June 19, 2024
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Insights from the Torah on Special Needs: Equality and Differentiation-Two Sides of the Same Coin

The need to “belong,” to be “accepted” and to feel “valued,” are among the basic human needs critical to the actuation of our human potential. Yet, even though our culture purports to believe in acceptance and equality, our misguided notion of equality leaves us uncomfortable with the differences among us. Rather than addressing this discomfort, we alternate between disassociating ourselves from those whom we view as different, or attempting to “fix” the “pieces” we perceive as “broken.” Being “different,” is hard enough for adults to bear, but youngsters at the middle and high school years take the greatest hit.

Current educational initiatives dispel the myth that a “one size fits all” approach to education and parenting is in the best interest of any child. Still, youngsters with special needs run the greatest risk of failure in an environment where individual differences are ignored. At the core of this issue, is our misguided notion that “all men are created as equal,” and therefore must be treated exactly the same; anything less is deemed as “unfair.” In our schools, this thinking sometimes results in the belief that the modifications mandated for students with documented learning disabilities, afford an unfair advantage to youngsters with special needs.

Research findings confirm that for students with disabilities, at least partial exposure in the educational setting to typical age and grade peers allows for the optimal social/emotional growth, as well as a greater chance at becoming well integrated, responsible and productive members of their communities. Studies also indicate that asking all students in the mainstream of education to adhere to an identical set of core standards, or denying them legitimate accommodations, is tantamount to treating everyone with cancer with the same protocol of chemotherapy or denying a life jacket to a non-swimmer caught in the deep water; yet, the private sectors, including yeshivot, are not legally bound by these laws and findings, and therefore the drive for successful implementation is diminished.

Despite these issues, it is important to acknowledge the enormous strides made through the hard work of such organizations as Sinai and P’tach. Kudos to them as well as the host schools who have welcomed these students with open arms. Yet, they cannot be expected to take on the entire mantle of special education for yeshiva students. Specifically, there is a serious gap in opportunities for the inclusion of students with mild to moderate learning and behavioral disabilities, into the mainstream.

This article is a plea for collaboration among the rabbis in our communities, as well as the administrators and boards governing our local yeshivot, to fill this void. While funding can be an issue, the most serious obstacle to successful implementation arises from the truth that as private institutions, yeshivot can “pick and choose,” whom they admit. The tragedy lies in the grave mistakes that result from this selection process, mistakes that can last a life-time.

The good news is that the “tikkun-correction,” requires nothing more than flexibility, patience and sensitivity to the dignity of these children. As things stand, this void must be recognized as a “Yeshiva crisis” of another sort: a crisis that needs fixing because the Torah teaches us that it is so.

In Parshat Mishpatim we learn that Hashem commanded that the first set of shattered Luchot were to be securely housed in the aron, along with the second, intact set. This mandate was intended to remind us that we are meant to adhere to a different set of values than those of our host cultures. In today’s “throw away,” “disposable” society, it has become acceptable practice to replace our “old” or perceived “broken” possessions in favor of newer or more up to date versions. This is evidenced in the work place, our homes, and in the dismissive attitude we have towards the elderly and disabled. Yet, when Hashem revealed himself at Har Sinai, the entire assembly was present, from the highest priest, to the woodcutters; our commentators inform us that even if one member was missing we would have been unworthy recipients. This is because each member is unique and equal in value to his brothers.

The messages gleaned from the segment on the broken luchot are as clear as the day. This first shattered set represents a metaphor for all the broken pieces we observe in others or in ourselves; yet, we are now aware that while we may see broken Luchot, or broken people, in the eyes of God each one of us is a beloved treasure, and should be housed alongside his other children, in all the houses of God, we create upon this earth. And, if we still have our doubts, let us imagine the grave mistake that could have been made if Hashem had not selected Moshe as the leader of our nation due to his speech impediment; or if God believed that it would be unfair to provide him with Aharon as his paraprofessional, until he could go it alone. And finally, let us be mindful of the Torah truth that the rejection of even one Jewish child into the mainstream of yeshivah education, without attempting to support his special needs, could impact on the realization of his God given mission, as well as the destiny of our entire nation.

Renee Nussbaum, is a practicing Psychoanalyst, Child Adolescent Psychotherapist, and Learning Disabilities Specialist. Renee and her husband Jack live in Fair Lawn. For the past ten years, Renee has facilitated a “Chevrusah in Cyberspace,” edited by her friend, Debbie Friedman.

By Dr. Renee Nussbaum

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