Although we tend to associate angels with Christianity and Renaissance-era oil paintings, Judaism has plenty of ministering spirits in our own texts but our angelic cast of characters seems to ask more questions than deliver divine messages.
“Wrestling with Angels” was the opening talk for the Special Needs and the Diverse Classroom “deep dive” session at the recent RAVSAK/PARDES National Jewish Day School conference in Los Angeles, presented by Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, a teacher at the Milken Schools, the AJU and also a parent of an engaging 18 -year-old on the autism spectrum. She expertly framed the day’s workshop by examining various instances of when angels appear in the Torah.
One example is when Abraham’s first wife, Hagar, is kicked out by Sarah and is left thirsty and hopeless in the desert. An angel appears and asks, “mah lach, “What do you have?” at which point Hagar lifts up her eyes that had been downcast and finally is able to “see” a life-saving well with water.
Another example is when we read the story of Joseph looking around for his brothers after arriving in the town of Shechem. As it turns out, Joseph's brothers were not in Shechem, and just before turning back, his mission unfulfilled, we read in the Torah, "a certain man found him and behold he was wandering in the field." That man (or perhaps an angel) asked Joseph a two-word question, "mah t'vakesh," "What are you seeking?"
Those two questions of “What do you have” and “What are you seeking” are, in Fields-Meyers words, “Holy Challenges” for the Jewish community when it comes to educating the 15-20 percent of all students who have some type of special need/disability. Aside from a few models of excellence sprinkled around the country, along with the new Shefa School opening in Manhattan in September 2014, most Jewish day schools are not, by any yardstick, adequately addressing the large minority of students with a wide variety of special needs, from mild-language impairments to multiple developmental disabilities. Turning away a student from a Jewish day school education can mean turning off an entire family, as parents get discouraged and feel marginalized by the “counseling out” process.
The Special Needs and the Diverse Classroom workshop was facilitated by Elana Naftalin-Kelman, Tikvah Director at Camp Ramah California and the Executive Director of Rosh Pena, a new non-profit dedicated to supporting Jewish institutions in creating enduring change that will produce an inclusive community in every aspect. The 30 or so participants in the "deep dive" spent the rest of the day examining what inclusion means to them and their educational organizations, and covering such key topics as staff training, inclusive language, admissions, curriculum, out-of-the-classroom, parent community and school resources.
Like other Jewish disability advocates, I was happy to see that the entire conference, titled, “Moving the Needle: Galvaninzing Change in our Day Schools” embraced the topic of special needs as part of its overall agenda with another breakout session also devoted to this topic titled, “Diverse Learners: Making it Work No Matter What the Budget”. But, and this is a big but, I worry that these breakout sessions were attended by small numbers of already motivated educators. The main issue is that educating and including students in Jewish day schools with special needs is still viewed as a nice “optional” activity, but not a core, essential mandate of our communal schools.
I don’t think the proverbial needle is going to be moved significantly until we listen more closely to those visiting angels who continue to question us: What do you have? What are you seeking to do?