Special Needs in Jewish Education: Making a Start, After 80 Years

This Editorial is from the newest volume of the Journal of Jewish Education: Special Needs and Inclusion in Jewish Education

By Alex Pomson

In the more than 80 years that the Journal of Jewish Education and its predecessor Jewish Education have been published, this is the first time that a special issue of the Journal has brought together articles specifically concerned with the phenomenon of special needs and inclusion in Jewish education. The four articles collected here help lay the foundations for research and practice in a field that has been gaining ever more attention and is surely set to grow in coming years. Some of the features that these articles share help sketch the contours of what such growth might address and with what questions it might be concerned.

Unlike earlier literature in this field, surveyed most recently by Novick and Glanz (2011 Novick, R. M., & Glanz, J. (2011). Special education: “And you shall do that which is right and good …” Jewish special education in North America: From exclusion to inclusion. In H. Miller, L. D. Grant, & A. Pomson (Eds.), International handbook of Jewish education (pp. 10211040). Dordecht, The Netherlands: Springer.[CrossRef]), these four articles devote only limited space to making a case for why Jewish values call for (more) attention to learners with special needs. That was a case made even in the recent past, for example, by Glanz (2008 Glanz, J. (2008). The ethics of exclusion: Pedagogical, curricular, leadership, and moral imperatives for inclusive practice in Jewish schools. New York, NY: The Azrieli Graduate School for Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University–The Azrieli Papers.) and by Prouser (2011 Prouser, O. H. (2011). Esau’s Blessing. How the Bible embraces those with special needs. Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press.). It seems that today apologetics or even advocacy are no longer the most pressing order of business. It is not that the importance of providing a meaningful Jewish education to all learners, whatever their cognitive and emotional needs, is no longer contested; sadly, it still is. But perhaps there is little original to contribute to the case for why to do so. It is more pressing to figure out how to do so.

If making the case for more robust attention to the special needs of learners is not the primary order of the day, agreeing on the terminology used to describe those served by such an effort evidently is. Most of the authors whose work is shared in this special issue take pains to clarify who they see as the learners-in-view. Terminology in the broader field has evolved, and the authors make sure to integrate their own inquiries within the evolving concepts of a changing field and the values reflected by those concepts.

Novick and Salomon use the term diverse learners. They refer to “those students … identified as benefitting from special support services,” while recognizing that “all learners are diverse and all benefit from good teaching and support.” Shefter, Uhrman, Tobin, and Kress follow the 1975 Americans with Disabilities Act in defining an individual with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity …”; and yet, ultimately, they use different language, now accepted by professionals in the field, referring instead to neuro-typical and neuro-atypical students and campers. Olson straddles these debates by exploring the attitudes of what he calls “neuro-typical staff” toward “people with disabilities.”

If the terminology and definitions are in flux, then, as I have already indicated, the central concerns of these four articles is not. They are focused on what is surely a fundamental question for the field: How can this population – however named – be more effectively served, in schools, in camps and, indirectly, through teacher or professional education? Uhrman poses this question most directly in a qualitative study of the parents of children with a disability and the educational decisions they make in relation to day school education. The study’s sweep is broad, probing the interplay between parents’ experiences and their identities as Jewish adults and parents, and as parents of a child with a disability. Ultimately, the article’s focal point comes to rest on the question of to what extent schools can accommodate, practically and philosophically, children with different degrees of disability, and what it would take for them to be both more inclusive and more sensitive to families’ Jewish concerns in relation to their children. One of Urhman’s conclusions is that educators need to be better informed about students’ and their families’ learning and Jewish needs, and the best possible options for addressing them.

In practical fashion, this issue of the Journal starts the work of addressing that suggestion. Olson’s article is specifically concerned with documenting the ways in which Jewish overnight summer camps integrate people with disabilities, and the attitudes that shape their policies and practices. At the same time, his article begins with an important overview of current opportunities available for young adults with disabilities in nonformal Jewish communal institutions, especially within synagogues and Jewish community centers. His article then continues with a short, but equally valuable, history of vocational programming at Jewish summer camps. As he indicates, stories of what has been done and what is possible have not been widely told until now. His account helps parents and educators be much more informed about their options. The central finding in his article is also one of great practical importance, confirming a claim made by Baglieri and Shapiro (2012 Baglieri, S., & Shapiro, A. (2012). Disability studies and the inclusive classroom: Critical practices for creating least restrictive attitudes. New York, NY: Routledge.), that attitudes toward disability held by those who work most closely with people with disabilities can have tremendous impact on the way others in a particular society view disability. He shows vividly how even with the best of intentions, “viewing people with disabilities as lacking culture is likely to lead to increased negative attitudes towards people with disability and limit their ability to flourish in the workplace and in society more generally.”

