By Daniel R. Weiss
Last week a post on the JEDLab Facebook page, a question was posed asking, “What Tanach references do you have in regards to Jewish disabilities awareness month?” The question got me thinking about what we do in Jewish Day Schools to include all students, no matter their abilities.
Walking through the hallways of our school, as I’m sure it is in almost every Jewish Day School across the country, on a daily basis is an enlightening experience. Our hallways are decorated with student work, reflecting the diversity of topics taught in our classrooms. Tables and chairs are found in each crevice of our hallways, with students and teachers sitting and learning in small groups. Music and song emanates from each classroom as students are engaged in learning.
I have been lucky enough to work in schools where we focus on varied approaches to education and pedagogy. We realize that each student learns differently and that our role as educators is to help each child on their individual path to academic excellence. We realize that academic excellence can and should be different from student to student.
In each classroom, we see students who are learning on grade level. We see students who need intervention due to social, emotional, cognitive and learning disabilities. And we see students who need enrichment to allow them to continue to work above grade level. We do this through inclusion, through pushing in and through pulling out. We also realize that a subject that may be a strength for one student is not necessarily a strength for another.
As parents, many of us want our children to excel in every subject, on every test, in every discipline. But how many of us as adults are able to do so? Mel Levine, M.D., author of A Mind at a Time, shares, “It’s taken for granted in adult society that we cannot all be the generalists skilled in every area of learning and mastery. Nevertheless, we apply tremendous pressure on our children to be good at everything. Every day they are expected to shine in math, reading, writing, speaking, spelling, memorization, comprehension, problem solving, socialization, athletics, and following verbal directions. Few if any children can master all of these ‘trades.’ And none of us adults can. In one way or another, all minds have their specialties and their frailties.”
I often draw on the teachings of Dr. Janusz Korczak, who together with the orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto, boarded the trains to the Polish Death Camp known as Treblinka. Korczak is seen as an advocate for children’s rights. He is quoted in the book, Loving Every Child: Wisdom For Parents, saying, “A child is a piece of parchment which has been thoroughly covered with minute hieroglyphics, only a very small part of which you will ever be able to decipher.” A later quote goes on to say, “Mentalities vary, and children can be steady or capricious, compliant or contrary, creative or imitative, witty or earnest, concrete or abstract; the memory can be exceptional or average; some are congenital despots while others have a wide range of interests.”
Dan Finkel, Head of School at Gesher Day School, in Fairfax, Virginia, brings forth the teachings of Pirke Avot, in his recent article for eJewishPhilanthropy on “Inclusion in Jewish Day Schools.” “Rebbi says: Do not look at the jug but rather what is in it. For there are new jugs full of old [wine], and old that do not have even new [wine] within them (4:20).”
Finkel’s opening paragraph is very powerful and is indicative of what we promote here at Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas, and I would venture to say in Jewish Day Schools across North America. “Research in education over the past several decades offers compelling evidence that inclusion in schools leads to positive academic and social-emotional outcomes for both students with disabilities and their general education peers. The techniques and tools that teachers use in order to differentiate and plan in these settings are the very same ones that are recommended as best practices in general education.”
We must look at each child for who they are; not who they are compared to anyone else. I am reminded of the story of Reb Zusha, a Chasidic master, in which Reb Zusha was laying on his deathbed surrounded by his students. As he lay there, he was crying and none of his students were capable of comforting him. One student asked “Why are you crying? You, Reb Zusha are almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,’ rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential, why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine.”
One of the most impactful movies I have ever seen is called Praying With Lior. The movie is a documentary about Lior Liebling, a boy with Down Syndrome and his journey towards becoming a Bar Mitzvah. What I love about the movie is Lior’s connection to Judaism through song and spirituality. His teachers had to find what moved him in order to help him better connect and to achieve the many successes that he was able to accomplish. His teachers used inclusion to help Lior socially and academically in his classroom. What strikes me most is the impact that Lior had on those around him. When we teach with inclusion, we aren’t just impacting the life of one student; we are impacting the entire class, the entire school. My most impactful days are the ones on which I am able to sit with students, not as an educator, but as a student.
Our Jewish texts are full of sources that speak to the Jewish approach to inclusion. In Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:14, we read “Do not curse a person who is deaf and do not place a stumbling block in front of a person who is blind.” In Devraim (Deuteronomy) 15:7, we learn, “If there be among you a person with needs… you shall not harden your heart, but you shall open your hand.”
In the Mishneh Torah, a work by Maimonides, 1:8-9, we are taught that “Every [Jew] is obligated to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, whether his body is healthy and whole or afflicted by difficulties, whether he is young or an old man whose strength has diminished.” The text goes on to talk about the importance of every job on the impact of a community. “The greater Sages of Israel included wood choppers, water drawers and blind men. Despite these [difficulties], they were occupied with Torah study day and night and were included among those who transmitted the Torah’s teachings in the direct line from Moses.”
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. “The mission of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month is to unite Jewish communities worldwide to raise awareness and champion the rights of all Jews to be included and to participate in all aspects of Jewish life like anyone else.”
Each person has a different ability in this world. Each deserves the opportunity to get a quality Jewish education. It is why we created a school in which each child is given an opportunity to learn, where each child is seen as an individual in the greater context of a large class. We are NOT a school for students with special needs. We are a school for ALL students, no matter their needs. We intervene, we enrich, we include, we educate, we love. That is why Jewish Day Schools are so important.
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas. He is an Ed.D candidate at Northeastern University, a member of cohort 9 of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) and the incoming Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee. Daniel a Day School alum and the father of three Day School Students.