Yael Bendat Appell is  an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program. Yael currently runs the Hebrew and Judaic Studies Resource Program at the Sager Solomon Schechter Middle School in Northbrook, IL, and is passionate about making Jewish education accessible to all students. Yael can be reached at ybendat@gmail.com.

In this very space, Jonathan Woocher recently wrote about the future of Jewish education and asked this essential question: “How do we build on the positive achievements of recent years to make it not just possible, but nearly certain that every Jewish young person and adult will have rich, meaningful, and impactful Jewish educational experiences…” 

Even more recently, an article entitled “City Pushes Shift for Special Education” appeared in the New York Times. The article described a shift in New York City’s approach to educating students with diverse learning needs; many students who previously were sent to self-contained learning environments are now being sent to regular schools to allow these students to benefit from a typical classroom setting. The article stated: “This is fundamentally looking to change the way kids with special needs are treated in the city—they’re talking about changing the culture of all schools in the city so that they can serve students that many of them were previously shipping out…”

I can’t help but think about the striking relevance of this statement to Jewish education. Moreover, I would argue that in the context of Jewish education, the stakes are much higher. The article refers to shipping children out of schools. We, the Jewish community, instead of shipping our children out to just another school, have been shipping our children out of Jewish life. Think back to the op-ed by R. Dov Linzer and Devorah Zlochower, published only last November in The Jewish Week. In it, they, two prominent religious and Jewish educational leaders, courageously pleaded with the Jewish community to rethink its approach to individuals with special needs. Their argument was simple but painful: Our organizational structures exclude individuals with special needs, and their families, from partaking in Jewish life. In fact, they went so far as to say that their own family was essentially being cut out of the Jewish community.

With all of the very pressing and legitimate stresses on our schools and educational leaders, it is no wonder that this has not been a top communal priority. Even the New York Times article stated that: “Some special education advocates and principals worry that the changes could be too difficult for principals with little knowledge of special education, who are already strained by day-to-day issues and impending budget cuts”. Financial pressures are very prominent in the Jewish day school community, which, coupled with the academic demands of the dual curriculum, make the challenge of addressing diverse learning needs even greater.

And yet, as a Jewish educator and a special educator, I believe that there is currently an emerging awareness that is gaining momentum. More and more, people now realize that not only is Jewish identity a right that we should bestow on all our young people, but also that individuals with learning disabilities, attention deficits and other special needs have brilliance and insight and talent that our world, and our Jewish community, needs.

If we are standing at a turning point in Jewish education, as Jonathan Woocher’s article tempted me to believe, then we must ensure that the re-visioning of Jewish education includes this awareness of the diverse needs and lost treasures of our community. 

In April, I was privileged to attend the GISHA (Good Ideas Supporting Hebrew Access) conference at Hebrew College (organized in great part by WGF alum Scott Sokol). This conference, in its second year, addressed the difficult question of how to teach Hebrew to students with diverse learning needs. I commend Hebrew College for taking the lead in organizing around this issue and for trying to increase awareness and momentum on this front. With over 160 participants from schools and synagogues across the country, this conference, along with other special education Initiatives at Hebrew College, represent major positive developments. And yet, as can only be expected in the fledgling years of such an innovative program, among the conference participants was a feeling of camaraderie of well-intentioned educators who work mostly alone to address a very pressing challenge without a coherent, systemic approach.

One of Woocher’s proposed answers to his question about the re-visioning of Jewish education was “…a rethinking of what it takes to create a truly excellent Jewish educational system for the 21st century. The key word is ‘system’…Instead, we have…largely siloed domains…” We desperately need to be talking to each other. We need to be developing systems that incorporate all of our best ideas and values, and that allow us to learn from each other’s wisdom and experience on this very issue. We need to be communally redefining our goals for Jewish education and rebuilding our institutions to reflect those very goals. 

If a potential shift in Jewish education is indeed nearing, we must ensure beforehand that the vision for Jewish education includes all of our children. Woocher ended his article with this question: “What will drive this change? People ready to join forces across traditional boundaries to push our current institutions to think and act more boldly and expansively…Anyone interested?” One answer, is: Yes, me.