Both ancient Jewish texts and modern science have come to the same conclusion: Educating youngsters with disabilities to the best of their abilities has many benefits and should be a priority.
Jewish educator Sharon Freundel said the Torah, Talmud, and ancient sages all acknowledge that youngsters learn differently and encourage individualized teaching.
“You can’t be a good Jew without being an educated Jew,” Freundel told those gathered at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park Jan. 30 for the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park. “You not only need to know how to be a good Jew but you need to know Jewish values, the why of why be a Jew.”
Director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital in Washington, Freundel has been a Jewish educator for more than 35 years.
She cited Proverbs 22:6 — “Educate a child according to his way and then he will not depart from it.” Freundel said no distinction is made for those with emotional, physical, or cognitive disabilities.
She spoke at the program, TEACH: Torah Education for All Children, to promote February as national Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.
Program chair Dr. John Winer, an Ahavas Achim member and director of J-ADD, the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities, urged those present to work toward inclusion.
Freundel, a former pediatric intensive care nurse, said that everyone learns differently.
“We’re not computers,” she said. “We’re not engines. If your fan belt breaks you put in a new fan belt and it’s fixed. People are not engines.”
She said the story of the Four Sons recited during the Passover seder imparts a deep lesson about teaching children according to their strengths and limitations. While the wise son may be a typical learner, the “wicked” and “simple” require different approaches.
Freundel said that some learners — like the child “who does not know how to ask” — are not able to communicate their thoughts.
“That doesn’t mean we stop teaching,” she said.
She also pointed to the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, which commands that Torah be taught to one’s children “when sitting in your home and walking on the road, when you lie down and when you arise.”
That passage, she said, “is saying you need to educate your children, but your children need to be educated in different ways.”
“Some kids need to internalize Yiddishkeit by doing it,” Freundel said, and that some students learn through physical activity and action rather than typical study.
Because her own school works at creative solutions, as many as 20 percent of its pupils would be classified as special education students.
For example, one student is a “kinesthetic” learner who needs movement to learn. To accommodate him, the school set up a seesaw-like balance beam in the back of his classroom.
“Some kids don’t like to sit in a circle to learn,” said Freundel. “Some kids learn better propped up on their elbows. It just takes a little creativity.”
Freundel acknowledged that Jewish day schools often lag behind public schools when it comes to mainstreaming and technology for students with special needs. The private schools, already expensive, are hampered by the cost of such adaptations.
She was optimistic that the organization formed by the recent merger of five national Jewish day school organizations would find solutions.
Freundel suggested communities large enough to support them consider establishing Jewish vocational-technical schools to train students who would have difficulty handling college academics.