School Solutions for Jewish Children with Disabilities

Courtesy Sela Hebrew Public Charter School
Courtesy Sela Hebrew Public Charter School

By Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi

If you are the parent of a Jewish child with disabilities, you have already learned that public schools “magically” welcome, include and teach children with disabilities very well. Indeed, around the nation’s capital where I live in Maryland, there are some of the best public school programs for children with disabilities in the country. And moreover, they are doing it with expert skills for tens of thousands of children at no cost (other than taxes) to families. Alternatively, there are numerous local secular private schools which exclusively serve children with disabilities, and they particularly expert in one set of disability issues or another.

So why even bother with Jewish day school at all?

For me it’s important to give every Jewish child their birthright – a full Jewish education which includes Hebrew and a connection to Israel. It also includes valuing every human being as equal in G-ds eyes.

It is also very important for children with disabilities to be included in the general population, not in a segregated school for children with disabilities, whenever possible. The IDEA and Brown V. Board of Education was right – separate is never equal. Moreover, studies show that students with and without disabilities do better academically and otherwise when students with disabilities are included in general population classrooms. Thus, I visit Jewish day schools periodically to check their progress at including children with disabilities.

Two schools in the Washington area are making major progress and meet my “Mom standard.” That means they are so good that I would be proud to have my own children, if they were younger, attend them. The first is Sulam, an inclusion program at the Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville.

In recent years, Sulam has dramatically upped their game. Their professional leader, Lianne Heller, like their super talented chairman Aaron Orlofsky, is a ball of intelligence and passion. They are doing extremely important and effective work in serving children with a wide variety of disabilities very well. According to their website, at Sulam they believe:

  • Every student has the right to a rigorous Jewish education alongside his/her peers.
  • Every student can be a contributing member of the Jewish community and society at large.
  • Every student has strengths and wants to be successful.
  • Everyone benefits from an inclusive classroom environment in which there are diverse learning styles.

If you are a part of a Jewish day school elsewhere and want to see a model of excellence, visit Sulam. It is absolutely awe inspiring. Sulam is an integral part of the overall Berman Hebrew Academy. At Berman students gain so much more than a thorough grounding in secular and Judaic academics; they receive a deep grounding in Torah values and middot, the Jewish learning and character-building principles that guide religious Jewish lives. And because Berman’s modern Orthodox approach is imbued with Zionist values, their students gain a love of Israel, which becomes a central part of their Jewish identities.

Mind you, doing this well takes more money and time than it does for a typically developing child. So they charge more money for parents who can pay it. Most can’t, so they have to fundraise.

Other local private Jewish day schools are making slow but important progress. In some cases they can be great solutions for children with differences. Indeed, Charles E Smith Jewish Day School now has a dozen specialists working to enable children with mild and moderate disabilities succeed in their school. Jewish Primary Day School just got a major gift which could mean more inclusion in their future.

But it turns out that private Jewish day schools are not the only option.

This week I was simply elated to visit the new Sela Hebrew Public Charter School in Washington. While Sulam is inclusion at a religious Jewish day school, if you just want your child to learn Hebrew, a love of Israel, wonderful academics and great values, Sela is a fantastic solution. Sela, unlike some Jewish day schools, does not discriminate against children with disabilities. It already serves children with a wide range of disabilities, from Autism and Emotional Disturbance to Speech and Language and Other Health Impairments. Its building has ramps and access, so wheelchair users are fully welcome. Not only that – it’s free.

Now here’s the catch – Sela is NOT a Jewish school and you have to live in Washington, DC to attend. It is a taxpayer funded dual language charter school. Thus, while it exposes children to a variety of holidays and faith in an academic way, it does not teach religion at all. [Sela, part of Hebrew Language Charter School’s network, teachers subjects in English and Hebrew. They are the only network school who also have pre-K classes.] It has warm, talented and well trained teachers and an innovative learning culture. The students get to know all about Israel.

The students, teachers, board of directors and administration of Sela PCS truly reflect the diversity of the nation’s capital. When you walk in there is a big banner that says “Only Laundry Should Be Divided by Colors.” Inside the doors you see children of all races and backgrounds singing songs in Hebrew and English, and advancing in STEM and other areas.

Sela is committed to high academic standards for all students. It strives for excellence in everything they do from recruitment of teachers to their students’ academic achievement. There website very clearly states:

  • We believe that all children, regardless of background, learning abilities and physical capacities, can and should contribute to the creation of a positive, supportive learning community for all.
  • We believe that all children are capable of reaching high levels of academic excellence and social-emotional growth, and that one proven way of enabling their success is by purposefully providing a structure where children of varying backgrounds learn from, and with, each other.

Sela’s vision is of a community of learners striving towards excellence, where children of all backgrounds and abilities are valued members of a safe, nurturing community, in which differences are appreciated, and families are active participants in school life. Through exposure to the Hebrew language and contemporary Israeli culture, students learn broad lessons about how to appreciate and participate in cultures that are different from their own.

Sela is part of a new national movement of Hebrew-English public charter schools. The largest is in Brooklyn but they also exist in New Jersey, Harlem, San Diego, Los Angeles and Minnesota. The vast majority of their students do not have disabilities. However, in DC, if they do the government gives them additional funds to make sure their needs are met. So two different models give parents wonderful choices.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the President of www.RespectAbilityUSA.org, which offers free resources on inclusion of Jews with disabilities. She is dyslexic and also knows what it means to parent a Jewish child with multiple disabilities.