By Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene
“Dreamers” have lately become part of our lexicon, referring to immigrants whose parents sneaked them into this country as children. Our community also used to have dreamers. They dreamed of a day when Jewish children with learning, cognitive, or developmental problems would no longer have to be educated in public schools. They dreamed of a day when these children would be part of a dynamic Jewish environment whose hallmark was inclusion and acceptance. Baruch Hashem, that dream has become a glorious reality.
Forty years ago, hardly any programs existed in Jewish day schools for children with a variety of learning and cognitive difficulties. Many religious parents were forced, as a result, to send their children to public schools where kosher lunches or snacks were not available; kippot and tzitzit were often ridiculed; long skirts and sleeves were derided; and the general environment, especially around “holiday” time, was not conducive to an Orthodox Jewish life.
More importantly, no option for religious instruction outside the home was available for such children. While these children did receive various services, basic educational philosophy (as well as common sense) dictates that the whole child be nurtured.
In 1907, the great philosopher of education John Dewey wrote in The School and Society, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.” This quotation resonated with me when I was approached by a few parents in the late 1970s to start a learning disabilities program in New Jersey. The Hebrew Youth Academy of Essex County – located then in South Orange – was a small school, not well known outside its local community.
They came to me because most day schools in New York and New Jersey had effectively said, “No, thank you.” Some schools had pull-out programs, but they could not accommodate children with more serious developmental issues and were not interested in starting full-blown programs to cater to them.
So the ball fell in my court. And thankfully, the learning disabilities program I started as the school’s principal succeeded far beyond the HYA board’s expectations. And the school as a whole – renamed the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy – became known nationally as a center of educational excellence.
Back to our dreamers. Decades ago, they comprised three groups. The first were the children themselves who dreamed of being part of the same educational community as their peers. The second were their parents who dreamed of a Jewish environment for their children and acceptance in it. The third were their grandparents, who often shared their children’s frustrations.
Today, they are dreaming no longer. Throughout the country, schools, summer camps, and even shuls have programs that integrate children with a variety of learning, physical, and cognitive problems. And over the years, we have seen unimaginable accomplishments by these programs’ graduates. Some higher-functioning graduates have gone on to live meaningful lives, fully integrated into their communities. Some even attend college. For those who are able, job training and placement as well as group homes and even independent living are available.
Parents are astounded by their children’s achievements. Grandparents who were just happy to see their grandchildren in a Jewish environment cannot adequately express their joy when they see their grandchild read from the Torah, ask the Four Questions, sing zemirot, or participate in parshah discussions.
Dreams can come true. But it takes rigorous work, devoted and dedicated teachers, hardworking administrators, and very significant resources. Few parents can afford the steep tuition for the special and individualized instruction and therapies necessary for special needs students. Schools with special needs programs rely on communal philanthropy to maintain high standards and accomplishments.
Years ago at a fundraiser, I made a passionate pitch for the special needs program I had started. It was very successful, and one donor gave an exceedingly large check. His wife saw the number and was a bit upset. She asked her husband why he was being so generous. After all, they didn’t have children with special needs. He responded, “That’s why.”
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene founded The Sinai Schools – the first Jewish special needs program accredited by Middle States Association – when he was principal of the Hebrew Youth Academy, now renamed the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy.