By Rabbi Michelle Greenfield
Seven and a half years ago, I was standing in the corner of a classroom at the Kennedy Day School in Boston. I had taken a job as a classroom assistant because I had been uncomfortable there during my interview. I hadn’t known how to interact with the kids as they walked or were pushed through the hallway. I didn’t want to be uncomfortable with difference. And I needed a job. So I ended up in the corner of classroom 3 on my first day not just uncomfortable, but terrified. I knew nothing about orthotics, diapers, wheelchairs, or feeding tubes, and I didn’t know how to love a fourteen year old who was still learning about cause and effect or a ten year old who had never responded to any stimuli.
Recently, Educator Lisa Friedman wrote a piece reminding us that not everybody who does special education ‘ends up’ in this field. I didn’t end up here, but I also don’t feel that I made a choice. I fell in love against my will. I watched the teachers and did what they did–I tried to have the patience that they had when they positioned a child with poor muscle control, and I tried to react as calmly as they did when I ended up with ground food on my shirt at lunchtime. And by the end of the year, I was in love. My plan was to spend a year at the Kennedy School and then to move on. I was applying to rabbinical school, and this was just a stop on the way there. I did leave the school after a year, but I still haven’t moved on. I moved to Philadelphia, spent a year Israel, and became a rabbi, but I haven’t moved on.
In my first year of rabbinical school, my advisor asked my why I was there. She wanted to know why, if what I wanted to do was special education, I also needed to send five years studying to be a rabbi. It was a good question, but I already knew the answer. I imagined parents being able to go to rabbi and talk about a new diagnosis, or an IEP meeting. I imagined a Jewish space that didn’t just have a ramp, but that also included the families of the kids that I worked with. I wanted to be that Rabbi. I spent five years as a student raising my hands and asking the same question, “What about people with disabilities?” In life cycle class, I wanted to know why all of the imaginary funerals were for people who had lived long lives without any disabilities or challenges. When learning about group dynamics, I wanted to know how things would change if a group was made up of people with autism. When talking about pastoral care, I wanted to know about caring for people who were unable to speak. I’m sure my classmates and my teachers were frustrated at times, but I also think they learned something about differences and disabilities.
As a Rabbi, it is my hope that families can turn to Jewish community and Jewish institutions at times of difficulty and also at times of joy. For families of kids with special needs, this means having somebody there who speaks their language, who is familiar not only with the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations, but also with alphabet soup of special needs. It may mean finding a synagogue that is physically accessible, but it may also mean finding a synagogue where they can feed their child without being stared it. It may mean finding a school that has a special educator to help with Hebrew, and it may mean finding a tutor who knows about facilitated communication. While it takes the efforts of a whole community to become truly inclusive, Jewish professionals can be at the forefront of this effort. We, as Jewish professionals, can partner with people with special needs and their families, but we can also make a commitment to being the driving forces behind inclusion initiatives. We can continue to work together to create spaces where everybody is welcome.
Rabbi Michelle Greenfield serves children and teens with special needs and their families through the Celebrations! program at Mishkan Shalom.