By Moshe Ben-Lev
“Your son is stupid!” was all my parents heard. The rest of the conversation was easily forgotten. I was 6 years old, attending a public elementary school in a predominantly Jewish suburb outside London.
And I couldn’t read. Each Friday, I would hesitantly enter the headmistress’ office and sit in front of her desk. On that desk was a huge jar of large and, supposedly, delicious jellybeans. I was asked to open the book I was reading and read. Every page I completed would earn me a jellybean.
I never received one. After several frustrating months, my parents were called in and without any rachamanut, compassion, or understanding of special needs challenges, my school labeled me with those four devastating words.
Many years later, with a great deal of self-motivation and some encouraging teachers, I was able to earn both a degree in English/archeology and a master’s degree in Jewish studies.
But when my daughter was in 2nd grade, I found myself again seated in the office of a school principal. She had been diagnosed with a list of learning issues. This time, though, her principal had a plan to help her feel included and accepted, in addition to being accommodated appropriately.
When I first began my career as a synagogue educator, I devoted much energy to children with learning challenges. I was particularly focused on their self-esteem and acceptance in the Jewish community. It was through learning about and then teaching and adopting middot, Jewish values, that I finally understood how I should have been treated when I was 6 and that everyone should be treated equally and fairly so that no child feels excluded or pushed aside.
Last year at B’nai Israel Talmud Torah, we hired our first inclusion specialist. Gabrielle Joseph is a highly qualified and experienced Montgomery County Public Schools educator whose specialty is working with children who have been diagnosed with autism.
She has focused on working with teachers by observing them and advising them. She works with children who have either been diagnosed with learning challenges or those who simply struggle. Gaby works with parents, asking questions, guiding them and connecting them with the teacher. She has led some trainings and, most importantly for me, she is a part of a new education leadership team that we created to monitor classrooms and advise us.
Next year, as we begin to go back to in-person classrooms, Gaby’s role will be even more helpful and essential.
My parents had me tested for what they believed to be some developmental defect. I was only diagnosed as a “late developer,” meaning that I was slow but might catch up. Never formally diagnosed, I struggled on my own and, like many of my generation, had to overcome my own academic struggles, alone.
Today we have a better understanding of learning challenges and try our best not to traumatize children who have them. To the contrary, we are blessed with amazing resources, understanding educators, and a Jewish community that cares and wants to ensure that when we say “inclusive,” we mean every child who steps through our doors.
Moshe Ben-Lev is education director of B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville. An earlier version of this piece appeared in the synagogue’s newsletter, Scroll.