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Shelley Cohen, founder and director of the Jewish Inclusion Project, is less sparing of the schools. When she tried to find a day school that would accommodate her late son, who had Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a disease that weakens its victims’ muscles, mobility and learning capabilities — and usually kills them by their 20s — she was rejected. The rejections, she said, ranged “from the pluralistic to the Reform to the Orthodox.”
One administrator tried to get her to understand the school’s dilemma. “Understand? I can never understand,” she replied. “I’m willing to accept it because I have no choice. But I can never understand.”
Eventually, Cohen found a school for her son, with help from her extended network of contacts. But some parents aren’t as well-connected as Cohen, a wealthy New York philanthropist long active in the Jewish community. They end up abandoning hope of a day school education for their child, and sometimes abandon their participation in the local Jewish community altogether.
Jeffrey Lichtman, the national director of Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities, said there are three main issues to address to improve day school inclusion: rising costs, better teacher training and attitude changes among the day school establishment. He prioritized the last above all.
“What did President Clinton say? It’s the economy, stupid. Here, it’s the attitude, stupid,” Lichtman said.
Lichtman was dismayed that at the North American Jewish Day School Conference, held in February, there was ”nothing“ on special education.
“We’ve approached them on several occasions about doing more at the conference on special education and inclusion. [We] even put the entire program together, and we have been met with complete rejection,” he said. “It’s really mind-boggling to me, terribly frustrating.”
Jane West Walsh, an organizer of the conference, said that this year’s theme was “leadership,” a theme that helped address all the challenges facing the day school community.
“Everyone comes to these conferences with a different hat on,” Walsh said. “We really thought long and hard on a theme, and what we thought were the most important challenges to day school education and stability.”
Walsh, who has a child with special needs, said that in recent years, special education has been a main focus of the conference. She said that conference organizers would continue to seek out partnerships with leaders in the field.