learning to live and love from a new perspective

Archive for March, 2017

D’Var Torah – Parsha Vayikra

I am part of a “Community of Practice” that meets monthly.  Our group is comprised of educators who work in Jewish schools.  Together, we study and learn together on the topic of supporting inclusion of individuals with disabilities within our schools.  Each meeting begins with one member offering a “D’var Torah”.  Literally, this means “words of Torah”.  We connect the Torah story of the week to the work we are doing around inclusion.  It was my turn today….  and even though I’m not experienced in writing a D’var, I was happy with the way this one turned out.  So here it is.  Enjoy!

 

D’Var Torah – Parsha Vayikra

I’d like to start with a story I posted on my personal Facebook page last week:

We have a fence in our backyard that’s about 10 panels long. In the last storm, the posts that hold up the first three panels got uprooted. David called a contractor to come look at the fence, and give an estimate for repair. Yesterday, the doorbell rang. It was the contractor. He was a big, taciturn-looking guy with a thick Russian accent. I went with him into the back yard to look at the fence. Big Fence Guy paces back and forth a few times, scratching his chin as he goes. Then he comes back to me.


Big Fence Guy: I theenk you have two choices. You can replace whole fence, which weel cost lots. Or, you can replace just posts ruined in storm. I’m not sure how long rest of fence will last, so I’m not sure best answer.


Me: Oh, I see. You’re not sure which advice to give me. It sounds like you’re on the fence.


Big Fence Guy:


Me: It’s an American expression. “On the fence” means you’re having trouble making a decision.


Big Fence Guy:


Me: In your line of work, I think that’s an expression you might enjoy knowing.


Big Fence Guy: (after a long pause, I see a slight smile). Yes, that’s good expression to know.

 In the current political climate, I’ve been very mindful of trying to make connections with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. I really enjoyed creating this particular bridge with a person whose job it is to build fences.

 And,yes…. I’m well aware that I’m a nerd.

 

While most of my friends appreciated the story, the puns, and my nerdiness… I did get push-back from one friend who argued that we should always reach out to people who are different from us, no matter what the political climate.

And this brings me to this week’s parsha.

In this first Parsha in the Book of Leviticus, G-d describes to Moses the laws of animal sacrifice. G-d goes into great, great detail about which animals shall be sacrificed, how they should be sacrificed, when they should be sacrificed and why they should sacrificed. There is very little left to the imagination in this recitation of laws.

Which led me to wonder, given that animal sacrifice is no longer part of Jewish ritual practice, what can be learned from this parsha? As I read through the commentaries, I discovered some of the purposes for sacrificing animals: to give the People of Israel a physical act that they could do to atone for sins, show appreciation to G-d, and also to bring themselves closer to G-d.

In modern life, our prayer services have taken the place of ritual sacrifice. Three times a day, there is an opportunity to physically take out a prayer book, and engage with G-d through prayer.

I also think a mindful commitment to Jewish values can take the place of ritual sacrifice as well. I believe that we all have good intentions. Jewish ritual and prayer can help us to transform those good intentions, which only exist in our minds and hearts, into behavior that carries out into the world.

Take the story at the beginning.   In our current political climate, my heart aches for immigrant families who live in fear of being deported and Muslim people (or people who resemble Muslims) who live in fear of being the target of hatred and bigotry. But it’s not enough for my heart to ache. I need to turn that ache into action. Make donations, attend rallies, and yes… even make a gesture of friendship and humor towards the big, burly guy who is mending my fence.

How does this relate to inclusion?

For all of us here, we are committed to making our schools, synagogues and communities more inclusive and welcoming towards individuals with disabilities. This Torah portion reminds us that it’s not enough for that commitment to reside within our own hearts and minds. In order to fulfill our commitment to inclusion, we need to be constantly at the ready to back up our commitment with action- even when that action is uncomfortable. We need to be ready to look beyond a child’s behavior (even if that behavior really pushes our buttons), and try to decode the message the child is communicating through the behavior. We need to be ready to offer feedback to our colleagues, even if we know that feedback might not be readily welcomed. We need to be ready to push back on parents, community members, or decision-makers in our communities if they are clinging to beliefs that pose barriers to inclusion.

Inclusion can be hard work. It can be messy and uncomfortable. However, we can hold on to the thought that that the work we do is an outward expression of a commitment to our Jewish values. And that thought can help us persevere when the work becomes difficult.

