Archives in September 2018

Envisioning Inclusive Schools

By David Farbman and Daniel Chiat
September 14, 2018

For decades, Jewish schools and congregational educational programs have grappled with how to include children who have atypical learning needs, including those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders, social-emotional challenges (such as anxiety or depression) or language-based learning disabilities. In an era when Jews are increasingly disassociating from organized Jewish life, our schools must do everything possible to ensure any and all children (and, in turn, their families) have full access to Jewish culture, ritual and experience. In short, Jewish continuity depends on inclusion.

Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, the central agency for Jewish special education in Boston and a provider of professional development in inclusion and tailored instruction to meet individual student needs around the country, recently partnered with Measuring Success, a research and consulting firm with survey expertise in the education sector, to conduct a national assessment of the field in order to better understand Jewish schools’ inclusion challenges.

Responses by Organizational Type

The “Inclusion in Jewish Education” survey anonymously asked school leaders and professionals how they currently support diverse learners, and what curricular and professional development opportunities could help them improve. Measuring Success distributed the survey instrument via email and online. Responses were received from nearly 200 leaders from Jewish educational institutions of various sizes across North America.

Over half of the responses came from the top professional (e.g., head of school, education director) of the organization, and the rest were from a mix of other administrators, board members, clergy and teachers. Measuring Success also conducted telephone interviews to complement the written survey. This article summarizes findings from Jewish day schools (JDSs) and supplementary (religious) schools.

Jewish Day Schools: A Growing Commitment to Inclusion

The survey found that Jewish day schools are taking the challenges of inclusion very seriously. A vast majority of JDSs (88 percent) prioritize providing access to diverse learners, defined as “effectively serving a wide range of learners by proactively offering professional development and implementing school systems.” Additionally, 92 percent of survey respondents reflect this commitment by indicating that professional staff are motivated to reach inclusion-related goals, and 83 percent express a desire to proactively engage field experts to offer professional development to their staff around educating diverse learners.

While these responses are encouraging, day schools may not be aiming high enough: Only 16 percent say that their entire faculty participates in ongoing training to maintain current knowledge and a repertoire of strategies to address a range of needs. Research indicates that teachers require at least 15 hours of quality professional development per year to appreciably strengthen practice. In the absence of consistent commitment to learning, how much growth can truly take place?

In the Inclusion survey, most school leaders stated that they want professional development to provide strategies to strengthen inclusion practices within individual classrooms and teach them how to support students with more significant learning needs. Further, nearly half of schools are eager to engage with field experts to provide schoolwide programming that fosters the value of inclusion, such as disability awareness curricula and activities.

In a time of stretched budgets, what resources can we reasonably expect schools to commit to inclusion efforts? In both the written responses and in conversations, survey respondents indicated that day schools have a track record of committing money to achieve inclusion-related goals. Further, they remain willing to do so in the future. Notably, nearly two-thirds indicated in the affirmative when asked if their school has access to all or most of the funding needed to achieve their inclusion goals.

Supplementary School Findings: A Long Road Ahead

Supplementary schools prioritize and carry out inclusion initiatives with less intensity than their day school counterparts. Given their reliance on part-time teachers whose educational training varies, most respondents stated that their organizations engage in limited professional and curriculum development or organizational assessment. A minority of supplementary schools represented in the survey (20 percent) give some level of training related to diverse learners to all of their faculty. Moreover, a sizable segment of supplementary school respondents (40 percent) rate their current approach to serving students with diverse learning needs as largely non-existent, or ad hoc at best.

Despite the current state of affairs, there is an appetite for improvement. The vast majority (90 percent) of supplementary school leaders indicate that they would like all of their teachers to have some familiarity with differentiated instruction to address the needs of diverse learners. Further, 75 percent of schools express a strong desire to build a more holistic approach to inclusion. Presently 56 percent of respondent schools engage in some form of professional development with outside experts.

One notable trend suggesting that educators are being proactive in addressing the needs of atypical learners is qualitative evidence suggesting a growing number of schools that have hired a staff member specifically dedicated to inclusion. Further, even though supplementary schools (as compared to day schools) manage with smaller budgets and less available time, they may be able to leverage the flexibility of their curricula and educational model to allow for more creative solutions to reach atypical learners.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The Inclusion in Jewish Education survey illustrates that the field of Jewish education demonstrates a meaningful commitment to the inclusion of diverse learners. However, there is still much room to improve. Two specific data points suggest where this growth can occur.

  • Within the day school community more than 80 percent of schools state that they have no commitment to ongoing, whole-school professional development around inclusion. Raising the number of schools that do engage in these more intensive efforts can dramatically and positively impact teachers’ capacity to better educate all learners.
  • Four in ten supplementary schools admit to engaging in essentially no effort to include a broad range of learners. This means that a significant number of students are likely not being adequately served by Jewish educational institutions.

