Should Every Disabled Child Get a Jewish Education?

Day Schools and Families Grapple With Costs of Inclusion


By Seth Berkman and Anne Cohen

Published March 17, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.
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As executive director of The David Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group, David Bernstein has spent years urging Jews to raise their voices and take a stand. Recently, though, Bernstein felt isolated when he was told that his 7-year-old son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, no longer fits into the plans of the Washington-area Jewish day school he attended.

“They made clear they weren’t willing to put forward the resources to provide him the support he needs,” Bernstein said. “Imagine the rejection when the Jewish community says, ‘We will no longer provide a Jewish education to your child.’ We know a number of others facing a similar thing.”

To make things worse, Bernstein added, his son has not adjusted well to his new school.

Bernstein declined to disclose the name of his son’s Jewish school publicly. But a spokesman for the school, when reached by the Forward, said that while it has greatly increased its inclusion services, it does not have the means to accommodate every student.

“This is something the entire community needs to do better,” the spokesman said. He declined to comment on Bernstein’s son’s situation specifically, citing the school’s privacy policies.

The inability of Jewish day schools to accommodate many children with special needs is perversely democratic. It has led to the exclusion of children of influential leaders in the Jewish community and to the exclusion of those with no influence at all. And it has certainly raised the financial bar for those who can barely afford a private education for their children to begin with.

But as the number of children diagnosed with disabilities grows steadily, the Jewish educational community is being asked two vexing questions: What do parents of such children have a right to expect from Jewish schools already struggling financially? And at what price?

The problem starts with the daunting range of disabilities the schools are being asked to absorb, from mild dyslexia to profound autism, from among some 200,000 Jewish children with special needs in the United States, a number tabulated by the special needs agency Matan.

“We love Jewish day school education,” Bernstein said, referring to his own child’s case. “So it’s a balancing act; on one hand, trying to voice our distress at this direction they’ve taken, but not wanting to undermine the place of the school in the community.”


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