February – Jewish Disabilites Awareness Month – What we all lose when we don’t include.

February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every school and
institution believed that every child deserved a place in a Jewish school?
As a child, I was fortunate to attend a day school that
believed in inclusion. Students who were blind, deaf, confined to wheelchairs or
who had Down’s syndrome called my school home just as I did. The students with
disabilities were not kept to themselves and then paraded around to make the
other students feel good about themselves. They were integral parts of each
class and part of school life and learning like any other student.
Having students with profound physical and cognitive
disabilities must  have been challenging for the administrators and teachers in my
school. It is hard enough to meet the needs of so many students, but how to
teach and include those who can’t hear or grasp a pencil?  How many meetings, how much experimentation,
patience and creativity must this have called for? How much soul searching must
the faculty have gone through every year to determine which students to accept
and who they could not accommodate? Yet, I never saw frustration with the added
responsibility or self-righteous arrogance because of their decision to include.
I saw pride on the face of the principals and teachers that our school loved
every Jewish child and determination to be sensitive and accommodating.
The presence of students’ with obvious physical and mental
disabilities helped me in many ways. Their presence taught me that I could
respect and trust the administration and teachers in my school even as I felt
wronged by some of their decisions. I knew that they were elevated individuals
who were trying their best. I saw that my teachers and administrators believed
that every Jewish child was entitled to a Jewish education and I felt safe because of that. I experienced  that the adults in my school building believed
what they preached – they were willing to sacrifice their time and resources to
teach any child if it was possible.
As a selfish child, I wanted to believe that including those
who were less able would slow me down and rob me of the Jewish education to
which I was entitled. I was fortunate that my school did not let me entertain
this notion. They taught that the value of my Jewish education was not what I
learned intellectually but what I did with that education. I was expected to
demonstrate strength of character and sensitivity to others, and I was given
opportunities to do so in a setting that mattered, not as an extra-curricular
activity meant to entertain. I learned to be patient and think about other’s needs even when it felt unnatural and awkward to do so.
As an adult, I am grateful that the school I attended believed
in inclusion. The value of every human life and of a Jewish soul is seared into
my consciousness simply because I attended an institution that valued every
Jewish child. This lesson has shaped the way I parent and teach. It has made me
more patient and empathetic.
It is no coincidence that when I look at my classmates and
fellow alumnae, I encounter individuals who have a broad vision and sense of
responsibility for the Jewish people. When we chat, there is still an idealism
and a disdain for superficiality that I don’t always encounter in other
Making a decision to be inclusive requires faith. With limited
resources, why use scarce funds on a handful of students when so many could
benefit? Why divide a teacher’s attention from those who will be the most
successful? Yet isn’t a religious education a lesson in faith? I learned from
being in an inclusive school that if we do what is right, we can have faith
that G-d will provide the means. I learned from being in an inclusive school that our job
is not to worry about outcomes and results but to do the right thing. The
results are G-d’s domain, our job is to care about the person sitting next to
us. This simple faith has served as an anchor that has made my life richer and safer in good times and bad.


As February and Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month comes to
a close, the question should not be whether we will include those who need our assistance,
it should be what are we losing when we do not.