By Guest Blogger Renee Rubin Ross Ph.D., Program Officer, Jim Joseph Foundation
The recent Network for Research in Jewish Education conference (held this summer in Newton, MA) was bookended by two presentations on special needs in Jewish education. The opening plenary included researchers and practitioners, including Howard Blas, the director of the Tikveh Program at Camp Ramah, Don Wertleib, Korman Visiting Distinguished Professor of Special Education and Director of the Hebrew College Inclusive Education Roundtable (HIER), and New York University doctoral student Abigail Uhrman, whose dissertation research explores parents’ experiences advocating for their children with special needs. At the end of the conference, a spotlight session explored special needs in Jewish education in the Boston area, including Gateways: Access to Jewish Education‘s advocacy and professional development work, and Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ (CJP) support of Boston-area Jewish day schools working to intensify their cultures of inclusion.
There were several key takeaways. First, all Jewish institutions, educational and otherwise, are now under pressure to be inclusive toward youth with special needs. Why? As Alan Oliff, CJP’s Director of the Initiative for Day School Excellence, shared, the public school special education population has grown from 3.5 million in 1977 to almost 6 million currently. Schools have been accommodating students with special needs on an individual basis (usually spurred on by a determined parent) since the 1970s or before. Now, public schools are including students with special needs in a more systemic manner; this may include professional development for all teachers and an overall culture of inclusion. As parents see that public schools are able to do this, they expect the same for Jewish education. The CJP B’Yadenu initiative, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Ruderman Family Foundation, is one attempt to provide Jewish day schools with the training and resources to more systemically include special needs students.
Second, until now there has been little research on special needs in Jewish education. The assignment during the plenary was to suggest two research questions that would be worth exploring. Our knowledge is so limited at this point that one valuable direction would be to scan the field (for example, the kind of information that JData is collecting in some communities) to better understand policies and practices towards special needs in Jewish education.
Lastly, these conversations provided an opportunity to consider how Jewish tradition informs our responsibility to work towards more inclusive educational structures. Ramah is an instructive example: the Tikveh program is so embedded in some Ramah camps that campers learn that a Jewish community is one that is inclusive of people with disabilities. It is worth reflecting on how more educational institutions might bring this vision of an inclusive Jewish community to life.
— Renee Rubin Ross