Response: Send Your Child to Jewish Day School

Though published in April, this article has received renewed attention on the 10,000+ member JEDLAB Facebook group, a “network of Jewish education people passionate about redesigning the Jewish education ecosystem.” It has clearly struck a cord amongst educators and parents (who are also educators), with 111 comments in just over 24 hours. 

As the founder of Matan, a 20 year old non-profit organization that is dedicated to Jewish disability inclusion, and as a parent who thought all 3 of my children would attend Jewish Day School (none of them do), reading “Send your Child to Jewish Day School” and the discussion points that emerged from it, were a painful reminder of the work yet to be done.

“Send your Child to Jewish Day School” addresses 10 main points – comparisons between the learning that can be accomplished in supplemental schools versus full day programs, affordability, understanding a world that is not solely Jewish, Jewish values, forming a Jewish identity and creating lifelong friendships, to name a few. It reads as a love letter to and about Jewish Day Schools by highly informed and respected leaders in Jewish day school education. I applaud their dedication – and I am envious that their own experiences (personally and professionally) have made Jewish day school not only a viable option, but a “no brainer”.

One in five children in the United States struggle with some form of learning, physical, developmental or mental health disability. 1 in 59 children has an Autism diagnosis. At Matan, we field daily phone calls from distraught parents whose children were either rejected from or “counseled out” of their local day school. These parents don’t need to be convinced of the benefits of the Jewish values, identity, friendships and learning associated with Jewish day schools; those are exactly the qualities they were looking for when choosing a school for their child. The Jewish community, however, needs to be convinced that we cannot talk about Jewish values and identity and friendships and learning without giving serious consideration to all of the children and families we are excluding.  

There are those who will say (and have said) that “special needs” was not the point of the article, or that not every school is right for every child, or that their one child who learns differently is finding adequate (or even excellent) support at their Jewish day school. But the parents of close to 20% of Jewish children with some form of disability – and those of us working every day for greater awareness of that fact – read this article and feel the wounds of rejection all over again.

There are a handful of Jewish Day Schools across the country that can successfully include children with a wide range of disabilities (depending on the level of need and the program in place, parents of these children pay a premium on top of the standard day school tuition). These schools are usually mentioned when people like me point out the pitfalls of Jewish day schools for children with disabilities. Hint: if everyone can name the same small number of schools who are doing this well, we have a problem. 

Dennis Prager asks, “How do we want to raise our children? I want my child to be a good human being [a mentsch] and I want my child to be a good Jew.”  Me, too. And I think a key way to accomplish that is accurately reflecting the entirety of our Jewish community, not weeding people out based on disability. 

Day school inclusion is not an easy issue to solve, to be sure. But we must talk about it, acknowledge it and grapple with it and never pretend that everyone who would like their child to receive a day school education is welcome to reap the benefits laid out in “Send Your Child to Jewish Day School.” 

About the Author
Meredith Polsky founded Matan (www.matankids.org) in 2000 and serves as Matan's National Director of Institutes and Training, as well as the part-time Developmental Support Coordinator at Temple Beth Ami Nursery School in Rockville, MD. Meredith is a nationally sought-after speaker on Jewish Special Education. She holds a Master’s degree in Special Education from Bank Street College, a Master’s degree in Clinical Social Work from Columbia University and a graduate certificate in Early Intervention from Georgetown University. Meredith is a 2017 Covenant Award recipient, and co-author of the award-winning children’s books I Have a Question about Death, I Have a Question about Divorce, and I Have a Question about Cancer (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017, 2018 and 2019, respectively).
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