Transforming Jewish disability education: Turning good intentions into tangible outcomes

It can be easy for education professionals to assume that all our Jewish schools, synagogues and institutions are fully accepting of people with disabilities. We may have ramps and elevators installed, or designate quiet spaces, or provide earplugs or large print materials for prayer services — but what attitudes might be uncovered upon a closer inspection? Do we presume competence for all students, regardless of diagnosis? Are we centering disabled voices and perspectives regularly? Is disability viewed as something to be overcome, or do we celebrate, respect and value difference? 

The idea for a new kind of Jewish disability education program grew out of Tali Cohen Carrus’ experiences working in the Tikvah program for campers with disabilities at Camp Ramah. It was there that Cohen Carrus, our senior director of programs at Gateways, observed a need to have open and honest conversations with campers of all ages who had questions about why their peers sometimes acted, communicated or behaved in ways that were unexpected. Traditional sensitivity training, Cohen Carrus found, often unintentionally fostered a mindset of “us vs. them.”  While this traditional approach was effective at creating a culture of kindness towards the campers whose disabilities were more visible, Cohen Carrus noticed a disconnect between attitudes towards campers identified as part of the Tikvah program and attitudes towards campers across the spectrum of neurodivergence throughout camp, especially those with less visible disabilities. She felt we could bridge this gap by offering something different. That is how Shiluv, which translates to “inclusion” in Hebrew, was born. 

The problem with disability simulations

Shiluv’s unique framework sets it apart from conventional disability awareness training models, preparing educators and students to appreciate the value of each individual and understand what it truly means to embrace and include individuals with learning, physical and developmental variations. While well-intentioned, many traditional approaches to teaching about disability perpetuate the idea that disability is a deficit that individuals must struggle to overcome (the medical model of disability), rather than a complex interaction between individuals and their environments — one that comes with both challenges and joys (the social model of disability). 

These traditional approaches may include disability simulations, in which participants experience limited mobility, sight or hearing for a finite period, and arrive at a conclusion about all the things they cannot do as a result of their new limitation. Participants in disability simulations therefore tend to walk away with feelings of pity for people with disabilities and relief that they are not themselves disabled. These activities create a false understanding of the experience of disability and an “othering” of individuals with disabilities. Their subtext is that you need to be able to experience what another person is experiencing and have access to their medical information to be respectful and inclusive of them. 

It is neither possible, nor necessary, to intimately understand the experiences of everyone in our community. Rather, we must develop an awareness that we all experience the world differently, and that it is important to work together to build environments in which folks with disabilities encounter fewer barriers to their full and meaningful participation in Jewish communal life.

Why we start with the teachers

The work of Shiluv begins even before educators set foot in their classrooms. The program uses a cohort model, with participating educators meeting regularly with Gateways facilitators before the student-facing portions take place. In these meetings, educators develop foundational grounding in the philosophy of inclusion and disability rights, cultivate a shared language about difference and disability and receive training to implement the programming in their classrooms. 

Co-facilitator Rabbanit Liz Shayne — director of academic affairs at Yeshivat Maharat and a staunch advocate for autistic Jews — emphasizes the importance of educators engaging in group learning to address internalized ableism and nurture a mindset that embraces human variation as a natural, valuable part of our communities. “I feel that school ideology tends to really come bottom up from the teachers in the classroom… who care and who set out to make their classroom this place where diversity and disability is actually valued,” says Shayne. 

Shayne has seen this model working in real time with the educators, shifting mindsets and empowering them to advocate for change. “I can see that ways of thinking about disability are becoming part of the way that they think and approach questions,” she says. “I can also see the ways in which they are thinking more about their own power within their larger school systems.” 

In a recent session, one educator shared that she used to feel that attitudes about disability in her school were already where they needed to be, but through conversations with the cohort she began to view student-teacher interactions through a new lens. For example, when a student is engaging in challenging behaviors, do we analyze the various factors that are impacting the child in that moment, understanding that kids do well if they can, or is the child expected to change their behavior without the proper support? This kind of dialogue goes beyond raising disability awareness; it actively reshapes mindsets. 

