Learners with Disabilities in Jewish Education: Addressing an Important Need

Screenshot: Teaching lab: Cognitive, Behavior, Physical/Health Disabilities university program

By Dr. Abby Uhrman and Dr. Jeff Kress

The issue of inclusion of learners with disabilities, cognitive and learning disabilities as well as physical, is central to our work at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education-JTS. Not only do we see a pressing need and dearth of research on the topic, we also recognize the tremendous potential that such work has to transform the field of Jewish education. From the incredible inroads already being made on both small and large scales for individuals with disabilities and their families in the Jewish world, the benefits – for all – are clear: doors are opened, Jewish connections are forged, and communal ties are strengthened. The Jewish imperative is also apparent. We have a responsibility to educate and embrace all, and living by this value requires greater attention to the varying needs of the individuals within our communal umbrella.

Our research, along with that of others, has shown that a family’s negative experiences navigating inclusion in Jewish education can create a wedge, distancing a family from the Jewish community at large and tainting a family’s Jewish identity. We know we can do more to welcome a broader diversity of learners into our institutions and educational spaces. Specifically, in our research and field-work with Jewish day schools and summer camps, the importance of training Jewish educators is a recurring theme. Practitioners repeatedly noted the need for more staff with an awareness of and expertise in disabilities and special education. They need professional development and ongoing support to both meet the needs of their current students and campers and to attract and include a wider range of individuals into their programs. Further, practitioners need to become advocates, showing others that inclusion is not only possible but contributes to the life of the educational community as a whole. They need not only to gain expertise, but to share it, particularly in places such as camps where they may supervise part-time staff without the luxury of intensive staff training and supervision opportunities.

Even amongst these challenges, we know there are stories of success: Educators driven to broaden the possibilities for a wide range of learners; camps and schools in which inclusion is a time-honored tradition; and initiatives that support families and educators. We can do more to learn from these successes. What were the challenges and how were they overcome? How has the community as a whole benefited? What is needed from staff – leadership as well as front-line educators – to make this work?

To help meet this demand for more qualified staff, the Davidson School is launching a concentration in Disabilities Inclusion and Advocacy beginning in Fall 2018. In addition to the standard requirements for our MA in Jewish Education, students in the Disabilities Inclusion and Advocacy concentration will complete coursework in special education at JTS and Columbia’s Teacher College, engage in a year-long practicum in the field (with the option of working at a Jewish summer camp in a disabilities/inclusion program), participate in a number of co-curricular programs and learning opportunities, and enjoy cohort-based meetings and opportunities for reflection. We are currently receiving applications for our inaugural year; we are excited to begin this journey and do this meaningful work.

In the coming years, we plan to widen our reach. We will continue to examine issues of inclusion vis-à-vis disabilities, but we will also address additional dimensions of diversity in Jewish educational settings, offering some promising examples of inclusive institutions and powerful cases of challenges and questions that beg further investigation.

Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’loata ben chorim l’hibatel mimena.” “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21). There is certainly more that can and needs to be done in the area of disabilities and Jewish education, but we understand this is a critical and promising step in making meaningful change. Our goals are ambitious, but the possibilities and possible outcomes are sustaining and inspiring. For more information please contact the authors or our admissions department at admissions@jtsa.edu.

Dr. Abby Uhrman (abuhrman@jtsa.edu) is Assistant Professor and Dr. Jeff Kress (jekress@jtsa.edu) is the Bernard Heller Associate Professor at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education-Jewish Theological Seminary.