As we prepare for “back to school,” we need to grapple with a crucial recurrent question: Where will kids with special needs be educated, how will they fit into existing frameworks, and beyond that how will they develop into integral and valued members of our community? A breakout program in Boston has demonstrated in five brief years that every Jewish child can have a quality Jewish education within existing schools. In fact, more than 500 special-needs children will be learning inside no less than 12 of Boston’s Jewish schools this year, a remarkable feat. It took much work and new funding approaches, but the model bears special relevance for the New Jersey Jewish community.
Continuing the conversationâ€¦ Like many of us, summer vacation provided me the opportunity to visit relatives seldom seen during the year. One highlight this summer was at a family gathering, seeing my 5-year-old son energetically playing with his cousin, also 5. The two are so alike. They swim, ride bikes, play on the jungle gym, and do all the things that 5-year-olds do. They are alike in every way, except that my nephew has autism, and this lone fact means his life will never be the same as my son’s. They will grow up differently, interact with others differently, and may even go to different kinds of schools. It doesn’t have to be that way. My nephew is a Jewish child, just like my son, and deserves the right to quality Jewish education like all Jewish children. Today in Boston that opportunity exists.
Over the last five years the Ruderman Family Foundation has partnered with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston to create a program that enables students with special needs to attend almost every one of the many Jewish day schools in the Boston area. This unique partnership has also fostered the creation of Gateways, a community-wide organization that provides support and resources to any special-needs child who wishes to receive a Jewish education in a Jewish day school or supplemental program in our community. Not only has this program allowed the nearly 15 percent of students identified as having special needs the ability to receive a Jewish education, but it has increased the range of special needs addressed in the schools and dramatically improved their quality. In addition to training scores of participating teachers, 65 volunteers are now equipped to play an active support role.
Not only is this a breakthrough in education, serving special-needs students across the community from Orthodox to pluralistic schools, but it has pioneered a new model of effective philanthropy at a time the Jewish community has been rocked by a severely weakened economy, the Madoff scandal, and so much more. By focusing the majority of our giving in one area, our foundation has made a tremendous impact in our community. We have also found a true partner in our federation, CJP, which welcomed us in this initiative. CJP brought its professionalism to the table and allowed us to more fully develop our mission. At a time when funders are seeking a deeper impact for their philanthropic investment, community leaders in New Jersey should take a hard look at this new paradigm of partnership philanthropy.
Special-needs children are our children. There is hardly a family that doesn’t have or know a special-needs child, grandchild, niece, nephew, cousin, or neighbor’s or friend’s child. Statistics confirm that one in every 150 children born in the United States has autism. Currently, 14 percent of the children in America are defined as special-needs children. As Jews, we have the obligation to care for all the children in our community. We all know that Jewish education is critical if we want our children to grow up to be strong members of our community. All of our children, regardless of their situation in life, should have the opportunity to learn the beauty of our religion and heritage.
The success of the special-needs initiative in Boston is demonstrable, but it doesn’t have to be unique to our community. I urge Jewish communities across the United States to learn about what we have created in Boston and seek to replicate it in their own communities. My nephew should have the opportunity to have a Jewish education in the school of his family’s choice, even if he lived in New Jersey.