I couldn’t open the synagogue door. For that matter, I couldn’t even get to the door. Opening the heavy wooden door required holding it open with one hand. Getting to the door meant climbing a flight of stairs. Neither was possible for me on crutches, in the middle of a New England winter.
I needed help. I needed someone to bear my weight up the stairs so I didn’t slip on ice. I needed someone to hold the door open for me while I entered. I even needed someone to shut the door behind me.
To be clear, I got help. My partner dropped me off, parked the car, carried the crutches, and opened the door. Thanks to the help, I participated in Kabbalat Shabbat. But I was left wondering how many people lose out on the chance to participate in Jewish community because they lack the ability to walk through the door? Are families who live with disabilities every single day left out in the cold?
Anecdotes are powerful for conveying ideas, but systemic change requires systemic knowledge, not anecdotal knowledge. According to JData, in the 2015-2016 academic year, 201 part-time schools enrolled over 30,000 children total. On average, 10% of schools’ enrolled students were identified as special needs. For the same time span, 108 day schools enrolled over 31,000 children, 21% on average identified with special needs. While this is a geographically diverse sample, we cannot know if these averages hold true for the entire community without a broader census. What we can say is that for this academic year, 1 out of every 10 children enrolled in these part-time schools and 2 out of every 10 children enrolled in these day school have been identified as special needs. The question we can’t answer may be the most critical–how many more go undiagnosed, have siblings or parents with special needs, are simply embarrassed to be “different,” or simply don’t show up for whatever reason?
Special needs is a broad category and includes children with physical, emotional, mental, or other special needs; but the metaphor still works. More so than any other segment of American Judaism, families with special needs require help accessing Jewish community and Jewish education.
In a time of declining part-time school enrollment (see JData Revealed, Nov. 2015), Jewish educators and communal professionals must focus on engaging students and families who need support “opening the door” or “climbing the steps.” My temporary injury made me feel disadvantaged and disconnected from Jewish community. Imagine the isolation felt by those who permanently face such challenges.