In Response: Jewish Day Schools’ Dirty Little Secret

Written by Meredith Englander Polsky
Director of Training and Advocacy, Matan 

In her article, “Jewish Day Schools’ Dirty Little Secret” (The Jewish Daily Forward, February 8, 2013), Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is spot on in almost every regard. Among the many unfortunate truths she describes, in fact, the only faulty one is that this is some kind of well-protected secret. In fact, there is no secret in the fact that Jewish Day Schools, by and large, are not an option for children with special needs.

Just this morning, at my daughter’s Jewish mainstream (non-special education) nursery school, I was talking to a mom about nothing in particular, when our local Jewish Day School came up in conversation. “Oh,” she said. “I love that school. I always thought my kids would go there. But I know they can’t because of their issues.” Very matter of fact. These are her first children, they are 4, she is not a professional in the Jewish communal world, and she has not been through the system yet. But she knows. They can’t go there. I refrained from asking what she loves about a school where her children are not welcome.

I, on the other hand, am a professional in the Jewish communal world. Almost thirteen years ago, long before I had children of my own, I started a Jewish non-profit organization because I noticed that there was a huge segment of children who did not have access to a meaningful, appropriate Jewish education. Throughout the past thirteen years, I have lived, breathed and slept Jewish Special Education (which, ironically, isn’t even really a field). So it’s no surprise that the issues Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi raises in her article resonated with me. The very basis of her article is what I discuss, work on, write about, think about every single day. But something about her article made it impossible for me to do anything else until I could get my thoughts on paper. Something about her article made me certain of things that I have been contemplating for a while now.

It’s February, and as Jennifer noted, we are in the midst of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month. For those of us in the field of Jewish Special Needs, this is our hectic time of year – like tax season for accountants. We’re busier than usual raising awareness, promoting programs, celebrating the Jewish institutions that are doing something to recognize the month, and getting out whatever message is on the agenda of our particular organization.

But here’s the thing. Anyone paying attention to the op-ed’s, blog posts and social media threads of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month knows that the same names pop up over and over and over again. There are dozens of individuals doing the work of tens of thousands of people. To Jennifer’s point, Judaism teaches that every Jew is created in God’s image. This teaching is so well-known, particularly among Jewish educators, that it’s almost become colloquial. So why does anyone tolerate the exclusion of up to 200,000 Jewish school-aged children with disabilities and special learning needs? Why isn’t there more outrage? Why can a parent, in casual conversation in the halls of a Jewish nursery school, be so matter of fact about the fate of her children’s Jewish education?

Dozens of people who live, breathe and sleep “Jewish Special Needs” cannot continue to be the only ones at the center of this conversation. Yes, they (we) can use our collective knowledge base and provide information, resources, tools, guidance, support and anything else that would benefit a particular school or community. It’s our job and our passion and, on the whole, we’re very good at what we do. But we need equal partners. We need parents of children who do not have special needs to step up and say that they won’t accept a Jewish community that discriminates based on ability. We need funders to take initiative before their grandchild, son, daughter, nephew is diagnosed with Autism or Dyslexia or Attention Deficit Disorder or mental health issues. We need Jewish graduate schools to recognize that if they don’t provide a track – or even a single class! – on special needs, we can’t possibly expect our future leaders to be prepared to lead a congregation or a school of diverse learners.

If it ever was a secret that Jewish education excludes based on special need, let’s assume that the cat’s out of the bag. If as a community we have invested any energy in keeping that secret, let’s now turn the tables and invest that energy instead in changing attitudes, bringing more voices into the conversation and challenging Jewish educators to be in the presence of the diversity of God’s creations when they teach that everyone is created in God’s image.