as dyslexia, to severe autism and into more physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy. What obligation are Jewish day schools, which are in essence private schools, under to accommodate these children? And with a system that is already struggling financially, can they afford it?
In my opinion, they have to find a way.
The Forward article highlights several examples of families struggling with this issue—families who would like to have their children in Jewish day school but simply don’t have the option to if they want the proper care, education, and opportunities for their child.
The Jewish community’s two strongest suits, to me, are the Biblical obligation to be inclusive and the stress on education. This means providing opportunities, wherever possible, for people who want to be a part of the Jewish community, learn in and from the Jewish community, and seek support from the Jewish community. If a family wants Jewish day school education for their severely autistic child, the local Jewish day school is under a moral obligation to do everything in its power to meet that child’s needs, even if in the end they cannot provide the proper services.
A perfect example of a school that does try is Pardes Jewish Day School in Phoenix, AZ. The article highlights the school’s success in including Jewish children with special needs:
Over the course of her tenure, [school head] Kessler has slowly built an inclusive program from scratch. That included evaluating every student about whom the staff had learning concerns, followed by hiring a part-time staff member who could do one-on-one work and train teachers. Today, Pardes’s special education program includes about 40 students.
Still, Pardes does not yet have the capability to serve students who have severe disabilities, such as those who are nonverbal or profoundly autistic.
“We don’t accept children until we’re sure we can meet all of their needs,” Kessler said.
Kessler stresses that parents must put the needs of their children before their desire for them to have a Jewish education. Her attitude, and the growth of her school’s abilities to meet the needs of families with special needs children, is the attitude that needs to take hold in more communities. For families who seek Jewish day school education for their children, it is not just about the school, but the local Jewish community as a whole, showing a desire to meet the needs of the people “under their tent.”
Take, for example, Michelle Wolf, who has been a guest blogger for JOI. Her son has cerebral palsy, and she decided to not even attempt the Jewish day school route, knowing the difficulty she would face. She does note, however, that her son has been able to stay active in the Jewish community in other ways, even becoming a Bar Mitzvah in 2008. This is an important point, because while schools may simply not have the financial capacity to support one-on-one aids, for example, this does not mean that Jewish children with special needs should be shut out of the community; there are other options. And while Michelle couldn’t receive the Jewish day school education she would have liked for her son, she did not feel shut out of the community entirely, being warmly embraced by her synagogue, which found a way for her son to be active in the Jewish community.
Here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we work for the inclusion of not just interfaith families, or LGBTQ Jews, or multi-racial Jews. We encourage Jewish communities to open their tent to all who wish to enter it; and this article serves as a reminder that we cannot just open the tent, we have to provide for the people under it.