I’ve been getting the sad stories via email, direct messages on Facebook, and over Kiddush at shul—mothers sharing with me that their child with mild special needs has been asked to leave a Jewish school/camp or other setting. What’s so astonishing is that these are mostly kids with learning differences, or attention-deficit issues, not multiple developmental disabilities like our 18-yearold son, Danny. What is going on here?
The general arc of the story is that the kids are accepted into a program when they are young, then the learning difference surfaces, some intervention is tried, and when that isn’t working, parents are “counseled out”. Other programs, especially those geared for high academic achievement, will reject kids with learning differences outright.
As I told the Jewish Forward reporter in this article “Should Every Disabled Child Get a Jewish Education?" we didn’t even bother applying to a Jewish nursery school when Danny was 3 because it was so clear he needed specialized services such as speech therapy and physical therapy.
But as someone who studied Jewish communal service in grad school and has worked in the field for over 25 years, I can’t figure out why Jewish schools, camps and other Jewish organizations aren’t able to accommodate kids with learning differences. Frankly, it’s not that hard, and doesn’t take a whole lot of money. It isn't, as they say, rocket science. There are literally millions of resources available on the Internet.
A great place to start reading about differentiated learning is right in the Hagaddah, as part of traditional “Four Sons” portion. There’s the wise child, the wicked child, a simple child and the child who does not know how to ask. Each category of child is to receive different, personalized instruction. As it says in Pesachim 116a, “The parent should teach each child on the level of his/her understanding.”
If we could just apply that ancient wisdom to our communal formal and informal educational programs that would warrant one good round of off-key singing together “Dayyenu (It would have been enough)!”