It only took one child to set Meredith Polsky on the career path she’s following two decades later.
Polsky was on the staff at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires in New York when she met an 8-year-old camper named Josh. That was 1996.
“He was a great kid,” said Polsky, “I was drawn toward him even though he made things more challenging.”
Josh was challenging because he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which can make it hard for a child to pay attention or sit still.
Polsky, now the developmental support coordinator at Temple Beth Ami’s nursery school in Rockville, said she was “devastated” when the camp decided it could not accommodate Josh’s disorder and sent him home. She kept in touch through letters and later found out Josh was also kicked out of his Jewish day school.
“Here was this family who tried to give their [son] the best of what the Jewish community has to offer, and they were just rejected and excluded at every turn,” Polsky said.
That is when Polsky knew she wanted to change how Jewish institutions treat children with special needs. She founded a nonprofit organization in 2000 to help teach Jewish educators how to accommodate children like Josh.
The Covenant Foundation will honor Polsky, 42, with the Covenant Award In November in Los Angeles for her work in Jewish special education.
Polsky’s work is twofold. As developmental support coordinator at Temple Beth Ami, she and her team work with teachers and parents to help the school accommodate students with special needs.
Polsky is also a founder and national director of institutes and training at Matan, a New York-based nonprofit that trains Jewish educators and communities in how to create learning environments supportive of children with special needs.
“Each job makes me better with the other one,” she said. The kinds of special needs Polsky helps educators address vary from anxiety and behavioral challenges to speech delays and learning disabilities.
The goal of her work is “getting the Jewish community to say ‘yes’” to children with special needs.
The National Center for Education Statistics reported that 6.4 million students, about 15 percent of all children in public schools, received special education in the 2012-13 school year.
Matan’s executive director, Dori Kirshner, who also nominated Polsky for the Covenant Award, said Polsky’s work started with a vision.
The vision: “The Jewish community could and should be responding very differently in terms of not just children in need of support, but also families,” said Kirshner. And that “the only way we could be a Jewish community in every sense of the word was to make sure that every member felt welcomed and included.”
That sense of inclusion is important for young families searching for Jewish preschools because it is often their first entry point into the Jewish community, said Polsky.
If Jewish schools reject or remove children who require special education, then “we run the risk of a family’s first foray into the Jewish community of being a negative one,” she said.
The Covenant Foundation, which announced the winners on June 6, will also honor two other Jewish educators: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, founding principal of SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y., and Jane Shapiro, co-founder of Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning in Skokie, Ill.
Recipients receive $36,000 and their organizations receive $5,000 each. Polsky, of Gaithersburg, said she has not determined how she will spend the money yet.
“This award is for Jewish educators who are visionaries and make things happen,” said Paula Sayag, one of two people who nominated Polsky for the Covenant Award and director of Temple Beth Ami’s nursery school. “Meredith fits that bill to a T.”
Polsky said it was an “incredible moment” when she received the call letting her know she won the award. “Not just because it’s recognition of my work,” she said, “but also because it’s recognition of inclusion in the Jewish community in general.”
Justin Katz is a former WJW reporter.