What would you do if you were a teacher, and you had a visible disability? Ignore your difference, and hope the kids do too? Make a cursory acknowledgement of it, and move on?
When Sooze Protter last worked at Beth Jacob, Rabbi Teitelbaum was the rabbi, Sooze ran a booming teen program, and she walked on her own feet. This year, Sooze returned to CBJ to teach our 6th and 7th grade students. Her ability to connect with youth is as strong as ever, but a car accident 14 years ago has left her in a wheel chair.
What would you do if you were a teacher, and you had a visible disability? Ignore your difference, and hope the kids do too? Make a cursory acknowledgement of it, and move on? Not Sooze! She devotes her entire first unit to disabilities, offering students a glimpse of the significant, sometimes overwhelming, challenges she faces living life in a wheel chair.
Partway through the unit, Sooze tells her students that every person has a disability of some form: nearsightedness, color blindness, dyslexia, ADHD, depression, insomnia, and countless other differences that have no formal names. Many disabilities can be invisible to others. “Who would like share what their disability is?” she asks, and nearly every hand goes up.
This is the blessing of inclusion. As we practice the skills of acceptance and compassion towards others, we begin to feel acceptance and compassion for ourselves. Differences that once shamed us, we no longer hide.
Invisible disabilities can challenge us at a more base level. One mother said to me of her child’s public school classmates: “They wouldn’t pick on a child with Down Syndrome. But if a child appears to be normal and isn’t catching social cues, they can be cruel.” We know this to be true as adults, too. When we notice odd behaviors, it’s hard to withhold judgment.
CBJ kids do far better, this mother told me. “Religious school is a safe place,” she said. In that offhand comment, she affirmed my most cherished wishes for our community.
A safe, accepting community does not happen by chance. CBJ has worked hard to ensure that inclusion is both an explicit and implicit value in our school. For example, our faculty includes an expert in learning disabilities, Darby Morris. Darby has no formal teaching responsibilities, so that she can be available during religious school hours to support students with special needs, and to support teachers in meeting the diverse learning needs of their students.
There remains work to be done, as there always will. Inclusion requires active, constant engagement, from teachers, students and parents alike. Please be our partner in helping every child and adult feel comfortable and welcome.
Abraham our forefather was a wanderer and a foreigner. Moses stuttered. King David was the 7th son of a shepherd. If our ancient stories have one lesson for us, it is this: out of vulnerability can emerge new strength, and people who are different will create a new tomorrow. In the words of the Psalms (118:22), “The stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone,” and in the words of Isaiah the prophet (49:7), “The one who is despised…kings will see him and rise.”