Archives before March 2018

The Impact of Ambassadors for Inclusion in Boston-Area Day Schools

December 7, 2017

Torah Academy

By Dina Feldman, General Studies Principal, Girls’ Division and Director of Student Support Services

Girl and boy in classroom using braille machineAt the elementary school level, students’ primary occupation is learning about themselves, their community and the world around them.  As they learn, each of their experiences molds their outlook on life, and this becomes the schema through which they connect future information and learning. That is why the Ambassadors for Inclusion/Understanding Our Differences Program is such an integral part of the educational experience we offer at Torah Academy.  It exposes our students to people who seem different than they are, and yet they soon come to realize that they are very much the same.  When disabilities are presented to them in an open, honest, engaging and hands-on fashion, our students are able to shape the way they will interact with those with disabilities for the rest of their lives.  And they are deepening understanding about themselves too.

In third grade, the Ambassadors for Inclusion/Understanding Our Differences Program teaches our students about deafness and visual impairments.  When learning firsthand about the challenges individuals face with these disabilities and after partaking in activities that simulate the disabilities, they develop an awareness of how complex these senses are and, in turn, develop a fuller appreciation of their own intact senses.  Because they are still young, children have not had the chance to develop skeptical associations with individuals with disabilities.  And because the guest speakers are candid, kind, and personable, students learn that they are more the same than different.

Take, for example, a Torah Academy fifth grade girl’s reflection after she heard from a woman with intellectual disabilities.  When asked, “What did you learn from her about people with intellectual disabilities?” she responded, “Their small differences do not affect their inside.”  Small. Inside. Given this particular student’s first exposure to people with intellectual disabilities, she has now developed an understanding that these differences are small.  And these differences are external.  She has been gifted with the perspective that we should all accept people on their inside and not judge them by their small differences.  When another student was asked whether or not she would play with someone with autism, with a look of bewilderment, she answered, “Why not?” 

Clearly, the Ambassadors for Inclusion/Understanding Our Differences program has done such a wonderful job of breaking down barriers and providing tools with which our students can interact with individuals with disabilities that this question doesn’t even make sense to them. After all, we are more the same than different. 


Jewish Community Day School and Maimonides School

By Pete Sperber, Social Worker, Jewish Community Day School and Katie Hillman, Social Worker, Maimonides School

Our day schools are exciting, innovative and engaging places. Yet, as educators, we are constantly pushing ourselves to ensure we provide as rich and well-rounded an education as we can in an effort to nurture our students’ thirst for knowledge.

As social workers in two of these day schools, we often challenge our students to look beyond themselves to be able to see and welcome everyone in our communities—both in school and beyond. Enter the Ambassadors for Inclusion/Understanding Our Differences program, through which we are able to introduce and expose our students to people living and working in their communities with physical, intellectual or other differences about which we are learning in our academic classes. For the student, it is a chance to not only learn about something, rather to learn from someone.

In a relatively short guided lesson, our students gain relatable, pertinent information, participate in hands-on experiences and have the opportunity to hear from and engage in conversation with a member of the broader community who lives with the differences they are learning about. Learning about blindness, for example, is no longer a topic that might seem removed from what students experience in their own lives, and becomes about a specific person and his/her capabilities, challenges and strategies for success.

There is little that piques a student’s interest more than a hands-on, personal experience, and there is no better way for an individual to truly understand our differences than through the AFI/UOD program. Without exception, our students eagerly await each unit and speak of the individuals they met for months and years afterwards. The AFI/UOD program has become one of the highlights of our year, and we are better schools and raise better graduates through providing and bearing witness to these experiences each year.

Epstein Hillel School

By Sarah Boland, Fourth Grade Teacher and Lea Winkler, Third Grade Teacher

Epstein Hillel School welcomed the Gateways program this fall for its second year.  Last year, Gateways came once to teach the third graders about deafness. This year it has expanded to four visits to our third through fifth graders.  Students have enjoyed sessions about deafness, physical disabilities and learning disabilities, and are looking forward to learning about blindness in January.  During the deafness program, students learned about the parts of the ear, had a chance to practice finger spelling and lip reading, and learned about assistive technology.  During the physical disabilities program, students tried to complete daily tasks with different limitations and practiced using a non-verbal communication board. During the learning disabilities program, students experienced what it is like having difficulties organizing, processing and remembering information.

