When Faith & Inclusion Collide
“When we learn to be inclusive, we can be a world of shalem, or wholeness, and create a world of shalom, which is peace.” (Rabbi Ted Riter, Temple Adat Elohim, California)
This is not an easy post for me to write. It is a deeply personal story for our family and it is one of great sadness, disappointment, anger & disillusionment. I know that it is a long post, but I believe that if you are a person of faith, it is an important investment of your time.
Let me begin with a little background. My daughter is part of a wonderful special education program. The program is part of a Jewish Special Education agency which “provides a continuum of services to ensure that children, regardless of ability, can maximize their potential and participation in all aspects of Jewish education through partnerships with families, educators and the broader community.” The program itself is housed within a Jewish day school. When it began, the program was fully self-contained. Over the years it grew & developed into a more “modified” self-contained program. Those special education students who were able, began to participate in mainstream & remedial level classes with their typical peers within the day school classrooms. The true beauty of this dynamic was that students, like Yael, could have the best of both worlds. If a student required small group, special education support in one subject area, they could receive that in the self-contained classroom. If they had a strength in another subject area, they could learn alongside the day school students, with support if necessary. Some students found so much success within the typical classrooms, that over time they spent almost no time at all in the self-contained classroom & became almost completely integrated into the day school.
From the moment that Yael began this program, she truly blossomed. She did receive some instruction in the small group, self-contained setting, but she spent a good deal of time out in the mainstream. She was part of the remedial level classes in Math & Language Arts, took Hebrew & Judaic studies in the mainstream, as well as Science & Social Studies (with support). She worked hard & her efforts were rewarded with excellent grades & reports from her teachers. She made wonderful friends both in the self-contained setting & the mainstream. We felt as if we had finally found a wonderful educational “home” for Yael, and for her sisters who were enrolled in the day school. The fact that all of this could be achieved in a faith-based setting, and that our children could grow not only academically & socially, but spiritually as well, was like a dream come true for us. I am not sure that I have mentioned this yet, but my husband is a rabbi & our faith plays a very important role in our family life & our children’s upbringing. So, all was good… or so we thought.
As with any program that grows & changes over time, there were issues. When that program is housed within another institution, there are bound to be conflicts & concerns. One would hope that two educational organizations, each acting as “faith-based” programs, would be able to sit down with teachers, administrators & parents and work through any of the issues that would come up. But, that is not always the case. This past year, the Jewish day school that we called “home” decided to pull the plug on all academic inclusion for the special needs children in Yael’s program. When word got out that this decision was percolating, Fred & I and many other parents whose children would be effected by this change, wrote letters, had meetings and tried to turn the tide before such a disastrous decision could be put into effect. We fought hard, but in the end we lost. The day school maintained that our special needs children were not a part of their mission statement. The administration shared that our students, who often came in with aides & who may have behavioral/social issues, were a distraction to teachers & students. They maintained that some children were being mainstreamed inappropriately, and there were issues of crowded classrooms & teachers who felt unable to teach. We were told that the declining enrollment numbers were not the fault of a floundering economy, but that our children were essentially to blame. Yet when parent after parent asked the administration not to simply throw out the existing program, yanking the rug out from under our children, but instead to work on these issues with the administration & teachers of the special education program, we were told there was no time for that. Truth be told, none of these issues were insurmountable, but they could only be solved by parties truly invested in making inclusion work, which the day school administration was not. My husband and I were told that not only was Yael not a part of the school’s mission statement, but that the administration made their decision knowing that angry parents might even pull the “typical needs” siblings out of the day school, and they were prepared for such a loss. Translation… none of my kids truly mattered. They were all disposable. Never, in all the meetings we had since Yael’s diagnosis, had I felt such a profound sense of loss & betrayal. Never had I fought so hard for her, only to come up empty-handed. My daughter became a casualty of an administrative decision that came from a faith-based school, that acted without faith. Her first brush with discrimination came at the hands of a Jewish institution. The first door slammed shut in her face, came from a Jewish school. I am still so angry, hard as I try to get past that. My daughter will be in a self-contained classroom next year, as she enters Middle School. This will not be because her parents & teachers decided that it would be best for her, it will be the result of a decision made by the leadership of the Jewish Day School.
What is the responsibility of our faith-based institutions when it comes to our most vulnerable children? Should they be guided solely by a business mind, or should the values of their faith play a role in their decision-making? If you are to call yourself a Jewish school or a Christian school or any other school of faith, should the morals & principles of your religious beliefs be woven into the decision-making process? If not, then what exactly makes you different from any other school or institution? And what better way to teach the students of any faith-based school, the principles of compassion, tolerance, acceptance & good deeds, than to have them learn side by side with children who are differently-abled.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending & I have not been able to find a silver lining. I can only say that what happened to my family, continues to happen on one level or another, within the walls of many faith-based institutions. Within our synagogue & church walls, within our private faith-based schools, we have yet to create a fully inclusive society. It is not enough to have a Disabilities Awareness Week or Month, because there are people within our community living 365 days a year with disabilities. Where are they to go, and how are they to feel the rest of the year? If we are all created in God’s image, than it is time for our faith-based institutions to recognize the divine spark that resides within all of our children and create for them an inclusive, accepting & tolerant community. I believe that is what my faith, your faith & God truly wants of us and I will continue soldiering forward to try to make that happen for my Yael. But I can’t win this battle alone. We must all take it upon ourselves to ask our clergy what they are doing to make our synagogues, churches & mosques more accessible. We must ensure that our Jewish, Christian, Muslim & other faith-based schools are not only for the “best & the brightest” but that faith-based education reflects the rich diversity of our communities. We must hold our clergy responsible for reaching out to those on the periphery, and partner with them in doing so. And, when we see someone who is differently-abled attending a service, or faith-based community event or school we must reach out to help them feel a part of our community, not on designated days or weeks or months, but each & every day. Perhaps if that begins to happen, than this sad story will have had some meaning.
If you have some more time to devote to this topic, I invite you to listen to this podcast by Rabbi Brad Artson, father of a son with autism. His challenges to the Jewish community on inclusion have a message for all of us, no matter what our faith is. It is well worth a listen.