Addressing these twin issues – both of which relate to capacity-building – requires schools to channel their expressed commitment to inclusion into demonstrable action. Often, the institutions themselves find it difficult to generate this action from within because they are challenged to see beyond what they already know and practice. Therefore, day and supplementary schools can turn to external partners to assist them in educating faculty and administrators about the intricacies of inclusion and differentiated instruction.

To have a real impact, the support from experts must go beyond simply providing tips and tidbits of information. They should work in partnership with schools to reflect deeply on school culture and practice, motivate educators and administrators to make changes as needed, organize school staff to meet these new commitments and set institutions forward on a new path of including all learners.

Clearly, developing such partnerships requires complex work and demands a significant investment of time and money. Yet, if the field of Jewish education intends to live out the principle of valuing every human being equally, this is the difficult work we must do together to build the kind of institutions and programs that reflect our highest values and ensure that every child has access to the traditions and teachings of our faith.

To join this conversation – whether you’re an educator, administrator, lay leader or consultant – please email

David Farbman is Senior Director of Education, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.
Daniel Chiat is Vice President at Measuring Success.

This article originally appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy.


Embracing Inclusion During the High Holidays

By Judy Bolton Fasman for Jewish Boston
September 14, 2018

Two people holding hands across a table

This High Holiday season Jews across the world will come together in synagogues and temples to welcome the New Year. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are among the holiest times on the Jewish calendar, and it’s the season to make sure everyone can participate in their own way. There are primers and High Holiday companion booklets that help people to find meaning in observance and prayer. Just as important are toolkits and other resources to include all people in the High Holiday experience.

In a recent conversation with JewishBoston, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, an organization that “fights stigmas and advances opportunities for people with disabilities,” talked about her experiences at High Holiday services as the parent of a child with a disability. “My child behaves differently than other children,” she said. “One time on Yom Kippur was one of those times my child was behaving differently. Congregants complained and we were asked to leave.”

Arlene Remz, executive director of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, noted in an email exchange with JewishBoston: “Nobody comes to synagogue with the goal of annoying the people around them. So give people the benefit of the doubt and presume that everybody’s doing the best they can. If somebody is disrupting your experience, assume they don’t have the tools they need to express themselves.”

To welcome everyone into the synagogue, RespectAbility has created a “High Holiday Disability Tool Kit for Synagogue Professional Staff, Lay Leadership & Volunteers.” The 47-page booklet covers topics that include terminology, alternative seating arrangements, sensory calming room and usher tips. An important takeaway for this High Holiday season is that words matter. Remz explained that using “people-first language” is paramount when addressing a person with a disability or writing about inclusion.

Language matters a lot,” agreed Laszlo Mizrahi. “The best thing is to call someone by their name. Someone who has Down syndrome is not their disability. A person is not a wheelchair user but someone who uses a wheelchair. People first. Ask someone their preferred way to be called and you’ll find that most of the time it is by their name versus their label.”

RespectAbility’s toolkit offers a similar lesson. Laszlo Mizrahi and her team provide a helpful list of dos and don’ts when addressing a person with a disability. The list of don’ts is particularly illuminating for someone who is well intentioned but may not know the appropriate vocabulary to address a person with a disability.

Do not use:

  • “Disabled person”
  • “Confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair bound” (a wheelchair enables people to get around and participate in society; it’s liberating, not confining)
  • “Blind/deaf person” or “deaf and dumb”
  • Euphemistic terms such as “physically challenged”

Remz and Laszlo Mizrahi offer advice to clergy, congregants and people with a disability to prepare for a meaningful High Holiday experience. Since most of us are congregants during the High Holidays, Remz encourages us not to be the person giving someone “that look” when a congregant or their children are being disruptive. “This, more than anything else,” said Remz, “makes people with disabilities and their families feel unwelcome. Smile, go up to people and introduce yourself.”

The women noted that clergy can work in tandem with ushers who are the people “on the ground.” Ushers are usually the first to greet a congregant, and clergy has a role in “helping them set up a scenario,” said Laszlo Mizrahi. “Clergy should go through a checklist with ushers about everything from wheelchair access to pointing out the accessible restroom.”

Remz asserted that a person with a disability or parent who has a child with a disability might want “to go over what to expect. Talk about last year’s services; look at a video of a High Holiday service. Some synagogues keep videos of their past services on their websites or YouTube. Write a social story about what to expect this coming year.”

Laszlo Mizrahi observed that it’s important to recognize that the majority of disabilities are invisible. “When people think about disability, they say, ‘I’m going to look for the individual who is blind or uses a wheelchair,’” she said. “For the majority of people who have a disability, it is not apparent. They can have chronic pain and illnesses or have mental health issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that one out of every four adults has a disability. People with disabilities are discriminated against, but disability doesn’t discriminate against groups. Every demographic is impacted by disability.”

Added Remz: “Synagogues embrace so many forms of diversity: age, gender, religious background, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic status. Understand that disability is just another one of the magnificent manifestations of human diversity, and embrace it.”


This article originally appeared on