Each of the visits ties directly to the curriculum we’re teaching at Epstein Hillel School.  The third graders are learning about sound and light in science, and the fourth and fifth graders read the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio, a book whose theme is embracing differences.  In our social curriculum, we spend time teaching about empathy.  Students learn how their own actions affect other people and how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. This also connects to our Judaic studies curriculum, where students learn about different ways Judaism teaches us to treat each other. 

The visits from Gateways allow students to apply what they’ve been learning in class and expand their understanding.  It gives them a chance to think about real life implications through participating in hands-on activities and hearing from guest speakers.  The speakers allow students to ask questions in a safe environment.  In the real world, children will often have questions about people who are different , and these sessions offer a forum where they can gain information in ways that heighten their sensitivity to the feelings of others.

Based on their pre-and post-surveys, students’  views on disabilities definitely changed from experiencing differences as something unknown and different to something they can understand and to which they can connect. Based on this snapshot, these sessions have achieved one of our main goals: enabling  our students to see beyond a person’s differences. We feel very lucky to benefit from partnering with Gateways to enrich our students’ educational and emotional learning experiences.


Investing in Disability Awareness Education

By Sharon Shapiro, Trustee and Director of the Boston Office, and Miriam Heyman, Ph.D Program Officer, Ruderman Family Foundation
December 6, 2017

Speaker addresses a classroom of childrenWe at the Ruderman Family Foundation (RFF) dream of a world in which full inclusion of people with disabilities is accepted, normal and legitimate.  We are guided by the principle that inclusion is not an issue of charity; rather it is one of social justice and civil rights.  Further, we believe that including people with disabilities will strengthen our institutions, our local communities and our broader society.  For example, from a financial perspective, we cannot afford to continue exclude people with disabilities from the labor force. The current unemployment rate of people with disabilities is approximately 70 percent, and the economic impact is devastating.  From the perspective of Jewish continuity, our synagogues, day schools, and Jewish summer camps must include the 20 percent of our population that has a disability.  To ignore their potential would be to lose the invaluable contributions of thousands of people. 

How do we build a world where those with disabilities are fully accepted? We at RFF believe that engaging the next generation is critical.  We must raise a generation of children who not only value inclusion, but view inclusion as natural and necessary.  These children will grow up to be the employers who recognize the value that people with disabilities bring to their companies.  They will be the educators who recognize the contributions that children with disabilities make within their classrooms.  And they will be the synagogue leaders who know how to make all people feel welcome in their congregations.  With the mindset of inclusion, these leaders will help our communities to thrive.

The Ambassadors for Inclusion (AFI) program is an amazing vehicle through which we aim to achieve our goals.  AFI is a disability awareness program that incorporates Jewish values, and is currently available to Jewish day and congregational school students in grades kindergarten through 12.  Through a curriculum called Understanding Our Differences, students gain in-depth knowledge about specific disabilities.  For example, during a unit on deafness, students learn about the anatomy of the ear and how hearing loss can occur.  Additionally, through the AFI program, people with disabilities visit classrooms to tell their stories.  The students interact with their visitors, ask questions, and ultimately experience disability as normative and as a form of diversity within the community. 

As students gain valuable perspectives, schools and classrooms are transformed into the welcoming and accepting environments that we dream of for all of our children.  And the result can be empowering for all.  One fifth grader with a disability who participated in the program was inspired to address her fellow students and teachers.  She said, “The Understanding Our Differences Gateways program was very inspiring because if total strangers could get up there and talk about their disabilities, then I could, too… I felt like my classmates and teachers walked away from my presentation with a better sense of what my disability is, how it affects me, and how they can continue to support me.”  We have no doubt that this girl and her classmates will carry these lessons with them.  When they grow up, they will enact the changes that we hope to see throughout all sectors of society.

AFI has experienced tremendous growth in recent years.  The program started out serving only those children in grades 3–5, and has now expanded to reach students across the elementary and secondary years.  AFI is also expanding outside of the Boston area to other cities in the Northeast, and we at RFF are thrilled to witness and be a part of this growth.  As we reach more and more children, the long-term impact will multiply exponentially.  Each child will grow up to lead by example in his or her own way and, thus, the effect on our society will be immeasurable. 


