A call for ‘inclusion’

A call for ‘inclusion’

The current notion of correcting a flaw in the yeshiva system through communal participation in the tuition crisis strikes a chord. It triggers long-standing feelings I have regarding deep changes that need to be made in the yeshiva world, specifically about our failure to consistently provide opportunities for “inclusion” to our students with special needs.

In legal terms, “inclusion” is a best-practice initiative that began in the early ’90s, with the reauthorization of special education legislation (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA), charging schools with providing “A Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE)” to all students within the “least restrictive environment.” Extensive research supports the academic and social emotional benefits of inclusion.

Compare the willingness to take on the charge of “education for all” by public schools to the responses by our local yeshivot. Many students with mild to severe learning/attention deficits are appropriately placed within general education classrooms in neighborhood schools. They receive IEP mandated supports, services, and accommodations without compromising their own needs or the education of typical or gifted students. In dramatic contrast, the responses of yeshiva administrators, when faced with this charge, are often disappointing and defensive.

It hurts to live in two contrasting worlds. On the one hand, public schools, which answer to state and federal legislation, “religiously” adhere to inclusion mandates to ensure that “No Child is Left Behind.” It would seem that yeshivot, which answer to “a higher authority” and are directed by Torah mandates, would meet the same standard of “religious” compliance. Ironically, at a time when high-level Torah education is at its zenith and the majority of our children go on to study in Israel, only a small portion of our special-needs youth have access to these same opportunities. We can no longer close our eyes to this flaw.

I applaud Sinai and yeshivot that have made efforts to provide pull-out resource centers, self-contained classrooms, schools within a school, and modified opportunities for inclusion. Yet these advances are inconsistent; when challenges arise, these programs are the first to go. I also appreciate the validity of arguments associated with lack of funds, professional expertise, and time. However, there is no legitimacy to the practice of discarding children by making value judgments and selecting one child over another. These disenfranchised children feel undervalued and disrespected as members of our community. The message of indifference generated through these responses is difficult to bear.

The cases that come my way, through referrals as a professional in the field, bear testimony to the tragic outcome of these selections. We must think long and hard before we decide which Jewish child is deserving of a yeshiva education and which child is to be discarded and sent off to public schools. We must question practices that limit special programs, paraprofessionals, and other accommodations because of misperceptions that they give an unfair edge to special-needs youth or lend the impression of a special-education setting. In making these judgments that put a halt to a child’s ability to become all that he or she was meant to be, we are no better than the worst masters of selection of the past generation.

We must be mindful of the great risks we take when we close our doors and give up Jewish souls to public schools. When a parent pleads to have his child admitted to a local yeshiva, “No” should never be the first reply. “We’ll try to find a way” is the only acceptable response.

Yeshiva administrators and teachers can no longer ignore practices that originated in our most precious resource, our Torah. The Torah teaches us that each individual is created B’tzelem Elokim – in the image of God, assigned a specific task in life, and afforded the competencies consistent with that “tafkid” (mission). HaShem, our master Creator, and teachers taught us so much about education. It is important that Torah educators “practice what they teach.”

It was HaShem who first established the paradigm for inclusion and set the standard for supporting the needs of the handicapped through modifications and special techniques. It was HaShem who focused on Moshe’s competencies, in choosing him as leader of our nation, and then supported his fluency issue through the assignment of Aharon as his paraprofessional/spokesman. It was HaShem who repeated and reinforced the Torah teachings for 40 days, so that Moshe could learn at his own pace. It was HaShem who empowered Moshe to use his strengths, compensate for his weaknesses, and reach his God-given potential. It was HaShem who showed us by example the heights students can reach through supportive and creative educational techniques. Can we as mortals do any less for our own students?

The reality of “responsible inclusion” within our yeshivot can occur only through the collaboration of our rabbinic, yeshiva, and lay communities. Lakewood delayed the opening of high schools for girls until every student secured a spot. Let us follow this courageous example and join together in supporting Torah education for all.