By Sierra Weiss
I recently visited the campuses of the Mandel JCC in South Florida for the agency’s first Inclusion Institute, a three-day training initiative for early childhood education (ECE) professionals, along with representatives from 10 JCCs across the JCC Movement. In addition to observing students in the incredible classroom models the Mandel JCC has developed, we shared strategies and used training modules to help ensure that ECE spaces are inclusive of students with disabilities.
A panel discussion on the second day featured parents of children with disabilities, many of whom had been turned away from other ECEs because of concerns about their children’s disabilities and support needs. Facing the possibility that their children—and, by extension, the whole family—might not be welcomed or supported in Jewish communal programs and spaces, numerous panelists expressed a fear of losing their entire connection to the Jewish community.
When they entered the Mandel JCC, however, they learned that such fears were unfounded. They discovered an inclusive community in which all people and families can participate as their authentic selves, maintaining connections to their Jewish identity and their Jewish community. The Mandel JCC understands that when a child with a disability is turned away from the Jewish community, not only do we lose that child and their entire family, but we also contradict our mission and the very essence of what it means to be a Jewish Community Center.
The day after my return, Judy Heumann died. Often considered the “mother of the disability rights movement”—and one of my personal and professional heroes—her legacy includes immeasurable progress toward the inclusion of people with disabilities in the U.S. and around the world. I was honored to meet Heumann early in my career and hear her speak about how her Jewish day school had excluded her in the 1950s, solely because of her disability. As a graduate of a Jewish day school that values community and welcomes all, and an alumna of a Jewish summer camp where people with disabilities are included in a way that inspired my entire career trajectory, I could not begin to fathom that this incredible Jewish leader was refused entry into a Jewish institution.
Fortunately, despite being turned away from the Jewish community as a child, Heumann was exceedingly proud of her Jewish heritage. A news segment about her life noted that “because she made a fuss, Judy Heumann made everyone’s life better.” Her dogged commitment to speaking out to create a space for herself and others—within the Jewish community and beyond—has enhanced the disability landscape for all time. So much has changed since Heumann’s childhood, in part thanks to her efforts, but we still have far to go. Jewish early childhood education is a most significant gateway into Jewish communal life for Jewish families, and the JCC Movement is among the largest networks of Jewish ECE practitioners. We have a responsibility to strengthen our communities by strengthening our inclusive practices.
In South Florida, it became abundantly clear to me that our preschools are already diverse. One in 36 children under age 8 is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and one in six children ages 3 to 17 is diagnosed with a developmental disability. Surely, it is our duty to do everything we can—with intentionality and purpose—to ensure proper care and treatment for all our students and community members.
It was evident to all of us at the Inclusion Institute that the effects of adopting an inclusive classroom model stretch far beyond meeting the needs of children with disabilities and their families. In fact, all children in ECE classrooms at the Mandel JCC have better outcomes. Although inclusive practices have long been seen as exclusively benefiting students with disabilities, when we offer every student different ways to engage with the learning materials, along with the supports to do so, all students receive the individualized care they require. When we view all programming through the lens of inclusion, outcomes improve for all participants and the entire system benefits. In the future, we can only imagine that graduates of inclusive ECE classrooms will develop into adults for whom inclusion is the norm. Adopting an inclusive classroom model betters our communities today and has immense potential to positively influence the future of the entire Jewish community.
As centers of Jewish life and community, JCCs across the continent can give people a place to be their full, true selves and find fulfillment and satisfaction. When we create inclusive and accessible places, we don’t just make our community better for those who require those services, we better our community for all.
Sierra Weiss is JCC Association of North America’s access and inclusion specialist for the JCC community.