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Wolf, the L.A. blogger who bypassed even applying to a Jewish school for her son with cerebral palsy, noted that he nevertheless has been able to stay involved in the Jewish community. He became a bar mitzvah in 2008.
It’s difficult to analyze whether Jewish day schools are trailing other schools in providing inclusion programs. Lichtman said that on the whole, Catholic schools were not doing a better job than Jewish day schools, but the cost is different. “Day school education, to begin with, is much more expensive,” he said. “So I’m not sure, even there, that it’s a fair comparison.”
Lichtman also did not think it was fair to compare Jewish day schools with public schools, which are mandated by law to serve children who have special needs. “They have an absolute legal obligation, and nobody else does,” he said. “It’s not just a Jewish problem, for sure, but certainly on the face of things, public schools are doing much more because they have to.”
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of Laszlo Strategies, a consulting firm whose portfolio includes advocacy for children with disabilities, recently wrote an op-ed in the Forward, in which she strongly criticized the Jewish days schools’ collective performance. Inclusion has “never been made a priority in the Jewish community,” she said in a follow-up interview, while acknowledging that other faith-based communities are struggling to tackle the subject, as well.
“Imagine if that child was denied admittance because they were black; imagine if that child was denied admittance because the child was female,” said Mizrachi, who is also the parent of a child with a disability. “How would the community feel about that? Why would we allow an institution to say that the school won’t allow a person with disabilities?”
Mizrahi said she has had conversations with parents who offered full payment for inclusion services at a day school but were still met with refusal.
There are programs that appear to offer models for integrating religious and special education components. Boston’s Gateways program is often cited as one. It serves 140 students in seven day schools, providing them with on-site occupational therapists, speech and language therapists as well as learning specialists who assist throughout the day as needed. The program also trains teachers.
But Gateways charges notable fees in addition to already hefty day school tuitions. Those fees vary depending on the type of assistance needed. The program’s executive director, Arlene Remz, said weekly 30-minute speech-language therapy or occupational therapy sessions cost $1,650 per year, while a fully “supported inclusion” program costs about $16,000, not including the pay for a one-on-one aide.