In the classroom

The classroom portion of the Shiluv program has three cornerstones: experiential learning, classroom lessons and speaker sessions. 

To move away from “us vs. them” thinking and normalize the ideas of disability and difference, students begin the program with multisensory, interactive activities that help them reflect upon their own distinctive qualities. That self-reflection serves as an entry point for students to explore the full spectrum of individual difference and understand the beauty that difference brings to a community. Gateways then provides reading guides and Jewish text study materials that enable students to encounter specific types of disabilities and consider the ways these disabilities might impact the experiences of individuals in our communities. Finally, students have the opportunity to hear from a speaker with lived experience of disability. Speakers with autism, physical disabilities, service dogs, low vision and more, present about their unique experiences in school, with friends, in synagogue and more, offering students an invaluable firsthand account of navigating life with a disability and forming positive self-perceptions.

As part of a classroom lesson on Autism, fifth graders learn about the story of prominent academic and speaker Dr. Temple Grandin and discuss connections to Jewish texts and values. Courtesy/Gateways

Shiluv speaker Avner Fink, who has low vision, shares his lived experience and demonstrates adaptive equipment with a classroom of third graders. Courtesy/Gateways

Attorney, disability activist and Shiluv speaker Carol Steinberg, who is a wheelchair-user, explained the importance of the speaker component of Shiluv in a recent Boston Globe article. “Having these conversations with people at a young age serves to normalize disabilities and to educate them that challenges should be included and accommodated,” she writes. “Only then will people with disabilities, and others too often excluded, be able to live without barriers and be truly free. Schools everywhere should offer a chance for this sort of honest dialogue.” 

The impact of this honest dialogue becomes immediately apparent during the Q&A portion of the speakers’ presentations. For example, during Shiluv speaker sessions for fifth graders featuring Ari Levitt, a young man with autism, students would raise their hands and share their own challenges, diagnoses and differences, without fear of judgment or stigma. In this way, the speaker experience gives students a safe space to open up to their peers about their own disabilities and differences. 

As an explicitly Jewish program, Shiluv integrates Jewish thought and texts at every level. Each monthly cohort session begins with a framing text, in which educators explore the ways that Torah and disability speak to one another. Having these discussions rooted in Judaism gives educators the platform to grapple with more challenging aspects of Jewish thought that could be perceived as ableist. For example, one Talmud text the cohort studies (Megilah 24b) lists the differences that would disqualify a kohen (priest) from reciting the priestly blessing on behalf of the community. Upon a closer inspection of the text, it becomes clear that it is not the differences themselves that inherently disqualify the individual, rather it is the community’s perception of the difference. If there is no stigma within that community associated with the difference, then the individual can participate fully.

The future of peer disability education in Jewish settings

For Shayne, being a part of this project has been both personally rewarding and also illuminated a hopeful path forward for Jewish institutions. 

“I would love to see Jewish schools really understand and embrace the capacity to accommodate every student and to build a world that believes strongly that limitations are not inherent in the individual but are predominantly about what kind of accommodations and affordances and diverse modalities are available. And I think that this curriculum is one of the steps that will get us there,” she says.

Today, as Jewish institutions increasingly emphasize DEI work and schools prioritize social-emotional learning, the Shiluv program offers tangible tools and resources to ensure that disability is not left out of these important conversations. With the immense power of educators to shape young mindsets comes the responsibility to normalize disability and difference during these years when children are formulating their answers to vital questions like: Who am I? Who are the people around me? What does it mean to be part of a community? By guiding Jewish educational institutions towards building a more inclusive society — one that recognizes and celebrates the richness that disability brings to our shared experiences — Shiluv is providing answers. 

Tali Cohen Carrus is senior director of programs and Elianna Mentzer is communications manager and Shiluv facilitator at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.