It really is in the unexpected moments that we can find the most inspiration.
Each year the congregation where I am the Education Co-Director (Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, NJ) joins with a few others to run a retreat for young high school students. We spend Shabbat together outside the walls of our synagogues and we sing, pray, learn, play, laugh and build community. At TBE we have been fortunate to be able to offer an extensive special education program within our Religious School for the past twelve years. Including students from our school that have special needs and ensuring that they are fully included in this retreat experience is a high priority for me.
So I’d like to share a story. Our weekend retreat was well under way and it was lunchtime on Shabbat. I stood in line alongside a student from my school that happens to be blind. A young man from another synagogue stood in front of us and offered to let us go ahead of him because he “certainly didn’t need to get to the food first.” (This was a young man who is often misunderstood and judged based on his appearance and weight, rather than the quality of his character.) My student leaned in to me to say that she didn’t understand what he meant. I had to explain to her that he had just made a self-deprecating remark about himself in reference to his weight. Her response was “Oh”, and while it was clear that this made her feel bad, she just had no real frame of reference for what he was saying. And that’s when it dawned on him. I watched his face light up, his whole demeanor change and he addressed his next comment to my student directly. “Wow,” he said to her, “You are so lucky! You never have to judge people on their appearances!”
I won’t lie, I still get goose bumps. And honestly? The weekend could have ended there and I would have considered it a success.
Rabbi Chanina taught, “I have learned much from my teachers. I have learned more from my colleagues than my teachers. But I have learned more from my students than from all of them.” (B. Talmud, Taanit, 7a)
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Inclusion “takes away from” the learning of the other students. It’s just wrong.
Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. This position includes overseeing an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School with programs designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. In addition, Lisa’s role is to work with families, staff and clergy to ensure a smooth transition for special needs students from Religious School through the b’nei mitzvah process and beyond.
Lisa is also writing a blog about her experiences in Jewish special education: http://jewishspecialneeds.blogspot.com/