by Tinamarie Bernard August 5, 2013


By Tinamarie Bernard


If you ask the typical mom what she had for breakfast this morning, she’s likely to have no clue. Ask her to tell you about the day she was ‘invited’ to withdraw her child from Jewish preschool, and her memory is sharp as a nail, even if that day was more than five years ago.

Only because I’m focused on the topic can I confess that this morning’s meal included too many carbs and too little caffeine. Yesterday’s snacks are long forgotten, unlike my concern for how to give my children the best possible Jewish experiences between now and when their lives are fully in their own hands.


Hindsight and Hope

My first-born is a bright, sensitive and rambunctious child who showed the signs of impulsivity and distractibility early on. Back in the day, such kids would have been given extra chores to channel their excess energy.

But times have changed. Today, with a mixture of hope and trepidation, we apply terms like autistic spectrum, learning disabled or ADHD to our children. Heightened public awareness is arguably a good thing. The more we know about a child’s particular needs, the more we are able to find resources and support them to excel in school, at home and in life.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 13.5 million children under the age of 18 in the United States have special needs. These can range from emotional or behavioral health problems such as autism or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), to learning disabilities, sensory impairments and chronic medical illnesses or conditions. That amounts to one in five families.

“The ratio of special-needs children in Jewish households is likely no higher than the national average,” writes Leah Krakinowski in a 2012 cover story for the New Jersey Jewish Standard. “However, the financial stakes and personal sacrifices can be far greater for parents wrestling with ways to provide their children with a suitable educational and social environment within a Jewish communal framework.”

How so according to Krakinowski? “Jewish parents of special-needs children often face a trifecta of battles: with school districts, health insurance companies, and their own ability to pay yeshiva or day school tuitions.”


Personal Pains can lead to Public Gains

For a people known to march at the forefront of many social movements, I know we can do better.  In her February 2013 article for Forward Magazine, “Jewish Day Schools’ Dirty Little Secret”, it was as if writer Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi had reached into my private memories when she pointed out that unless your Jewish child fits in and conforms, you may find it hard to provide them with a Jewish education.

“Many parents will find that if their kids are slightly outside the mold of the ‘cookie cutter kids’ their child might, just might get accepted…if their child’s learning, physical or other differences become too inconvenient eventually they will be called to the school so they can ‘counsel out’ your child,” writes Mizrahi.

This is what happened to us. Though other parents and even a few teachers who knew and liked our son had privately warned us about the pre-K teacher’s lack of patience for children who preferred to get their wiggles out rather then sit still, we ignored their advice. Discipline could serve him, we reasoned, and we really wanted him to have another year of Jewish education before sending him to public kindergarten.

It wasn’t meant to be. Within weeks, the situation became unbearable. The more this teacher’s dislike for my child’s out-of-the-box exuberance challenged her ability to contain him the more he misbehaved. I knew it was over when I saw her scold him for making an airplane sound while playing with (guess what) an airplane during individual playtime. The break up was mutual.

Like some of the families Mizrahi writes about, we were told, “ever-so-nicely how sorry,” the school was that they could no longer “accommodate our child.” At least we were spared the “free lecture about how grateful” we should be that the school had resources not previously offered to earlier generations of children. After all, we’d paid for the additional social skills courses, and taken him to be evaluated by a child psychiatrist per the school’s recommendation.

We took their word for it how children should be and behave. You see, even before doctors had tested and diagnosed our son with ADHD, the school had determined he was outside the acceptable norm.


Community Call to Action

Mizrahi’s article was the first time I realized that I had unquestionably assumed responsibility for all our son’s preschool problems. After all, we were newbie parents, he was acting out, sometimes aggressively, and the teacher was a long-time fixture. No discussions were ever had that the teacher may have had an approach toward our child (and others like him) that exasperated the situation. What were we to have known or done differently?

In hindsight, I like to think that I would have suggested that the teacher’s longstanding contributions to the community weren’t grounds to clip the wings of children who challenged her stern sensibilities. I might have added that as old-fashioned as she was (which we liked, to a degree), she may have wanted to emulate more of the kindness, creativity and compassion of Mary Poppins (instead of Poppins’ antagonist Miss Andrew).

More than likely, I would have not said any of those things, and instead would have sent him directly past Jewish pre-K and straight to public school. How many parents have done something similar because their child doesn’t fit in?

As a community, we must decide if we want to make a Jewish education available to all children, just the ones that fit the convenient, comfortable mold or some variation of the middle. After all, a child with ADHD is NOT a long shot for success. Some of the world’s greatest minds, Jewish or not, rest in bodies that can barely sit still. So how best can we be there to enable their minds above and beyond their constraints?

Mizrahi does point to improvements. “There are pockets of excellence and teachers who care. There are wonderful programs in Chicago, Baltimore and Miami that serve some children, for example. There indeed are tutors and therapists coming in to some of the schools.” We must do more, she asserts.


The Price of Progress

What more can be done? When Mizrahi writes that, “America would not tolerate it if a prestigious school rejected a child because they were Jewish,” we can collectively agree with her. When she asks, “Why do Jews continue to tolerate the blatant discrimination in our schools?” the answer feels a bit murkier.

What is blatant and is it discrimination to consider the needs of all when planning for the needs of the fewer? I have no clear answer. It just seems prudent to realize that when we ask our organizations to stretch their abilities, we have to consider many factors including available resources.

For example, at the San Diego Jewish Academy, students with a range of learning disabilities such as Asperger Syndrome are able to get support through the school’s Learning Center. Trained education therapists offer individualized support to help them complete school assignments and develop skills to help them succeed. Recognizing that students can present with a wide spectrum of behaviors and needs, the school administration expressed a desire to be as helpful and as honest as possible.

As long as the student is able to comfortably integrate in the small classroom settings, they are welcome. Students not likely to succeed with the resources available to them as students at SDJA as those who are severely challenged, unable to participate, communicate or connect to others.

At Chabad Hebrew Academy, administrators have a similar can-do attitude where every child is made to feel a member of their class. “Our mission is to work with each student and family to ensure that they receive the educational support necessary to enable them to realize their full potential,” says Rabbi Josef Fradkin, head of school for CHA.

Resources include learning specialists, literacy coaches, ESL support, Israeli immigrant integration specialists and on-site counseling, he explains.

“It has been a matter of pride for all of the teachers and the school community to witness students receive an honor cord at graduation who might have been termed as “special needs” elsewhere,” he added.

What can be done to help more students? Mizrahi’s suggestions are good starts. For example, she points to the value of having inclusion committees and board members who are parents of children with special needs (as if they don’t already have their hands full).  Online resources such as Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, are also valuable to support outreach and inclusion efforts. A personal favorite: Schools should ask the parents of children with special needs, and those students, how they feel about the services and experiences they are getting, she writes.

Different teachers, schools and programming can make a world of difference, too. As parents, teachers and schools, it is up to us to stretch, not just demand that our children conform.


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