Walking through the hallways of nearly every Jewish Day School across the country, can be an enlightening experience. Hallways are decorated with student work, reflecting the diversity of topics taught in our classrooms and the diversity of our students in how they connect with the material that is taught. Tables and chairs are found in the crevices of our hallways, in our outdoor classroom spaces, gardens and playgrounds, with students and teachers sitting and learning in small groups. Music and song emanate from each classroom as students are engaged in learning. Different modalities with similar results.
When done properly, our schools can focus on varied approaches to education and pedagogy. To do so, we must realize that each student learns differently and that our role as educators is to help each child on their individual path to academic excellence. Academic excellence can and should be different from student to student.
It is essential that when we walk into any classroom, that we not only see students who are learning on grade level, we see students who may need intervention due to social, emotional, cognitive, and learning differences, and we see students who need enrichment to allow them to continue to work above grade level. Jewish Day Schools can best do this through inclusion, through pushing in and through pulling out. We also must realize that a subject that may be a strength for one student is not necessarily a strength for another.
As parents, many of us want our children to excel in every subject, on every test, in every discipline. But how many of us as adults can do so? We cannot be skilled in every aspect of our own lives, yet we apply pressure on our children to be experts in everything. Students come to school each day with the expectation (in their own mind or placed on them by their parents) that they must be perfect in math, spelling, reading, writing, public speaking, socializing with their parents, and in athletics. But how many children and how many adults can master each of those disciplines. It is okay to have a specialty in one distinct area while you may struggle with another.
I often draw on the teachings of Dr. Janusz Korczak, who together with the orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto, boarded the trains to the Polish Death Camp Treblinka. Korczak is seen as an advocate for children’s rights. He is quoted in the book, Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents, saying, “A child is a piece of parchment which has been thoroughly covered with minute hieroglyphics, only a very small part of which you will ever be able to decipher.” A later quote goes on to say, “Mentalities vary, and children can be steady or capricious, compliant or contrary, creative or imitative, witty or earnest, concrete or abstract; the memory can be exceptional or average; some are congenital despots while others have a wide range of interests.”
Our Jewish texts elaborate on this. In Pirke Avot, 4:20, we read, “Rebbi says: Do not look at the jug but rather what is in it. For there are new jugs full of old [wine], and old that do not have even new [wine] within them.”
We must look at each child for who they are; not who they are compared to anyone else. I am reminded of the story of Reb Zusha, a Chasidic master, in which Reb Zusha was lying on his deathbed surrounded by his students. As he lay there, he was crying and none of his students could comfort him. One student asked “Why are you crying? You, Reb Zusha are almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,’ rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential, why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine.”
Several years ago, I was introduced to an impactful movie, Praying with Lior. The movie is a documentary about Lior Liebling, a boy with Down Syndrome and his journey towards becoming a Bar Mitzvah. What I love about the movie is Lior’s connection to Judaism through song and spirituality. His teachers had to discover what moved him in order to help him better connect. His teachers used inclusion to help Lior socially and academically in his classroom. What strikes me most is the impact that Lior had on those around him. When we teach with inclusion, we aren’t just impacting the life of one student; we are impacting the entire class, the teachers and in truth, the entire school. As a Head of School, my most impactful days are the ones on which I am able to sit with students, not as an educator, but as a student.
Our Jewish texts are full of sources that speak to the Jewish approach to inclusion.
We need to look no further than Moshe, who felt that his greatest shortcoming was his speech. When chosen by God to lead the Jewish people, he responds, “Please, my Lord, I am not a man of words… for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech.” God responds, “Who makes a mouth for man, or who makes one dumb or deaf, or sighted or blind? Is it not I, HaShem? So now, go! I shall be with your mouth and teach you what you should say (Exodus 4:10-12).”
Even after agreeing to speak with Pharoah, Moshe comes back to say, “Behold, the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me, for I have sealed lips (Exodus 6:12).”
This is the second time that Moses has brought up his speech issues to God, yet each time, God tells him that the people will listen. And it is not only the ability to speak that is referenced in our sources.
In Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:14, we read “Do not curse a person who is deaf and do not place a stumbling block in front of a person who is blind.” In Devraim (Deuteronomy) 15:7, we learn, “If there be among you a person with needs… you shall not harden your heart, but you shall open your hand.”
In the Mishneh Torah, a work by Maimonides, 1:8-9, we are taught that “Every [Jew] is obligated to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, whether his body is healthy and whole or afflicted by difficulties, whether he is young or an old man whose strength has diminished.” The text goes on to talk about the importance of every job on the impact of a community. “The greater Sages of Israel included wood choppers, water drawers and blind men. Despite these [difficulties], they were occupied with Torah study day and night and were included among those who transmitted the Torah’s teachings in the direct line from Moses.”
This is what Jewish Day School education should be about. Each day, I walk through the hallways of our school, and I listen to the learning that is taking place. I listen to the teachers, and I watch the students. I listen to the students, and I watch the teachers. I see students who have struggles with learning, students who have struggles with speaking and some who struggle with reading. I see students who are excelling in math and in science and who communicate in ways that are mature beyond their years. What I don’t see, are students who make fun of their classmates because of those differences. I see caring, compassionate, empathetic students who push their classmates towards success rather than towards failure.
Each morning, I see our older students sitting with younger students in morning prayers, helping them to follow along and pronounce the words correctly. I hear the voices of students engaged in learning, even though they may be incorrectly enunciating every letter and vowel, yet no one in the room puts them down, instead they encourage them and pull them up.
And no, it’s not always this way one hundred percent of the time. Kids are kids and sometimes an unkind comment is said towards another student. Instead of yelling at that student, however, we use that moment as what we call a “teachable moment”. We remind our students of the importance of kindness, empathy, and love. We teach them of inclusion rather than exclusion.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month. “The mission of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month is to unite Jewish communities worldwide to raise awareness and champion the rights of all Jews to be included and to participate in all aspects of Jewish life like anyone else.”
Each person has a different set of abilities in this world. Each deserves the opportunity to get a quality Jewish education. Each child is given an opportunity to learn, and each child is seen as an individual in the greater context of a large class. It does not mean that our schools are simply schools for kids with special needs. We are a school for ALL students, no matter their needs. We intervene, we enrich, we include, we educate, we love. That is the essence of Judaism and that is why Jewish Day Schools are so crucial to the well-being of all of our Jewish children.