Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Stumbling blocks

February was Jewish Disability Awareness Month. If this is a surprise, I should add that it was the third annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

I missed the first two altogether and learned about the third after it had begun. According to Rabbi David Saperstein, during February Jewish institutions and organizations were supposed to “undertake a variety of initiatives to raise awareness of disability issues, whether it’s by hosting a panel on disability issues, studying relevant Jewish texts and discussing their application to daily life, volunteering with organizations that aid people with disabilities, or embarking on a holistic re-examination of how the community—our synagogues, schools and other communal institutions—includes, or fails to include, people with disabilities.”

So why did we miss this? One reason is that religious entities, including all houses of worship, are exempt from the Americans With Disabilities Act, the law that mandates physical and programmatic access in other settings for people with many kinds of disabilities. Being under no compulsion by civil law to address disability issues, we could choose to ignore them. Another is that the ADA’s requirements for barrier-free design don’t apply to existing buildings, only to new construction and major alterations.

Nevertheless, for both ethical and practical reasons, most new synagogue buildings have included entrance ramps as well as elevators when necessary, as well as wheelchair-accessible restrooms and drinking fountains. Some, but not all, have provided for wheelchair seating in their sanctuaries, accessible telephones, and other accommodations. Some, including many existing synagogue buildings, have added assistive listening systems.

The ethical reasons include the Torah’s injunction, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Stumbling blocks come in many forms, including less-than-accessible buildings, Shabbat services (how many sanctuaries have wheelchair access to the bimah?), and prayer books. We are also told, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” which implies that we should not impose separation on others.

The practical reasons include the Jewish need for unity. Especially in a community as small as ours, we cannot afford to exclude anyone, even inadvertently. Rabbi Saperstein suggests that accommodation for disabilities may be especially important in the Jewish community: the rate of disability increases with age, and the median age in the Jewish community is several years older than in the general population.

Disability awareness is particularly timely for our community because we are preparing to house all of our Jewish activities in one building. Half the space in that building is on a level that is currently accessible only by stairs, and there is no wheelchair-accessible restroom on either floor. The facilities committee has pledged to make necessary accommodations but may not have planned for everything that is needed, so I hope that everyone with specific concerns will be sure to share them with the committee.


Not only academic

Occasionally the parents of new students tell me, “We’re not religious, but we want our children to learn about their heritage.” This requires a careful reply: I explain that the religious school is not an academic course in Judaic studies, and that our chief goal is to develop each student’s capacity to participate in religious and community life.

It can result in a mismatch of expectations, but adults who describe themselves as “not religious” often mean that they are “differently religious.” For example, they may identify strongly with Jewish values but rarely attend worship services. It would only be a concern for us if they wanted their children to acquire academic knowledge without learning about religious living.

This is not to say that we have no goals for academic learning. We are, after all, “the people of the Book,” and the field of Jewish learning is vast. Many aspects of Jewish life require specific knowledge, and teaching that knowledge is an essential function of a Jewish religious school.

Nevertheless, the style and goals of religious school have changed since I was a student. The Reform religious school that I attended operated very much like public schools of the time. If you behaved too badly, you could even get detention! Textbooks were longer and more detailed than those we use today; now we would consider them boring and perhaps irrelevant. They also looked old-fashioned even then, suggesting that Jewish learning was something of the past rather than of the present.

Today we expect our textbooks to look contemporary and fresh, and we want a different style for our religious school. In addition to the necessary academic knowledge, we want our students to discover the pleasures and rewards of Jewish life and to learn how to be part of a Jewish community.

The difference between religious and secular school is especially marked in the classes for our youngest students. Secular schools, driven by state standards, now emphasize discrete academic skills even in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. Religious school has not moved as much in the same direction: in the Gan Yeladim, we emphasize the formation of Jewish identity through activities that allow children to experience the pleasures of Jewish life.

We don’t stress specific knowledge or skills at that age as much as public schools have come to do, for two important reasons. One is, as child psychiatrist James Comer wrote, that “Emotion precedes attention which precedes learning. Information-learning needs relationship; the quality and culture of environment matters.” A child’s mastery of Jewish content is enhanced through acculturation to, and identification with, Jewish culture and life.

The second is that much of our pedagogical strategy builds on the students’ learning in secular (“regular”) school. This is especially apparent in Hebrew. For generations, Hebrew instruction in schools like ours did not begin until the third grade or later, because students develop reading proficiency most readily when they have already developed skills in phonetic reading in English.

Accordingly, our Hebrew program in the early grades is mostly oral, focusing on practical Hebrew vocabulary (the names of ritual objects, items in the classroom, etc.) and Hebrew songs, to create a cultural background for learning to read Hebrew. Because more children now leave the first grade with reading skills in English, our Hebrew curriculum for the second grade provides opportunities to transfer those skills to Hebrew.

It seems noteworthy that, although state academic standards for public schools have existed for many years and are frequently revised, New York released standards for social and emotional development and learning—in draft form—only in 2010. One of the draft standards’ illustrations of social and emotional learning reads, “In an effective play-based kindergarten the teacher is attuned to the children’s play themes and builds on them.” I’m surprised that they don’t mention the Gan Yeladim.