Children with learning and developmental disabilities are finding a fresh path to be involved in Jewish life thanks to a new program initiated by Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac that gives these children a chance to experience religious school.
Har Shalom recently began having a class specifically for children with disabilities that is taught by a teacher trained in special education so that the educational opportunities can be specialized to meet the needs of the individual children in a way that traditional religious schooling doesn’t necessarily offer.
“I feel like there’s been a very specific investment in creating Jewish life for those in the Har Shalom community who are, because of their disabilities, not able to participate in the usual way. My heart is so full of gratitude for that,” said Rachel Baxtresser, the mother of Freddy and Ella, two children in the inclusion class.
The initiative came about after Har Shalom explored ways to expand its inclusivity efforts this summer, especially after the synagogue realized that they had Har Shalom members who couldn’t have their kids in religious school, and more families who couldn’t even consider becoming part of the synagogue based on their children’s needs.
“We decided this year to investigate how we could start this program, and I reached out to the inclusion coordinator at the JCC [Bender JCC of Greater Washington] to explain to her what our vision was and asked her if there was anyone she knew that she would recommend,” Har Shalom Education VP Betsy-New Schneider said.
The person the inclusion coordinator recommended was Sara Fink, an autism-specific teacher with Montgomery County Public Schools, who is now the adored inclusion specialist at Har Shalom as well.
Fink took on the role after having a conversation with New-Schneider and hearing about the staff and programs Har Shalom already had and their vision for the inclusion class.
“She is so great. She has such a command of the classroom and is able to handle the kids on her own. It’s a nice thing for us to have a little time to drop them off and know that they’re getting this amazing experience,” Baxtresser said.
Fink also provides needed support with the traditional Sunday school classes until 11 a.m., which is when the children with disabilities arrive for their specialized class.
The class is small right now, but it has provided a wonderful outlet for these children to be involved in Jewish life, while also providing a great secondary service of normalizing disability for everyone.
This is furthered by the incorporation of older madrichim and peers of the students with disabilities from Fink’s earlier morning classes, who can interact with the three students, which has already created a bond between some of them.
“At 11 a.m., those three kids arrive to Hebrew school, and they join me, as well as three to five other kids from the program, to have that inclusion model of neurotypical peers alongside our kiddos,” Fink said.
Fink added that the children look forward to seeing each other each week and that it’s been a positive social and learning experience for all the children.
This idea of interaction between the children has been just as important for building a positive community experience as the specialized education the children receive.
“I think we do all of our kids a disservice when people with disabilities are kept separate. That’s what’s so great about this class. They’re not just separately addressing Freddy and Ella’s special educational needs, but they’re bringing in other children from the religious school to make Freddy and Ella be included and to also make them a part of the larger religious school community,” Baxtresser said.
And increasing the opportunity for these children to be a part of the local Jewish community is a major aspect of what the program is all about. Without the inclusion program, kids like Freddy and Ella could become secluded and the family left feeling isolated with no one being able to provide the extra support they need to participate.
The benefits of the program are already apparent, with visible joy on the faces of the kids in almost every photo they’ve taken with their peers in the classroom.
“We’ve only had … three or four classes so far, but at the end of them, the kids are so happy when they come home. I’ve got pictures, I’ve got arts and crafts, it just feels like they’ve gone somewhere and done something as opposed to just sitting there and watching other people do stuff,” Baxtresser said.
Eventually there’s hope that the program will continue to expand to provide these opportunities to more children with disabilities, but as Fink notes, that will take some time before they’re able to fully accomplish their goals.
“Inclusion doesn’t happen overnight. Inclusion is acceptance, it’s tolerance of people that are different. And the more and more you get to spend time with people who are different, the more and more we inch toward inclusion,” Fink said.