My Journey from Tikvah to Executive Director at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education

By Arlene Remz, Executive Director, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education
December 4, 2017

It was summer of 1977, and the Federal Special Education Law, the precursor to IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), had just been passed the previous year. Tikvah was still young (in its sixth year), with Herb and Barbara Greenberg at the helm, and I had just graduated college and was about to start a career in special education. I was thrilled to return to Ramah for my fourth summer, this time as a Tikvah counselor.

The Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England was the beginning of the complete intertwining of my professional path in special education with my involvement in the Jewish community. My personal story also got tied in, as that summer I met fellow Tikvah counselor Sandy Remz, whom I later married.

My vision and understanding of how campers with disabilities could be included in Jewish life and community was forged that exhilarating summer. It was in large part to the support and inspiration from fellow counselors who were working in special education and related fields, and from Herb and Barbara, who were trailblazers and extraordinary mentors.

I went on to become a special education teacher, first in Massachusetts and then in New York. Upon moving back to Massachusetts, I worked in special education research and curriculum development for 15 years. At the same time, my personal life revolved around the Jewish community. I was an active lay leader in several Jewish organizations, eventually serving as president of Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston.

About 15 years ago, my special education and Jewish paths merged again. I became the executive director of a small grassroots non-profit called Etgar L’Noar, a Hebrew school and b’nei mitzvah program for students with disabilities. Three years later, I led the merger of Etgar L’Noar with another small non-profit, the Jewish Special Education Collaborative, to found Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.

Gateways is now the central agency for Jewish special education in the Greater Boston area, providing Jewish educational programs, supports, and services to students with a wide range of disabilities in day schools, congregational schools, preschools, as well as our own Jewish educational program. We also provide professional development expertise, resources and consultation to educators in Boston and beyond.

The lessons I learned and the vision I established all those years ago as a Tikvah counselor continue to inform my work at Gateways. Through the years, I have collaborated closely with Tikvah, talking frequently with Howard Blas, referring staff, campers, and volunteers, and sharing resources. Gateways teen volunteers are often Ramah campers and counselors with experiences as Bogrim Buddies, Machon Helpers or Madrichim b’Nivonim [Nivonim MiNis]. Conversely, many Gateways teen volunteers have become Tikvah counselors.

Back in the summer of 1977, I could never have imagined that 40 years later my experiences as a Tikvah counselor would have such a profound impact on my life—but they did!

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The B’Yadenu Project: Opening the Doors of Day School Education to Diverse Learners

By David Farbman, Director, Gateways Center for Professional Learning
September 14, 2017

Receiving HandsGateways is in the position of providing learning support to students in Jewish day schools, and from our vantage point, we have seen a rising expectation among families to have their children who present with learning challenges retain access to a day school education. The problem is that too often educators in day schools lack the resources and skills to serve a broad range of learners. The desire to include these students is there; the capacity, however, is limited.

Five years ago, Gateways partnered with Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies to launch The B’Yadenu Project, with an ambitious theory of action. If we were to help day schools educate diverse learners, we needed first to help them pinpoint the gaps in their skills and knowledge that limit their ability to do so. Armed with this understanding, educators could then engage in a sustained course of professional development aimed at boosting capacity in those areas identified for improvement. Assuming effective professional development, teachers would be better able to differentiate instruction and promote a culture of inclusion. Day schools would be able to then live up to their ambition to open their doors to students with atypical learning needs. And, in the long run, the entire field of Jewish education would therefore be better positioned to serve more children.

The underlying purpose of B’Yadenu was to furnish schools with a structure to employ when engaging in what would inevitably be a drawn-out and complicated process of going from Point A to Points B and C and beyond.  To support schools along this journey, we determined we would develop a toolkit that would, on the one hand, offer educators a definitive path to undertake such complex change and, on the other, provide educators with enough flexibility that they could adapt the process to meet their specific needs. 

