“We all have chapters we would rather keep unpublished.” These words were said by Lord Grantham on one of my favorite television shows, “Downton Abbey.” And I am no exception.
Recently a friend asked me why I have an interest in inclusion, my professional and volunteer passion project in the world of Jewish education locally and in Israel. She assumed it was because I have a child with a disability. In that moment I wondered if I should be truthful. Was this the time to be an open book?
I answered, “That would be kinder than the real reason I dedicate my life to supporting the Jewish education of students of all abilities.” I admitted this out loud in a mortified sort of way.
Because I, at that moment, admitted out loud that I had the tendency to slip into an ableist mindset from the front of my Hebrew School classroom. As a Hebrew School teacher, it was my job to follow the essence of Proverbs 22:6, “Train a child according to their way…” On the contrary, years ago as a novice teacher, I believed deep in my kishkas that I lived to train my students according to my own way. It was my way or the highway. My way was to finish a thought, uninterrupted by a student who could not keep it in their thought bubble. My way was to control my classroom, free from an annoying tapping pencil on a desk or a foot on the floor of the child who does not have the ability to control their own movements. It was my way or the highway.
Ableism, a more recent word I have become aware of, is discrimination against people with a disability and in favor of “able-bodied” individuals. Years ago, I expected all students to be able to toe the line during Hebrew reading. All students should be able to sit and listen to me. All students should be able to not inconvenience me.
I feel ashamed because my former students’ Jewish education was a victim of my ego and lack of empathy. There is a student I kicked out of class for moving her chair and desk loudly over and over through the course of a lesson. I still see her parent on a regular basis and feel self-conscious. There is another student who I got reassigned to another class because he interrupted and asked too many questions. He is living and working in Milwaukee and when I see him, I pray he doesn’t recognize me.
So you may be wondering, how I made a complete 180 from the ableist mindset of a Hebrew School teacher to the inclusive mindset of the Kesher Inclusion Specialist at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Coalition for Jewish Learning. I can thank a 6-year-old.
The lightbulb aha moment was about six years ago. I was working as the head of a synagogue school. At Shabbat services one Saturday morning, I noticed a first grader I had never seen before. When I asked his mom about the child, she said he was a public-school student, in my head the perfect candidate for our synagogue’s school. Mom tried to put a halt to the conversation by saying we couldn’t meet her son’s special needs. Without hesitation I said, “of course we can.”
I’m not sure what caused my split-second shift in mindset, but that was the moment my life path changed course. My inner compass found a new direction. My heart became devoted to serving each child in Milwaukee.
I am making amends every day. I fight for the right for a Jewish education for each child in our community. I am their voice, their advocate, their cheerleader. I am a partner and support to parents and teachers. I strive to fill each role with all my energy and spirit.
February is JDAIM, Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month. I use this public confession as a way to make our community aware of the varying Jewish educational needs of our students of all abilities. I am fortunate to work with the synagogue teachers and heads of schools who make it a priority to go above and beyond to meet the needs of all our students. A todah raba (thank you) to all in our community who work on awareness and inclusion.