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Recognizing Everyone’s Unique Ability

Sometimes I am different.
Sometimes I am the same.
But I am always worthy.

Photo from Adi Negev-Nahalat Eran
Sometimes I am different. Sometimes I am the same. But I am always worthy. Photo from Adi Negev-Nahalat Eran

There are experiences and places in our lives whose impact can be felt days, weeks, months, and even years later. For me, visiting Mechva Alon and ADI Negev – Nahalat Eran, over two days in July 2023, was such an experience.

Israel is a country that recognizes the unique abilities of all its residents. This was evident at Mechva Alon as our group (Jewish educators from the USA as part of the JNF-USA educators mission) learned about the special training of soldiers from unique and diverse populations and backgrounds. Some were lone soldiers. Some were native Israeli soldiers from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Some were soldiers who struggled academically and needed an educational push.

We learned how Israel meets the needs of all its soldiers and all those who want to serve.  We heard from four lone soldiers from across the globe about how they received social integration through the work of Mechva Alon. Brigadier General Ophir Levius spoke about education, his storied career, and his recovery from injury while serving. He showed us that everyone can serve and make a difference in the security of Israel. Ophir reminded us that our students will be ok if we invest in our teachers. He explained that we are not in the business of building soldiers; we are building a nation.

And while seeing those soldiers learning, growing, and interacting with one another, and hearing from Chief Education Officer of the IDF, Brigadier General Ophir Levius about the importance of meeting each soldier where they needed to be met and the importance of inclusion, it was hearing from Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Tiran Atia about the work that he does with special needs soldiers that had the biggest impact.

Atia talked to us about a program called Special in Uniform. This group of highly trained elite soldiers is made up entirely of disabled and autistic teens. It integrates young adults with disabilities into the IDF and allows these soldiers to be a part of a core rite of passage in Israel. This program allows everyone to reach their individual potential. And more than the impact that this program has on these soldiers and their families, is the impact that it has on other soldiers in the IDF. The program brings all types of soldiers together and the result is a stronger society that recognizes each person’s unique potential.

The following day we made our way to ADI Negev – Nahalat Eran. I had first heard of ADI Negev after hearing Major General (res.) Doron Almog speak at an event several years ago and heard about this unique place from my son, whose Yeshiva visits ADI Negev each year. This past weekend, I again had the opportunity to hear Almog speak. We were able to connect briefly, which allowed me the opportunity to express my awe at what he created at ADI Negev.

Almog is a decorated soldier. He served in the Yom Kippur War, was the first on the ground and last to leave the raid on Entebbe, and helped to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel as part of Operation Moses, among several other military campaigns. In 2016, Almog won the Israel Prize, regarded as Israel’s highest cultural honor, and today he serves as the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. His greatest achievement, in my mind, is ADI Negev – Nahalat Eran, named for his son Eran.

ADI Negev is spread over 40 acres, with another 150 acres in development. One hundred and seventy residents live there year-round, with another 190 students with educational disabilities and special needs who attend daily. There is a fully integrated kindergarten with both neurotypical and special needs students. It is an inclusive classroom. Students learn that not everyone has the same abilities, but everyone can have the same opportunities. And the educators are diverse. There is religious diversity (with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish workers working side-by-side), among the staff and the residents.  Some special needs farmers work each day. Each would not have the same opportunities elsewhere.

Many of ADI’s educators work to create, engineer, and hack apps that will make life for their students easier. ADI Negev works with American schools through ADI Bechinuch to help our students learn the same value of disability inclusion. Schools like Bornblum Jewish Community School, the one I am lucky enough to lead in Memphis, Tennessee.

I see it at my school daily. We have been visited by Elie Klein, the Director of Development at ADI Negev, who participated in empathy interviews with our students, as part of their Design Thinking work. Several of our Middle School students continue to be in touch with ADI Negev as they work on their capstone projects, while our Fourth and Fifth Grade students participated in the Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) challenge, to innovate and create something that will impact those who have disabilities.

Nearly 20 times during Almog’s speaking engagement in Memphis this past Saturday night, he used the word inclusion. Inclusion can be defined as the practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities for people who might otherwise be excluded. Both ADI Negev and Special in Uniform embody this attitude.

I am struck by our greatest leader, our greatest teacher, and our greatest orator, Moses, being one with a speech impediment.  I am struck by how effective he was as a teacher and how not only did Moses overcome a major obstacle, but so too did his students.  He spoke and they followed.  He struggled, yet they listened.

Each day as I walk through the hallways of our school 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 struggled with learning, students who have struggled with speaking, and some who struggle with reading.  I see students who are excelling in math and 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 toward success rather than toward failure.

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 each 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 a not nice comment comes out 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 about the importance of inclusion rather than exclusion.

Our Jewish texts are full of sources that speak to the Jewish approach to inclusion.  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.”

We do this because even our shortcomings should not hinder us from becoming the greatest leader since Moses.

We learn in Mishlei 22:6, chanoch l’naar al pi darco, educate each child according to his/her way. When we recognize everyone’s unique ability, we create a world of inclusion, love, care, and empathy. That is the power of Jewish Day Schools.

About the Author
Dr. Daniel R. Weiss has been the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, TN, since 2018. Daniel earned his bachelors in Jewish Studies from The Ohio State University, a masters in Jewish Education from Siegal College, and a doctorate from Northeastern University. He has 25 years of experience working in Jewish Day Schools. He is a proud husband and father of three.
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