Our experience at the Tikvah Family Shabbaton gave us a lot to think about. Finding ourselves in the majority and feeling like our family was completely in the mix of all the activities was unfamiliar. It felt good, and it was intoxicating. In the three years since G’s diagnosis, there have been so few environments where we felt like we could just walk right in and know that we were going to be included. Not just tolerated, but welcomed. G’s integrated preschool was like that. And his adaptive gymnastics class. G and S’s elementary school tries to be that way, and succeeds more often than not.
Our synagogue tries to be inclusive as well. When other parents of children with special needs have approached the rabbi or education director to discuss ways to help our children be included in activities or events, the leadership has been mostly receptive to our requests. And that’s been mostly okay with me. But now I wonder if I can hope for more.
Some time in the next month, my husband and I will make a visit to Gateways Jewish Education program. What is Gateways? According to their website:
Gateway’s Sunday Program offers a thematic Jewish education curriculum to students ages 5-18 who benefit from highly structured programming, individualized attention and small class sizes. Special education teachers utilize visual supports and differentiated instruction to present a multisensory curriculum.
We’d been hearing great things about this program for quite a while, but we’d never given it any serious thought. After all, G was doing okay at our synagogue’s Hebrew School. Isn’t the goal to keep him in the “least restrictive environment”? Wouldn’t that mean our home school? And wouldn’t we be stretched too thin… pulled in too many directions if we opted for Gateways? And what about the joy of having our kids in the same school, being part of the same community, having the same experiences?
But then we went to the Shabbaton. A few days later, I watched the video on the Gateways website for the first time. It brought me to tears. These are our people. This is G’s environment. Not the environment where he merely exists, dabbling around the edges of what everyone else is doing… but the one where he fully participates. Where he can flourish.
And for us? I find it challenging to be part of too many communities. I like that my kids are both at the same school. One Back to School Night. One End of Year Picnic. One set of parents and teachers to get to know, and social circles that seem to overlap more and more as we continue to put down roots in this community. It’s good.
I feel the same at shul, which is why I’ve been dragging my feet about pulling G out of Hebrew School. All of his classmates are my former students, or siblings of S’s friends, or kids of our friends. Many are all three. The web of connections has been forming for years. How will it feel to start from scratch?
But this new feeling that is taking root is that the Gateways community, the cohort of families who have children with special needs… these are our people too. It will take effort to create connections and establish bonds with a whole new set of people. It will take work, but it will be worth it. These are the families that we are missing in our lives right now. The ones with older children who we can learn from. The ones with younger children whom we can support as they follow in our footsteps.
The bottom line is that I know G could be successful in our synagogue Hebrew School. We could make it work. We could continue advocating for him, continue urging the school to adapt. We could seek out the resources he will need, and work with the school to implement our ideas. We could hold our breath and hope it works. And on the occasions that it doesn’t work, we can continue to be the family sitting out in the hall while others are enjoying a program that doesn’t quite work for us.
Or we could try something new.