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Special-needs kids should be welcomed into Jewish tent

In this time of catchy slogans like “no child left behind,” inclusiveness can seem almost passé. And yet, as recent events show, within the Jewish community a critical need remains to help Jewish organizations include and embrace children with special needs and their families. 

As the main organization focused on ensuring a healthy Jewish community across all sectors of our diverse population, the San Francisco Jewish Federation has made reducing barriers to Jewish life one of our top priorities.

The controversy this summer around Camp Ramah in Canada, in which a blind boy was told the program could not accommodate his needs, is a poignant example of how much work lies ahead. Our community must continue to develop initiatives to ensure that all individuals and families are welcomed and that Jewish communal organizations have the knowledge, sensitivity and tools to meet varying needs.

The reasons are compelling. Research indicates that nearly 20 percent of the population has some type of disability or special need. This means there are 9,000 Jewish children with special needs or disabilities in our federation’s service area who are at risk of exclusion from specific activities at best, or life-long alienation from the Jewish community at worst. Many of our organizations are doing great work in this arena, but we still have so much more to do.

Attending Jewish summer camp, day school and synagogue religious school plays a key role in forming a strong Jewish identity for our children. When those initial introductions don’t go well, it can be jarring.

Such was the case with my daughter, who has given me permission to share her story. Many years ago, our synagogue’s religious school did not have the resources or the will (things have since changed) to address the needs of an anxious child with dyslexia and ADHD. Her experience was miserable. We had to pull her out of school, with no guidance as to how we could teach her Hebrew and help her feel at home in a synagogue so she could make her bat mitzvah like other Jewish children. Thankfully, we found help through Jewish Milestones, and today my daughter reads Hebrew fluently – and not only became a bat mitzvah but also chants Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur. Our synagogue now feels like a second home.

I am heartened by similar transformative stories, but am still greatly pained by the thousands of children who remain excluded from Jewish life because they require more support, flexibility and resources than many of our organizations can provide.

A child has fun in a Friendship Circle classroom. photo/courtesy of chabad.org

Our traditions compel us to ensure these 9,000 children have an opportunity to experience the richness of Jewish life and develop cherished memories. If we are to live up to our Jewish values, and ensure the continuity of the Jewish community in a way that reflects our true diversity, we must expand options for all children. The federation’s goal is to ensure that all local Jewish organizations are willing and able to accommodate children with special needs and their families.  Here are some of the ways we have begun to make a difference with our funding partners and dedicated collaborators:

• Providing financial support: The federation provides over $40,000 in grants to programs like Friendship Circle (South Peninsula) and Celebrations, which provide accessible Jewish learning and worship experiences (see story, 6). Additional funding to the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) supports the director of Special Needs Programs and Services, Dr. David Neufeld.

• Building capacity: We support the BJE and others to build the capacity of synagogues, day schools, and camps through professional development programs, adaptive curricula, and a tool kit designed for special needs learners.

• Fostering dialogue: We promote open and meaningful dialogue through ongoing events. These have included a full-day workshop for parents, educators and community members. In May, more than 80 educators convened to discuss early childhood programs, and the imperative to welcome and nurture children with special needs. The next event will take place this winter.

Camp Ramah is a well-respected institution, but sending home a visually impaired child demonstrated a lack of shared understanding and expectations among the family, camper and camp leadership, as well as a lack of awareness of what that represents to other families with special needs. We at the federation want Jewish families to feel welcome and connected, which is why we will do everything we can to reduce barriers to Jewish life, to convene and collaborate with a diverse community of stakeholders, and to fund programs and organizations that are working to create the type of inclusive community that our families deserve.

 

Jennifer Gorovitz is the CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, and Marin and Sonoma counties.