February 22, 2007
Opening special-needs school would be a mitzvah
I, too, have that dream, but with a twist: that all Jewish children, no matter their learning differences, will be able to receive a yeshiva or day-school education.
In some Jewish communities this dream is a reality, but not in the city of Los Angeles. It's not that the Jewish community in Los Angeles doesn't offer any services for Jewish students with special needs. But they are a hodgepodge of offerings, which leaves huge gaps for special-needs students whose families want them to have a traditional Jewish education.
Almost all Jewish day schools and yeshiva programs can boast of resource rooms and/or pull-out programs. Many schools allow "shadow aides" for inclusion students. The Etta Israel Center, an organization dedicated to the needs of disabled Jews, sponsors a class for developmentally delayed high school girls and another class for learning disabled elementary-aged boys. Another organization, Kol Hanearim, has recently opened classes at various grade levels on several day school campuses.
Frequently, parents of children who do not follow the learning path of a typical student are forced to make a terrible choice: keep their child in the Jewish environment while sacrificing the child's educational, social and emotional needs; or, alternatively, place the child in a public school and sacrifice their Torah studies and possibly their Yiddishkeit. All too often, the day school makes the decision for the parents, telling them, "We cannot deal with your child. You should put your child in public school."
These children are often very bright and sensitive; rejected by the Jewish educational establishment, they can feel worthless and like outcasts.
How can the rabbis, educators and leaders of this community turn their backs on these children? Are these children's neshamas, their souls, any less valuable than those of other children?
The mitzvah of eglah arufah, the laws concerning the unsolved murder of a person found in a field between two cities, is relevant here.
The elders of the city closest to the corpse are obligated not only to bury the body, but to sacrifice a heifer to atone for the slain person's blood. The elders beseech God, saying, "Forgive your people ... do not allow the guilt for innocent blood to remain with your people Israel."
The Rambam, Maimonides, explains that this ritual publicizes the event, thus increasing the likelihood of bringing the murderer to justice, and sends a warning to all potential murderers that they will not get away with the crime. He also says the ritual signifies that the Torah considers each member of the community indirectly responsible for the murder, and that the entire community -- beginning with the members of the rabbinic leadership -- need to look within, ask tough questions and resolve to prevent future deaths.
Rabbinic commentators explain that the field mentioned in this law symbolizes an environment that has no protective fences, a location that is open and vulnerable to destructive forces. Each child who is abandoned by the day school/yeshiva system ends up in this field, encountering a form of spiritual and emotional death -- a death of innocence, of hope, of dignity, and of purpose. When a child is forced out to the strange field, every member of the community, particularly the educators and leaders, must ask themselves serious questions about where they failed the child.
With the piecemeal services still failing so many children, it is time for our leaders and our community to take responsibility. The Jewish community of Los Angeles needs a Jewish special education school.
This school would serve students from pre-first through high school for whom resource rooms or inclusion programs are not sufficient. It would provide the day school setting needed by children with serious learning disabilities, severe attention deficit disorder, emotional/behavioral disorders, or autism spectrum disorder. It would provide additional support services such as counseling, social skills training, occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech and language therapy.
I have a dream that the rabbinic leaders, principals and lead educators in the Los Angeles Jewish community will provide a Torah education for all Jewish children regardless of their learning differences.
I have a dream that all Jewish agencies and institutions of learning will unite in building this vital and necessary place of Torah learning.
I have a dream that a community-sponsored special education school will be established to serve our Jewish children.
Leah Hoffman is a special education teacher, educational therapist and the mother of a special-needs child.