Jewish Education for Students with Disabilities is Improving, But we Need to Increase the Pace


This is part of a series of essays in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month.

Good news! That’s a wonderful way to start a Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) piece, isn’t it? Thankfully it’s also accurate. There is good news in Jewish disability inclusion and education. 

I have noticed significantly more awareness that students possess a wide array of academic, physical, and social emotional strengths and challenges, and this awareness includes recognizing that all students are valuable, contributing members of our communities. 

Even as recently as a few years ago, conversations with supplemental school educators centered around the need to lift up the value of disability inclusion. School directors and teachers needed guidance to recognize that students with disabilities could be included in part-time religious school programs, and that doing so should be a central part of their community’s vision. This seemed insurmountable, and many felt that to embrace such a vision was an impossibly high mountain to climb. 

Nevertheless, more and more educators and school directors began the climb. In my work as a Consultant who leads training workshops for educational staff and madrichim, conversations have shifted away from, “Can you help my staff understand why inclusion is important,” to “My staff understands that disability inclusion is important, they need the skills to be able to manage this effectively in their classrooms.”

This is good news indeed. It is much more challenging to convince staff and community leaders of the “why” than to provide the skills, tools, and support to make inclusion a meaningful reality. 

The communities and schools that are most successful recognize inclusion is a part of who they are rather than a thing they do. Inclusion is not something to be checked off a list as accomplished and forgotten about, rather it requires ongoing commitment to the growth and reflection necessary to ensure all have equal opportunity to experience belonging. Inclusion must be woven into every program, every lesson, every conversation, and every interaction.

And then, communities must also remember that children with disabilities grow up to be adults with disabilities. This is where I believe our synagogues still have the most work to do. Even when a religious school is truly inclusive, many communities fall short of offering meaningful opportunities for lifelong connection and belonging for those who have aged out of school programs. 

It is possible for all communities to be truly inclusive by ensuring that each person, regardless of age or life stage, knows that their value is celebrated and feels that they truly belong.

Lisa Friedman is a widely recognized expert in Jewish Disability Inclusion. Lisa is a Consultant for congregations, schools, camps and other organizations to guide them in the development of inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops, and awareness training. Connect with her at Removing the Stumbling Block. Lisa serves as an Education Director at Temple Beth-El in Central New Jersey and is the Project Manager of UJA-Federation of New York’s Synagogue Inclusion Project.