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In My Kehillah: by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

As we enter the end of summer (I know–it’s here!), those of us who work in education are turning our attention towards our classroom communities.

How do we create inclusive Jewish education communities? At Jewish Learning Venture, our Whole Community Inclusion initiative approaches inclusion holistically, engaging all stakeholders including the educators, the families, clergy and synagogue leaders and of course, the students themselves. We’ve implemented a number of successful programs to support inclusion, including:

Providing support for families: Families raising Jewish children with disabilities have many priorities focused on getting their child(ren) the educational, therapeutic, and/or medical supports that they may need. Jewish education and engagement may be necessarily a lower priority on their list. Through our jkidACCESS website and family initiative, we take a proactive role in reaching out to families and letting them know that the Jewish community is a place of support.

Professional development for educators: Teachers in Jewish congregational schools come with a lot of heart, passion and dedication to passing on Jewish culture and traditions. But the reality is that many of them do not have a professional background in education, let alone special education. We can’t expect teachers to know how to create differentiated instruction without giving them special education resources and tools.

Training teens for extra support: We know that some students may require extra assistance to be part of a classroom and sometimes that support can come from a teenager who can take a child on a sensory break, help to provide positive reinforcement, or lead a child in 1:1 learning. For 21 years, we have trained teens in the Reta Emerson Fellowship/Teen Assistant program who then volunteer to make Jewish classrooms more inclusive.

And yet, more is needed…

Children are naturally curious and ask wonderful questions about things that are new to them. While our society is becoming more inclusive generally, we can not assume that young children have met people who use different forms of accommodations or communication. If a young child hasn’t been taught that a service dog is different from a dog who is a pet, for example, we can’t expect them to know how to interact with a service dog.

the cover of the book "in My Kehillah" with cover art featuring five children, two with visible disabilitiesOur creative Whole Community Inclusion team has created a children’s book In My Kehillah: a book about friends with disabilities to educate young children (ages 4-8) about the Jewish values of inclusion.

In My Kehillah is unique among books that address disability for children because it is grounded in Jewish values, including:

Adam Yechidi Nivra (every person is a unique creation), Chessed (loving kindness), Kavod (respect), and Kehillah (community). The cute cast of relatable characters with different abilities shows the values in action and illustrate what it means to be an inclusive community.

This book is not only for educators but for all of us adults to share with the important children in our lives–Parents, Grandparents, Clergy, camp directors. In My Kehillah gives adults an easy, natural way to introduce and talk about disability.

Now is the time to order your copy for your classroom, congregation or home! We have also created free, downloadable lesson plans for Jewish educators to use in conjunction with the book.

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is Jewish Learning Venture’s Chief Program Officer. Gabby is an author, educator, parent and proud recipient of the 2022 Covenant Award. Her other books include The Little Gate-Crasher, the story of her remarkable Great-Uncle’s life. She also teaches online workshops on creativity and spirituality.

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