I recently chatted with Dori Frumin Kirshner, the executive director of Matan (the name means “gift”), an organization that supports Jewish communities in educating children with special learning needs.
“The Orthodox have always taken on responsibility for educating all Jews,” she told me. “But Conservative, Reform, unaffiliated, and non-denominational institutions—well, the going attitude was, ‘Sorry, we can’t handle that. Bye. It’s not you; it’s us.’ The latent message, of course, was, ‘It’s you.’ ”
Things are slowly changing. More Jewish organizations are calling Matan for help, and a number of Jewish day schools are trying to be more embracing of kids with learning differences. “There’s a big difference from 10 years ago,” Kirshner said. “But it still takes time, attitude change, and advocacy. Clergy, early-childhood, and educational directors, the president of the shul, they need to step up more and take the full responsibility off parents’ shoulders. This is everyone’s bag. It’s a health and human services issue, an educational issue, and a cultural issue—because there are so many kids out there with no entry points to the beauty of Jewish culture.”
Inclusion, Kirshner said, was a policy equal in importance to the civil rights movement. “You don’t have to be from the South or African-American to feel in your kishkes that it’s wrong to leave children separate,” she said. “I feel strongly—just as my mom, a white Jew who grew up in Shreveport and marched and got arrested for civil rights felt—this is wrong. It’s wrong to tell people there’s no room for them at the Jewish communal table. They have to start adding other chairs.”
Certainly, the subject of inclusion has been receiving a great deal of attention recently. New Jersey’s Statewide Parent Advocacy Network created the New Jersey Inclusive Child Care Project, a project funded by the New Jersey Department of Human Services. The project’s goals include providing information, training and technical assistance on the inclusion of children from birth through age eight in typical preschool, childcare and after-school programs. Their resources include a comprehensive program called Finding Our Way Together, a resource guide available on the website that provides information on inclusion of children at child-care centers, family child care, and after-school care. NJ SPAN is also piloting a collaborative project with the NJ School-Age Child Care Coalition to promote inclusion in high poverty, high immigrant communities. They are providing free resources on the laws dealing with inclusion in programs before and after school.