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Contrary to Lichtman, Walsh thought the biggest hurdles to greater inclusion in Jewish schools were financial, not attitudinal. “It’s not will, it’s resources,” she said. “I haven’t found any day school head that says, ‘Just leave me alone.’”
Michelle Wolf, a not-for-profit worker in Los Angeles who blogs on disability issues for the Jewish Journal, L.A.’s local Jewish news outlet, often speaks with parents who are experiencing these scenarios. Wolf herself has a child with cerebral palsy. When her son was diagnosed at 13 months, Wolf prioritized early intervention above all. When he came of school age, she didn’t even apply to Jewish day schools. “I didn’t see the point of sending him to the programs where he wouldn’t get all the therapies,” she said.
Wolf’s choice reflects a hard reality: Even schools able to absorb children with mild disabilities generally lack services for those who have severe ones.
Pardes Jewish Day School, in Phoenix, exemplifies in a lot of ways what Jewish schools can and cannot do. Like many such schools, its outer boundary for children with special needs is a moving target.
“When I came on board 10 years ago, there wasn’t any kind of program,” school head Jill Kessler said. “We were a small school with a very limited budget. We just took baby steps.”
Over the course of her tenure, Kessler has slowly built an inclusive program from scratch. That included evaluating every student about whom the staff had learning concerns, followed by hiring a part-time staff member who could do one-on-one work and train teachers. Today, Pardes’s special education program includes about 40 students.
Still, Pardes does not yet have the capability to serve students who have severe disabilities, such as those who are nonverbal or profoundly autistic.
“We don’t accept children until we’re sure we can meet all of their needs,” Kessler said.
Kessler said candidly that parents of children who have severe disabilities should place a priority on finding programs that will help their children become successful adults, even at the cost of a day school education. “If a child’s severely autistic and has no language [skills], in my mind, that child needs to be in a program designed by people and specialists who truly understand autism at its most serious to bring out and maximize that youngster’s potential,” she said. “Then maybe through the synagogue they can have experiential Jewish learning.”