By Dana Keil
In 1991, my parents decided to enroll my older brother in a Jewish day school. Though not particularly observant, it was their value to give their children a Jewish Education, so they visited the school for a tour. At the time, my brother was five years old and had already been diagnosed with ADHD and an auditory processing disorder, both of which affecting his learning. My mother was up front with the administration about my brother’s diagnosis. They were honest in return. “We can’t meet his needs here.” And with that, he was enrolled in public school.
Three years later, when it came time for my parents to decide my educational path, they had a choice: they could send their neurotypical daughter to the Jewish day school they had originally wanted for their family, or, they could enroll her in public school where she would be down the hall from her older brother, in the welcoming secular community they had found. They decided on the latter. My parents did not even consider Jewish day school by the time my two younger brothers were ready to enroll.
One Jewish family, four children, no day school education. I feel like I missed out. I missed out on having Jewish friends, enjoying Shabbatons with my classmates, and going to Israel for a semester in High School. My education lacked Hebrew fluency, comprehension and knowledge of Tanach beyond what could be taught at an after-school program three times per week. I missed out on a Jewish day school education because although I do not have a disability, the local day school could not, and at the time, did not, accommodate diverse learners.
I am proud to say that this particular day school is now one of the most accommodating Jewish institutions in the area. I have no doubt that had my older brother applied today, he would be accepted and his learning differences catered to. But there are still day schools who do not accept students with disabilities, who do not accommodate diverse needs, and who still respond “no” to the mention of a diagnosis. By rejecting these individuals, these schools are often rejecting a family. They are telling that family that they are not welcome in the Jewish community. They are saying that their tuition dollars and volunteer hours should be spent elsewhere. And they are saying that because we have a family member with a disability, we do not belong.
Jewish day schools have an obligation to educate Jewish children, not just the ones they feel like educating. They need to work more closely with the local educational agency to take advantage of public funding and resources to offset the cost of inclusion, they need to do more rigorous teacher training to ensure that the educators in their building can meet a variety of student needs, and they need to adopt philosophies that value progressive and inclusive education.
This is not just good pedagogy; it is also a Torah value. The Gemara (Eruvin 54b) quotes Rabbi Akiva saying, “From where do we learn that a person is required to teach his student until he has learned the material? As the posuk says (Deut. 31) ‘And you shall teach the students of Israel.'”
Dana Keil, M.S.Ed, is the founder and director of Room on the Bench: A Project of Luria Academy of Brooklyn. Room on the Bench provides workshops and individualized classroom observations for Jewish day schools and educator programs to help teachers and administrators best meet the needs of diverse learners.