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Equality vs. Equity (or… the only thing I really want for my kid is for him to not NEED the damn boxes)

If you’ve been around here for a while, you will know that I’ve been involved in a project at my kids’ school to help parents in the school community better understand Inclusive Education.  The impetus behind this project
is described here:  https://frootloopsblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/10/changing-the-conversation-part-1.

I’ve had the privilege of working with an amazing team of educators at my kids’ school to plan and present a series of workshops to parents on the topic of Inclusive Education.  The most recent workshop was held last night.  The title of the workshop was ” Response to Intervention: Addressing the Needs of All Students at [our school]”.

The bulk of the workshop was a fabulous presentation by a first grade teacher and our school’s Intervention Specialist.  It was mostly about how the school uses assessment data to group kids, and plan lessons based on the specific skills each child needs to work on.  The presentation began and ended with this graphic:equity

Using the image as a springboard, one parent raised her hand and said the following, “I really appreciate your presentation, and I’m trying to get some more clarity on this issue.  I hope this question won’t seem insensitive, as that’s not my intention.”  She paused, and then continued, “ I get that we want to provide enough boxes so that everyone can see over the fence.  What I’m wondering is what would happen if we give everyone 3 boxes?  Then everyone can see over the fence AND the kids who could see over the fence already could see even further!  What would that look like?”

I think this question gets right at the heart of teaching people about inclusion and Inclusive Education.

When I see this graphic (and I’ve seen it many, many times), I see three kids who have the same goal.  Let’s watch a baseball game together!  The only problem is that, in the picture on the left, the two big guys are busy enjoying the game…  while the only thing the little kid can see is fence.

When I see this graphic, it makes me so happy that the kids have figured out how to solve the problem.  Cool!  We have enough boxes!!  All we need to do is transfer a box from the big guy to the little guy.  Now we can all see!!  Look at that…  the Red Sox just scored a home run!!!

However, I think our society perpetuates a scarcity mentality.  What’s in those boxes?  How do I get one for my kid?   I also think our society elevates individualism over community.  Who cares about that little guy, as long as my kid can see the game…  that’s all that matters.  We’re seeing this writ large in national politics at the moment, and we can see it play out in our day to day lives.

Well I’m here to let you in on a little secret.  THE BIGGEST THING I WANT FOR MY KID IS FOR HIM NOT TO NEED THE DAMN BOXES!

Just to demystify a little bit…  let me tell you a bit about what’s inside my kid’s boxes.  Our first boxes were delivered when G was just 9 months old.  He wasn’t meeting his physical benchmarks, so he started working with a physical therapist.  We added speech therapy and occupational therapy when he was two.  Later, we added behavioral therapy and a play skills group.  Did I mention we received all these boxes before he was even three years old?

I remember bursting into tears one day when G was five.  We were just wrapping up a two-hour session with our behavioral therapist.  I was saying good-bye to her in the driveway, and I happened to look across the street.  Our neighbor and her five-year-old daughter were just returning home from kindergarten soccer.  It was a beautiful spring day, and the little girl’s soccer uniform was practically glistening in the sun.  Moments earlier, I had been on top of the world, thinking about the amazing progress G had made that day with his therapist.  My high spirits came crashing down when I started thinking about what he was missing out on.

After three years with the behavioral therapist, we finally made the decision that G had made enough progress to “graduate”.  While he still needs many other supports, he had acquired the specific set of skills she had to offer.  Nothing makes me happier than to get rid of one of those boxes.

Back to the graphic…  I think it’s a natural reaction to want the best for your kid.  And maybe, when you see that someone else’s kid got two boxes, while your kid has none, it might raise some questions about the boxes.  What I’m asking is to please, please….  think for a moment about what might be inside those boxes.

Those boxes represent ramps that make buildings handicap accessible.  Those boxes represent assisted listening devices for kids who can’t hear.  Those boxes represent hours of phonics instruction for kids who can’t hear the difference in the sound of a “p” versus the sound of a “d”.  Those boxes represent aides who can support students in overcoming the obstacles they face due to autism, ADHD, anxiety, or a billion other disabilities.  Those boxes represent whatever a kid needs so they can see the ballgame instead of the fence.

So again, I ask you….  let’s keep our focus on our goals as a school community.  Heck, let’s keep our focus on our goals as a society.   At the end of the day, it’s not about how many boxes you have.  It’s about working together to make sure everybody can see the game.

