Jewish Day Schools' Dirty Little Secret

Children With Disabilities Must Fight for Jewish Education

Black Eye: Jewish day schools are great places to get an education. But most of them do not do a great job accommodating children with disabilities.
Black Eye: Jewish day schools are great places to get an education. But most of them do not do a great job accommodating children with disabilities.

By Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi

Published February 08, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Two annual events in the Jewish community took place this week — the North American Jewish Day School Conference and the start of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month. Perhaps not coincidentally, despite the fact that the Day School conference is the largest in history with more than 1,000 educators and supporters gathering in Washington, it does not offer a session on educating and respecting children with disabilities.

So here’s the dirty secret of the Jewish community. While Jews have been at the forefront of civil rights for African Americans, gays, women and immigrants, Jewish Day schools barely do more than “talk the talk” when it comes to including children with disabilities.

If you have a child with a disability who wants a Jewish education, it’s hard to get them accepted and supported. Many parents will find that if their kids are slightly outside the mold of the “cookie cutter kids” that are smoothly on their way to excellent universities and successful careers, that their child might, just might get accepted. If they are lucky, there will be some special support for them child in the early years of school. But if their child’s learning, physical or other differences become too inconvenient eventually they will be called to the school so they can “counsel out” your child.

They will be told ever-so-nicely how sorry they are that they can’t accommodate this child. They might even give you a free lecture about how grateful you should be (as your child is being dismissed) that the school previously offered your child a time slot for the public school speech therapist to come in or tutor. After all, none of that was offered at Jewish day schools decades ago.

As if that could make you and your child feel better and get the education you wanted. Additionally, parents will find that if their child has “behaviors” or mental health issues, certain physical disabilities, seizures, or a lack of “normative” social skills due to Autism Spectrum Disorder, their child simply won’t ever be accepted to many of the Jewish day schools.

Worse yet, the school will accept the child briefly, until they discover that they have not put the proper supports in place. Then something bad will happen like an “unexpected behavior” and the child will be unceremoniously thrown out. The parent might be offered a discussion on the importance of making schools “safe and successful” for the other children who don’t have disabilities.

The parent will feel the full sting of rejection for their child. The combination of hypocrisy, humiliation and hurt may mean that the Jewish community loses this child and family forever.

This isn’t an isolated problem. Approximately 200,000 Jewish children in America have some sort of disability. Given that there is a link between the age of a father and Autism – and that Jews wait longer than most other group in America to have children – this is a growing challenge.

Jewish private schools are not the only schools to deal with these phenomena. Twenty percent of Americans have a disability and fully fifty-one percent of American likely voters either have a disability or a loved one with a disability.

Many public schools, as well as secular private schools for students with disabilities, are quite excellent. Many of their students, because they get the right supports, will go on to major success. Indeed, speaking at a general session at the conference, Nathan Diament of the Orthodox Union pointed out that Jewish day schools can qualify for funds from the government to serve kids with disabilities – but many don’t bother to apply. Rabbi David Saperstein, speaking at the same session, also added that it is inexcusable for Jewish day schools to continue to reject children because they have a disability.

But things are so bad in Jewish day schools in New York City that some parents of kids with disabilities commute from Boston to jobs there. Why Boston? Because the Jewish community in Boston has made it a priority to ensure that every child who wants a Jewish education, regardless of their abilities or differences, can get one.

Indeed, when I reached the spokesperson for the Jewish Day School conference and asked if there were any sessions on working with children with disabilities, she pointed out that Arlene Remz of Boston’s outstanding Gateways spoke at a breakout at the conference two years ago and is attending it this year. It did not occur to her that the best practitioner of inclusion should be a regular feature at every conference.

Now a new Jewish day school is about to start in New York that will only serve Jewish kids with disabilities – because no other Jewish day school there will serve them. This is a tragedy because these kids shouldn’t have to be in a separate school. Since Brown vs. the Board of Education blacks haven’t been relegated to separate schools. Why should children with disabilities? Public schools and recreational programs have made inclusion work. Why can’t private schools?

Judaism teaches that every Jew is created in the image of God. Additionally, it teaches that when Jews were slaves in Egypt, God’s instrument was a person with a disability. Moses was “slow of speech and tongue.” So how can a religious school on the one hand teach that God picked Moses to lead, and on another hand exclude a child who is non-verbal?

America would not tolerate it if a prestigious school rejected a child because they were Jewish. Why do Jews continue to tolerate the blatant discrimination in our religious schools?

Mind you, many private schools, Jewish included, will explain that they are doing a lot more for kids with mild disabilities than they did decades ago. Indeed, progress has been made and there are pockets of excellence and teachers who care. There are wonderful programs in Chicago, Baltimore and Miami that serve some children, for example. There indeed are tutors and therapists coming into some of the schools. The tent has expanded, and that is a good thing. But few if any of the school have an inclusion committee. They are lacking board members who have children with disabilities and who focus on those issues. Fewer still have board members with a disability. Few regularly ask the parents of children with special needs, and those students, how they feel about the services and experiences they are getting. Most are not yet looking at how online learning, through places such as the Khan Academy can enable children who learn at different levels to excel.

As Jews, all Jewish institutions reflect on us. So when we don’t work for change, we are all guilty of bigotry. When our Jewish day schools discriminate, we discriminate.

Ending the discrimination of people with disabilities in the Jewish community is not only good for the people with disabilities. It’s good for those who don’t have disabilities as well. After all, without Moses, we’d still be in Egypt.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is Co-Founder and Director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust and President of Laszlo Strategies.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.