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8 Tips for Creating Inclusive Synagogue Schools

Meredith Polsky

8 tips for creating inclusive synagogue schools, MatanOver the past few years, I have had the opportunity to mentor educational directors from various parts of the country through my work with MATAN. The goal of these mentorships, as a component of the Matan Institute (the next cohort will begin in June 2015), is to increase the level of inclusivity in as many congregational schools as possible. It’s been a great learning experience for me and I wanted to share the following eight things to keep in mind when inclusion is your goal:

  1. It’s not always about money; it’s about attitude.

Many changes can be made with little or no extra funding. Changing attitudes and making inclusion a prominent goal enables change to take place. When inclusion awareness becomes part of the organizational conversation, funding sources can often be found.

  1. Be a good listener and partner.

Often, families with differences may be seen as a bother, may be judged for how they address their child’s differences and/or they may feel alienated. Everyone has a story. Listen to the stories and partner with families to devise workable solutions. Walk in their shoes for a while; don’t be so quick to judge.

  1. Everyone is an expert.

Once you have listened without judgment, appreciate that you are an expert in education and the parent in front of you is an expert on their child. Mutual respect goes a long way. If they are choosing soccer over Jewish education one day, appreciate and respect that it may be necessary for that child.

  1. Admire sincerely.

Admire the dedication and passion these families have for their child’s Jewish education. After all, they are willing to “fight the battle” for their child in yet another institutional setting. Parenting a child with special needs can be exhausting; give them credit for not giving up on their child’s Jewish education.

  1. Communicate consistently.

Most families do best when they understand what to expect. If there is going to be a change in schedule, let the families know so they can prepare their child. If you are planning something that may be difficult for a child, communicate with the family ahead of time and come up with a plan that can ensure everyone’s success.

  1. Remember your goals.

There will be setbacks and challenges. Stay focused on your goal and accept that you’re playing a long game that requires a lot of flexibility and adjustment.

  1. Educate the educators.

Teach your faculty, clergy and lay leaders about your inclusion goals. Support your educators and let them help you change the paradigm in your synagogue.

  1. Form alliances.

Seek out colleagues, professionals, lay leaders and parents that can support you on this journey.

With these thoughts in mind your synagogue will be on its way to living up to the promise of Isaiah 56:5, “For my house shall be a house of prayer for all people,” and the directive of Proverbs 22:6. “Teach each child according to his ways.”

Michelle Steinhart; MatanMichelle Steinhart is the Director of  Inclusion at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY.  She has been working in Jewish Education and Jewish Special Education for over twenty years, teaching in day schools and synagogue schools, serving as a counselor in summer camps, and as an advisor in youth groups. She has been at T.I.C. since 1998. Michelle graduated Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women with a B.A. Degree in Education and an Associate’s Degree in Judaic Studies. Michelle went on to earn her M.A. degree in Special Education at Hunter College, specializing in Learning Disorders and Behavior Disorders. She has led professional development sessions for the T.I.C. staff, Board of Jewish Education and MATAN. In addition, Michelle serves as a MATAN mentor for Educational Directors looking to bring inclusion and awareness to their synagogue schools. Michelle is a 2002 recipient of the Grinspoon Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Michelle and her husband Yaakov live in Rockland County with their four children; Avi, Shaina, Shael and Shaya.  

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