Brave Choices

defiant girlI’ve only written one blog post since the election.  I haven’t written at all since the inauguration.  I’ve been feeling inundated and overwhelmed by the staggering amount of information coming at me every day.  I’ve been trying to keep up with the news, and the repercussions of each new ill-conceived policy, heartless executive order, and preposterous tweet.  As soon as I feel I have my head wrapped around one piece of news, and feel that I have an opinion I’d like to flesh out and share…  the next piece of news hits the wires…  and pulls my heartstrings in a different direction.

In honor of International Women’s Day, I carved out a bit of time for myself.  I wanted the luxury of an hour to think through and write about one topic.  The thought that kept bubbling to the top was “Impossible Choices”.  The Jewish holiday of Purim is coming up this weekend, where we honor the brave choices of female heroes.  Vashti, who chooses to refuse King Ahashverus’ order to come dance for him, even though it results in her banishment from the her position as queen.  Esther, who bravely risks a similar banishment when she chooses to tell King Ahashverus about Haman’s plot to kill the Jews.

I think about our current political climate and the impossible choices we are all either facing, or could face in the near future.  If you are a victim of a crime, but you are not a fully documented American, do you report the crime and risk deportation, or do you suffer the consequences of the act inflicted on you?  If you are poor, and you have to choose between health insurance and rent (or health insurance and the latest iPhone, as Paul Ryan would suggest), which do you choose?  If you witness an act of aggression towards an immigrant, a Muslim, a Jew…  do you intervene, and put yourself in harm’s way…  or do you look down, keep walking, and pretend you don’t see what’s happening?

It was this concept of “Impossible Choices” that guided me towards my first blog post in quite some time.

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I’ve known this day was coming.  March 8-  International Women’s Day.  Leaders from the Women’s March on Washington are organizing a “Day Without Women”.  Women across the country were encouraged to stay home from work if they can.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve struggled.  I generally work from home on Wednesdays, so staying home from work wouldn’t be noticed.  I could choose not to work today…  but that would only end up making me feel bad…  as the emails pile up, and relationships get strained when I don’t follow through on promises.

Then, last night, I heard this news.  Prince George’s County, MD announced that they would be canceling school today.  1700 teachers, as well as 30% of their transportation staff had requested a personal day for today.

Wow.  I began my teaching career in Silver Spring, MD.  While Silver Spring was part of wealthy Montgomery County, we were just two miles up the road from the border of Prince George’s County.  The demographics of my school (majority of students from low-income, minority families) more closely matched the profile of PG county schools, and not the upper-class,  mostly white population of the greater part of Montgomery County (Bethesda, Rockville, etc…  for those of you familiar with the area).

When I heard those numbers (1700 teachers and 30% of the transportation staff), I began to imagine myself on the other end of that decision-making process.  If I was alone, choosing to take the day off would have no impact.  But joining 1700 other teachers and shutting down the system?  That’s powerful.  Still, it would be hard a decision to make.  The short-term impact on parents will be substantial today.  All of us parents know that finding last-minute childcare is hard.  I’d feel incredibly guilty as a teacher knowing that I was deliberately causing a hardship to my students’ families-  especially families where parents’ jobs could be at risk if they didn’t show up.

If I was teaching in that district today, what would I do?  The Trump Administration is rolling out legislation that is going to have devastating effects on our national security, our health, our environment, and our education system.  The long term effects of these policies are going to be staggeringly painful to all of us, but particularly to the very population I’d be trying to protect by showing up for work.  It would be a difficult choice to make-  to knowingly cause short term inconvenience (and possibly harm?) in the service of long term goals.  But this is the world of impossible choices that we are all being forced to grapple with.

So I fully support the strikes, the walk-outs, the boycotts, and whatever other forms of non-violent protest happen today.  I’ve been hearing the phrase “we need to throw sand in the gears of everything” a lot lately.  In PG County, 1700 teachers and a huge number of transportation workers made a brave choice to throw sand in the gears today, and call attention to issues that matter to them.  I feel inspired by their actions, and hope, if given the opportunity to make a brave stand myself sometime, I will have the courage to do it.

But what can I do today?

Today, I’m wearing red in support.  I’m blogging for the first time since the Inauguration.  And I’m donating.  Tonight, my husband and I have allotted some time to talk about the amazing women in our world, and how we can meaningfully honor their efforts through our contributions.

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