By Rabbi Shoshana Nyer
There once was an elderly Chinese woman who had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which she carried across her neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, while the other pot seemed perfect and always delivered a full portion of water. At the end of the long walk from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water. The poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection and miserable that it could only do half of what it thought it should be doing. After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the woman one day by the stream.
“I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.”
The old woman smiled, “Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your crack, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back you water them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are there would not be this beauty to grace my house.”
One of the biggest challenges Jewish educators face is parents who do not provide them with enough information about their child’s learning needs. In some cases, it may be because parents do not feel that religious school is “real” school and other times parents may be afraid their child will be stigmatized. Whatever the reasons, it can be very frustrating because the lack of information limits the educator’s ability to make temple and religious school the warm, welcoming, positive and meaningful experience that parents and educators alike want and need for all children. When educators don’t have all the information, they can’t know where to plant the seeds to make the flowers grow.
Belonging to a community is an essential part of Judaism, and it is part of the role of Jewish educators to help create a kehilah kedosha, a holy community, where every Jew is a welcome member. In their article about inclusion in the Minneapolis Jewish community, Christensen and Weil (2007) cite encouraging evidence that religious communities help develop self-advocacy in persons with disabilities and also provide support for their families. The entire Jewish community and especially Jewish educators have a responsibility to make every member of their communities feel welcome and to support them in any, but that is only possible when everyone works in partnership.
The job of every Jewish educator is to ensure that each child feels as though he or she is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It is the educator’s responsibility to help each student make his or her garden bloom. Again, this can only happen if educators and parents strive to create sacred partnerships. Importantly, each party bears equal responsibility for making the partnership work.
Turning first to what parents need to do, Jewish educator and inclusion specialist, Lisa Friedman, advises,
[f]irst and foremost, open and supportive communication is essential for a successful Jewish [educational] experience for any child, but especially those with special learning needs. Be forthcoming about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Do not assume that the school will turn you away or will not be able to accommodate your child’s needs. Share your child’s IEP, successful strategies from home and other information that will make it easier for your child to be successful. I am not suggesting that this is a magic bullet. There may be bumps and disappointments along the way. But without the willingness to have the conversations, you will never know what is possible (Friedman, 2014).
Friedman’s words are music to any educator’s ears. But they really should be music to parents, as well. When educators have all the information, they are able to act most powerfully to foster success.
Consider, for example, a student who is on the high functioning end of the autistic spectrum. His mom is a wonderful communicator and each summer meets with the education director to review her son’s IEP, addressing concerns for the coming year. One of the ways in which this student’s autism manifests itself is in seeing rules starkly, as black and white. Consequently, whenever anyone who has exact change is allowed to go ahead in line for pizza during Hebrew school, there is no convincing him that this is not “cutting.” This began to ruin the second half of the evening for him. However, because the educator had such a deep understanding of who this young man is, what his challenges are, and how best to meet his needs, she was able to come up with a creative solution that worked for everyone: he was let out of class a few minutes early, to avoid having to face the line at all. Had the educator not known this student and his needs well, or lacked clear and open communication about him with his parent/s, he would either still be standing in that miserable line, or worse yet, he would have left Jewish education altogether.
Contrast this success story with another student who had been struggling all year with behavior and self-control in class. The educator worked with him as she would any other student in a similar situation, applying the same consequences for his behavior. Finally, after several months, his mother, irate, came to meet with the educator. She began with a list of challenges her son faces, and implored, “How can you treat him like everyone else?” It was at this point that the educator, with a heavy heart, pulled out the blank student confidential information form the mother had turned in.
But the responsibility does not belong to the parents alone. As professionals, educators are responsible in numerous critical ways as well. In fact, if they hope to be open and responsive to all kinds of learners, there are at least five major responsibilities that every Jewish educator must accept:
- They must begin by holding sacred the information parents give them. Parents deserve to trust educators with this information, and of course, with their children.
- Educators must also remain current and informed about different learning challenges and special needs inclusion.
- Educators must commit to consistently training all teachers accordingly, but especially those with students with special needs in their classroom.
- Educators must also set up regular check-in meetings with both the teachers and the students and their families, to ensure that religious school continues to be as successful as possible for everyone.
- And finally, if and when there are inevitable mistakes and missteps, educators must admit them and learn from them. There is no other way to maintain trust and improve moving forward.
These five practices of ensuring sacred trust, keeping up to date with the field, training faculty and staff, maintaining regular communication with families, and ultimately acknowledging any mistakes and learning from them, are a start. But if all Jewish educators engaged in them, it would literally transform the experience of Jewish education for thousands of Jews and their families.
Jewish education is holy work – or at least it can be. When families and educators create sacred partnerships, they teach together though words and actions what it means to treat each individual as though he or she was created b’tzelem Elohim. In truth, the elderly Chinese woman had two perfect pots, and each student is perfect in his or her own way. The shared task of educators and parents is to figure out, together, how to plant the seeds in order to grow the most beautiful garden.
Blas, H. (Summer 2015). Using Learning and Behavioral Profiles to Help Students and Campers. GLEANINGS Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School, Vol. 2 (No. 2), 4-5.
Christensen, S., & Weil, M. (Spring 2007). From Invisibility to Visibly In: Community-Program-Ignited Change in Awareness and Attitudes Toward Jews with Disabilities. Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Vol. 82 (No.1-2), 105-112.
Friedman, L. (2014, February 20). Hebrew School Inclusion for Children with Special Needs Is Possible, Here’s How. Retrieved July 6, 2015, from kveller.com
Hyman, Mia. Educational and Behavioral Specialist, Jewish Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. Personal communication, June 17, 2015.
Rabbi Shoshana Nyer is Director of Lifelong Learning at Suburban Temple – Kol Ami, Beachwood, OH.