This week, I was contacted by a colleague at another Reform synagogue. She shared that a member of their community is interested in endowing a special education program for their religious school, and she hoped that I might be willing to dream with them a little. She asked me, “What would you do with $30,000? With $50,000?”
First and foremost, just as every child with a disability is unique, so is every synagogue community that seeks to include them. Therefore, my answer to the question will vary depending upon a number of factors:
- Do you have an existing program to expand, or is this start-up?
- Do you have identified students in your community that you seek to serve, or do you hope to build a program that will attract students and families to your synagogue?
- What is your school’s vision? What is it you hope/want for each student when he/she completes your program? And how do you get them there?
But then I found myself thinking, as is often the case, about the bigger picture. Why do conversations like this only happen when significant money comes into the picture? Why aren’t we, as synagogues, making inclusion a priority and finding the money?
Why is the most common question asked when I give a presentation or lead a workshop: “How do you afford it?” (Disclaimer: the synagogue I spoke with already has great partnerships in disability work and are now fortunate to be receiving this gift to build upon what they have started.)
Let’s go back, for a moment, to question number three: vision. Shouldn’t every school’s vision incorporate inclusion? We talk often in the world of special education about adaptations, modifications and accommodations; and they are essential. However, I’m not sure we talk often enough of vision. True inclusion is figuring out how to ensure that your vision is not compromised for the sake of special education. Rather, you must provide the supports each student needs so that the school’s vision can be as much a reality for them as it is for every other student.
I get it, trust me. I live in the real world of synagogue life, the world of declining membership, financial struggles and tough choices. Sure, there are angels out there, but isn’t inclusion too important to wait for an “angel”?
Isn’t it essential that we make inclusion a reality regardless of our means?
Here are some practical, inexpensive and realistic ways to begin to make inclusion an affordable reality for your congregation:
- A huge part of inclusion is attitude; and changing attitudes is free.
It’s hard work. It takes genuine commitment. But it is free. Start small. Learn about person-first language. Change the way you speak, change the way your teachers, madrichim (teen teaching assistants) and clergy speak. Change the wording on all your forms, letters, and school and synagogue communications. Make this one conscious change and see it through. Then reflect on what this change has brought to your community.
- Invest in professional development opportunities for your teachers and madrichim.
This is where I think you can get your biggest bang for your buck. Almost every religious school I know has some budget for professional development. Bring someone in to lead a full-day or a half-day workshop for teachers and madrichim. It could be strategy-based, or you could seek to include sensitivity training and/or simulations. Extend the learning by gathering to discuss student case studies and apply what you have learned. Meet more frequently with teen assistants to support them. Maintain the learning with in-person or virtual check-in opportunities throughout the year.
- Use your synagogue’s existing tools and structure to promote inclusion.
Make inclusion a synagogue-wide priority. Encourage clergy to offer sermons about the value of inclusion. Select texts to study together at weekly Torah study, in committee meetings or at special programs. Write about inclusion in your weekly newsletter and highlight success stories in your monthly newsletter. Incorporate lessons on disability awareness, tolerance and acceptance in religious school classes and at youth group events. Form an Inclusion Committee to delve into the issue more deeply.
“It is not your responsibility to finish the work (of perfecting the world), but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot: 2:16)
Do one thing, and you are one step closer to inclusion.
Originally published in a two-part series at Jewish Special Needs Education: Removing the Stumbling Block