The school year is well underway, despite the start-and-stop feeling created by the chagim. The fall is often a time when the Jewish community comes back together; old school friends are reunited, many hours are spent at shul and at Yom Tov meals, and the rest of the year is before us.
For many families, though, the start of the school year is a time when they feel disconnected from the community. These are families for whom the smiling back-to-school photo barrage on Facebook and Instagram is a painful reminder that their child is not donning a uniform or joining the neighborhood carpool this year. There are many reasons why, but it seems that every year there is a significant number of Jewish children in our community who are not attending Jewish schools.
When parents make the often difficult decision to not send a child to yeshiva or day school, it’s generally due to some type of learning difference. Sometimes parents find a public or private school that addresses their child’s disability or learning style; sometimes they homeschool to tailor their child’s education to their specific needs. Finding alternative ways to educate a child in general studies is usually the priority when investigating schooling options.
Once parents find a school that they hope will meet their child’s general education needs, they usually seek a way to provide an alternative Jewish education. I speak to many parents in this situation who ask me what they can do to help their child keep on track with other frum peers. This can be very challenging, especially in the case of a child with a disability that impacts his/her learning. Often parents are thinking about specific skills that they see their child losing. The logical thing might seem like hiring private tutors or rebbeim to work with their child for as many hours as they can. While in some cases this might work to address the issue of the sheer quantity of limudei kodesh the children might be missing, there’s an important component that is left out – community.
Private tutoring can be effective in gaining skills, but the value of learning in a group setting cannot be overlooked. The social component of a school setting is one of the greatest benefits of traditional yeshiva and day school education. Although there are also often many drawbacks, including classroom management issues, bullying, and sometimes general chaos, there’s also the ruach, connection, and support that can be gained from the peer group. The sense of belonging, being a member of the klal, and feeling like a person of value is often sorely missing in the life of a child who doesn’t attend the same school as most of the kids in his/her family or neighborhood.
Lifelong friendships are built on our class lists. While there are certainly many negative aspects to peer pressure, being in an environment with other frum children can also have a very positive effect on children. Being with others who come from homes with similar values and commitment to Yiddishkeit can be an important part of a child’s self-identity.
If a child doesn’t fit into the traditional Jewish school setting, what can parents do to find a kehillah where their child fits? The answer I often give is: research, network, and reach out. It may take work, but there are ways for enterprising parents to help fill the gap for their child. There are alternative Jewish educational programs such as Gesher LaTorah’s Sunday morning religious education program for students with disabilities, of which I am the principal. Gesher LaTorah students have a range of learning levels, and each student’s individual goals and abilities are taken into consideration in the development of his/her educational plan.
Over the years it seems that there are more and more families moving outside the yeshiva and day school system. Gesher LaTorah has in many cases accommodated children who don’t fit the typical Gesher LaTorah profile. These students are able to find a space where they can have fun, make Jewish friends, and have a positive Jewish experience, sometimes for the first time. There are other Sunday school programs administered by other Jewish organizations, such as Beth Tfiloh Community School, Beth El Synagogue, and Beth Israel Congregation’s Community Learning Lab. Although many of these programs are not aimed at the Orthodox student, I encourage parents to explore these options to see if their child’s needs can be met.
Some Gesher LaTorah families supplement the Sunday morning programming. One-to-one or small group tutoring can be effective in building individual skills such as kriah, but it doesn’t fill the social gap left when a child is not in school. Some families seek out other opportunities for group interaction. There are social and recreational programs that offer a chance to meet other Jewish children and build relationships. Programs like Boy and Girl Scouts, Yachad’s inclusive programming, and JCC teams and classes are just a few examples. Informal Jewish educational programming such as those through the Macks Center for Jewish Education’s PJ Library and PJ Our Way offer fun, engaging learning programs, as well as a way to meet other children.
Many shuls offer group activities, both on Shabbos and during the week. Participation in Jewish summer camp can also be a valuable tool in fostering deep Jewish connections outside the school setting. These programs can be a great opportunity for parents to network and develop a social circle for their child. CJE is in the process of gathering information about supplemental programs in order to become a resource for parents seeking programming. We hope to have the information available shortly so that parents can contact us to learn more.
It often falls on parents to seek out access to the community, but we can all work to create an inclusive kehillah. If you know a family with a child who is not part of the kehillah, how can you and your family help them feel connected? Reach out to the family when it comes to playdates and parties. Remember the family when making your Shabbos and Yom Tov guest lists. If you’ve found a great extracurricular program for your child, maybe that former classmate would love to participate, too. It’s easy to get caught up in our own busy lives; managing our own children is challenging enough, but I urge everyone to think about children and parents who can feel isolated and rejected.
Our greatest leader, Moshe, was known to have a significant disability. In Sefer Shemos, when asked to lead B’nei Yisrael out of Mitzrayim, Moshe initially objects that he is “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” In response, Hashem affirms Moshe’s many capabilities. Moshe’s speech disability did not disqualify him to lead klal Yisrael.
Children whose disabilities require a specialized educational program are not disqualified from finding a place in klal Yisrael. We need to strive to create a community that values all its members because we are not complete without each and every one. If we don’t succeed in doing this, Klal Yisrael could be missing out on its next great leader.
For additional information, I can be reached at the Macks Center for Jewish Education at Rturniansky@cjebaltimore.org.