Olson’s conclusion about the mutually reinforcing relationship between attitudes and practices provides a bridge from Novick and Salomon’s article and its interest in attitudes to disability among the participants in a graduate-level teacher education program. The starting point for the program in which both authors teach, and which they have submitted to their own systematic inquiry in this article, is that the inculcation of positive attitudes regarding diverse learners is as critical for effective educational provision as is the development of pedagogical skills. Novick and Salomon experiment with analyzing students’ contributions to an online course discussion board. This methodology helps them capture the mix of attitudes that educators bring with them into the classroom: an appreciation that what benefits diverse learners in the classroom can benefit all learners; concerns about the demands that inclusion places on the teacher, especially in Jewish educational settings; and worries that typical learners may be adversely affected by investment in meeting the needs of students with disabilities. As the authors point out, this is a weighty mix of concerns to address, and is not one that they as instructors typically have enough time and opportunity to ponder in relation to their own practice. Their article models their own self-reflection and offers signposts for other teacher educators interested in shifting their own and their students’ attitudes.

The starting point for the last article by Shefter et al. is also a concern with educators; the growing number of individuals who serve as Inclusion Coordinators in Jewish summer camps. Much of the data for the article comes from the participants in a Community of Practice for such individuals being facilitated by the authors of the article. The Inclusion Coordinators serve as valuable informants about the extent to which camps are currently able to meet the needs of neuro-atypical campers. Again, the gap between good intentions and effective practice proves a challenge. Inclusion Coordinators, when hired, have been recruited to camps to help develop staff’s capacity to meet the needs of diverse campers, and yet because the Coordinators constitute such a valuable human resource to camps, they are increasingly called to intervene in camp crises or help address all problem behaviors. These demands leave the coordinators with less time to attend to their primary responsibility, that is, elevating camp practice through their work with counselors and staff in general.

Shefter et al.’s article concludes with a discussion of the ways in which Jewish educational research can serve as an important resource for this field. As the authors put it: “By sharing best practices, and identifying and evaluating models of institutional and cultural change, the research community can strengthen the work on the ground and offer informed thought leadership and practical guidance to camp professionals.” These aspirations also capture well the intent behind this special issue of the Journal of Jewish Education, even if this issue constitutes only a small start. Looking forward, there are important tasks for researchers and for educators. If the articles here have concentrated on documenting practices, and on probing attitudes among educators, then future research must surely try to fill two visible gaps in the field: first, by studying practices, and not only attitudes that make a difference for learners with disabilities engaged in Jewish experiences and Jewish leaning; second (and perhaps even more important), by providing an opportunity to hear the voices of neuro-atypical learners in Jewish educational settings. The authors of these four articles express such aspirations themselves while highlighting the challenges to be expected in doing so. There is much work to be done. It is unlikely we will wait a further 80 years for the Journal to devote special attention to this important work.

References

  • Baglieri, S., & Shapiro, A. (2012). Disability studies and the inclusive classroom: Critical practices for creating least restrictive attitudes. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Glanz, J. (2008). The ethics of exclusion: Pedagogical, curricular, leadership, and moral imperatives for inclusive practice in Jewish schools. New York, NY: The Azrieli Graduate School for Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University–The Azrieli Papers.
  • Novick, R. M., & Glanz, J. (2011). Special education: “And you shall do that which is right and good …” Jewish special education in North America: From exclusion to inclusion. In H. Miller, L. D. Grant, & A. Pomson (Eds.), International handbook of Jewish education (pp. 10211040). Dordecht, The Netherlands: Springer.[CrossRef]
  • Prouser, O. H. (2011). Esau’s Blessing. How the Bible embraces those with special needs. Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press.
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