We knew we wanted the toolkit to take educators through the creation of a logic model so that they could set goals, optimize professional development to achieve those goals, and then install the data collection tools to gauge progress toward meeting them.  There would be no specific or narrow curriculum; rather, we would create  a process to help schools determine how best to move forward. Through the toolkit, we sought to emphasize the school-wide collaboration and the cultivation of teacher leadership that proved so essential to the work in the Boston-area schools.

We are pleased that, after several months of development—which, in turn, is based on years of experience working with schools through The B’Yadenu Project—we are able to provide this toolkit for free from our website to any school that desires to utilize it. Certainly, the toolkit, and the whole B’Yadenu process, is not a panacea: It is and, is merely a means to begin the hard work of reaching more learners. Nonetheless, we are confident that the project and the process it lays out has great potential to enable school leaders and educators to develop the clear-eyed vision and the strategic design they need in order to extend their own brand of educational excellence to ever more Jewish students.


The Blessing of Inclusion is in Our Hands

By Lisa Handelman, Community Disability Inclusion Specialist at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington
September 13, 2017

Child with picture symbol of Shabbat candlesThe Priestly Blessing, Birkat Kohanim, (Numbers 5:24-26) is aspirational: May God bless you and keep you. May God cause light to shine upon you and be gracious to you, May God turn towards you and grant you peace. 

From the biblical period and down to our own time, the ritual of bestowing this blessing, also known as Nesi’at Kapayim, the lifting of the hands, was meant to bless the entire community of Israel. Similarly, B’Yadenu, which means “in our hands,” strives towards the aspirational goal of including the full spectrum of diverse learners in all Jewish day schools.  The B’Yadenu Project seeks to enable this goal through training, providing resources, and by putting the responsibility to advance inclusion “in the hands” of individual schools and their local communities.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is committed to building a vibrant and welcoming Jewish community.  While we are blessed with Jewish day schools that strive to support students across the learning continuum, we acknowledge that we have not yet reached the goal of providing a quality Jewish education for every child.  With this aim in mind, we choose to partner with Gateways: Access to Jewish Education and Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) to bring the B’Yadenu Project to our Greater Washington community.

What attracted us to the B’Yadenu Project was the integration of the parallel ideas of individuation and collaboration. Schools would work both on their own and in partnership with each other to build their capacity to serve more diverse learners, and would do so within a well-laid out process. Whether in a school setting, a congregation or an entire community, the journey to become more inclusive involves self-reflection.  It involves changing attitudes and overcoming stigma.  It involves taking risks and a willingness to do things differently.  It involves an unyielding belief that inclusion creates a stronger school, a stronger congregation, a stronger community. 

The first stage of the B’Yadenu Project required an intensive process of self-reflection.  Four of our community’s days schools agreed to participate.  The B’Yadenu Project toolkit provided guidance, but left the details rightfully “in the hands” of each individual school.  B’Yadenu offers a whole-school approach, and each of the schools created a leadership team that includes general educators, specials educators, teachers and administrators.  The needs of all students and the hopes and dreams of the parent body were considered as each school determined the type of professional development that would best meet their requirements. While the destination may be similar, each school’s path looks quite different. To facilitate the journey, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington provided the financial resources, and each school also agreed to contribute from their professional development funds.

Since the B’yadenu Project was placed “in the hands” of our community, we decided to add a broader collaborative dimension. We formed a Community of Practice (CoP) that includes representatives from each of the participating schools, community Jewish education inclusion specialists (from MATAN and Sulam), myself as Federation’s Community Inclusion Specialist and professionals from Gateways.  In much the same way that including diverse learners strengthens an individual school, having a Community of Practice that incorporates a wide range of ideas and experiences, strengthens our local B’Yadenu project.  

The Priestly Blessing is recited in many communities on all major holidays, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Traditionally, clergy recite the blessing from under a tented prayer shawl with downcast eyes to blur the distinction between the kohanim and the congregation.  The entire community, regardless of rank, age, gender or ability is included.  Such a fully inclusive community is truly a blessing.   As we gather during this High Holiday season, let us continue in our efforts to create a more inclusive Jewish community. 

Lisa Handelman is the Community Disability Inclusion Specialist at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. If you are interested in learning more about The Jewish Federation’s disability inclusion resources and programs, visit or email