The Promise of a Jewish Education for Students with Special Needs

by Arlene Remz

I stopped by the Ellenbogens’ a few weeks ago. They live in nearby Sharon, MA and with six children, the house is a hive of activity and comings and goings, especially on a rainy summer afternoon.

A couple of the kids were around, including 8-year-old Binny and his younger brother, Yishai, 6, who were in the basement and consumed with a video game that was moving so quickly that I couldn’t make much sense of it, let alone take the control device that Binny so generously offered me.

I settled onto the couch upstairs with Debbie Ellenbogen, the mom of the house, but Binny followed quickly behind. He was determined to socialize, and promptly gave details of a recent visit to Israel, counted in Hebrew, shared his dream of being a firefighter, and read us a book about traffic jams.

This is a typical 8-year-old charmer, right? Yes, so right. And no matter that Binny has Down syndrome. His infectious personality and engagement drew me in and I left so looking forward to another visit.

One could not possibly look at him only as a child with limitations, but as one with a wealth of possibilities. That very fact speaks loudly of a Jewish community that has embraced and included him as it would any other.

Binny is entering the third grade this year at Striar Hebrew Academy of Sharon (SHAS), one of 13 Jewish day schools in the greater Boston area at which Gateways supports the inclusion of students with special learning needs, ensuring that they receive a Jewish education.

By all accounts and by every measure, he is succeeding academically and socially as he develops and expands on the Jewish identity that is also nurtured in his home and synagogue.

The parents of children with special needs who want a Jewish education for their child are lucky in our region. Here, we have a central coordinating body in Gateways, working in partnership with area day schools, synagogue schools, preschools and other institutions to make this possible.

Jewish education and access for students with special needs is high on the agenda of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the Jewish federation here. And The Ruderman Family Foundation and other philanthropists recognize the importance – indeed the right – of Jewish families to find a welcoming and accommodating Jewish educational environment for their child, regardless of his or her needs.

This isn’t universal. People make assumptions about how a child with Down syndrome could possibly fit in a day school environment.

But in the last 20 or 30 years, as federal laws have been instituted and as more public school systems have welcomed children with disabilities, it hasn’t been unusual for children to share a classroom with a child in a wheelchair or a child with autism.

So why isn’t this more prevalent in the Jewish community? Unfortunately, in many places we have lagged well behind the public schools and there is no legal mandate guiding us. But there is a moral mandate, and there is a new tide of thinking setting in that demands inclusion, not exclusion.

Gateways is not just delivering services, but showing the community and educators and philanthropists locally and nationally that it is possible to include children with disabilities in Jewish school programs, albeit with special services both inside and outside of the classroom. And this benefits everyone and gives true meaning to the notion of Jewish community.

The issue gained some traction late last year, at ADVANCE: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference, drawing attention to those with special needs in the Jewish community and making the case for communal and philanthropic response. The first-ever conference, sponsored by The Ruderman Family Foundation in partnership with The Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Funders Network, and CJP, will repeat in December to encourage the Jewish community to pay greater attention to the imperative of inclusion for Jewish continuity.

Special education is just really good education. If all education were done with knowledge that everyone has different ways of learning, then many students with special needs would benefit from what is good for all, and vice versa.

Observe Binny in the classroom and among his friends. He’s a kid with his own challenges. Just like everyone else. Perhaps he’ll be a firefighter. But there is no doubt that he will be a full and active participant in the Jewish community. He already is.

Arlene Remz is Executive Director, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.