Parents as Partners

Fostering relationships with parents; Removing the Stumbling Block

Educators want ways to handle difficult conversations with parents. They are eager to help their students, but seem to feel great apprehension around how to potentially develop open and supportive communication with parents.

Open and supportive communication with parents is essential for a successful Jewish supplemental school experience for any child, especially those with special learning needs. However, my goal is to encourage a “bigger picture”, more reflective approach to such dialogues, rather than just diving in to the challenging conversations.

Here are the key points that I feel can help to build the foundation for meaningful, supportive and productive relationships with parents:

It’s all about relationships:
All of the work that we do in synagogues is relationship based.  Building strong, lasting relationships with congregants is at the center of the work of rabbis, cantors, educators and other synagogue professionals.  It should also be at the center of the work of our teachers in supplemental schools.  Strong relationships are built on trust.  Our parents need to trust that we are really here to support their children and that we really want to take this journey with them.  All the more so for families of children with special needs, which leads me to my second key point.

Say yes; Removing the Stumbling Block
Say YES:
Parents of children with special needs can spend many hours of their days in “battle”.  They often struggle with doctors, insurance agents, therapists, secular school teachers and so on.  When they join a faith community, what I believe they most want is to find a place where they don’t have to fight, where they can be accepted as they are and where their family can come for respite and rejuvenation.  It seems logical that they should be able find this in a synagogue community.  The most significant thing that synagogue professionals can say to parents and family members of those with special needs or disabilities is, “Yes, we can meet “Jonah’s” needs…now help me understand how to do that.”  Or “Yes, of course your family can worship here and be a part of our community…please help me understand how we can make that possible for you.”  I am not suggesting that every request can and will be met with “yes”, but we have to start by opening the door and building the relationship, so that if there are things that are not possible, we can speak about them openly and honestly.  When we start with yes, we rely on our trusting relationships to guide us.

Parents of children with special needs need to grieve:
When parents learn of a child’s disability, they need to grieve…not for the child, but for the idea of what they thought parenting would be.  They have to process through the grief of what they may not be able to have, while coming to terms with the new reality of what they can have.  This is not easy.  But isn’t this the very nature of the work of a religious community?  Aren’t we in the business of pastoral care?  Too often I think that educators believe that grief counseling is the work of clergy.  Too often we compartmentalize our congregant’s needs into “clergy stuff’ and “school stuff”.  But when a child with special needs significantly struggles in Religious School, parents can be thrown back into the grief cycle, this time wondering if they will have to give up on their idea of bar/bat mitzvah (not to mention Confirmation, Jewish marriage or any other Jewish life cycle events).  When educators focus on a student’s limitations, they may inadvertently put a family back into a stance of defensiveness.  Again, I am not suggesting that we don’t ever discuss a child’s limitations, but rather that we need to do this in the context of supporting relationships that begin with “yes”.  When we honor the grief process and support our families, we develop trusting and lasting relationships.  

Fostering relationships leads us to build community and enables us to open our doors, our congregations, our schools and our hearts so that all will be welcome. 

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Finding a Place Where ALL Can Worship

Faith communities, that ALL may worship; Removing the Stumbling Block
When I wrote my first post, I referenced a good friend who pushed me to take the leap and start this blog. And it is true...her gentle (and not so gentle!) prodding was definitely what I needed. But it would be wrong to imply that I hadn't been thinking about this for a while.

This past Summer, I was honored to have the opportunity to present a workshop for my colleagues called, "What does it mean to be an Inclusive Community? A day of Jewish Special Education Learning". I partnered with Dori Kirshner, the Director of Matan and Felice Miller Baritz, the Religious School Principal at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY. Together we shared resources, strategies and stories to empower forty of our colleagues in their work as Jewish Educators. I was pleased that the day was very well received and that the feedback was both wonderfully positive & productively constructive. Little did I know that an off-hand suggestion would be the greatest gift of the day.

As we walked back from lunch, a close colleague said to me, "I have a very good friend named Ellen, and she writes a blog about her son, Max. It's called "Love that Max". You should check it out."

I'll be honest...Summer came & went with vacations, camp and the typical start-a-new-school-year work, and it wasn't until the holy days were upon us that I finally took the time to read Ellen's blog. And this is the article that was front & center: Love That Max: Why is it so hard to find a place of worship that ...

ALL Can Worship, Temple Beth-El Hillsborough, NJ; Removing the Stumbling BlockSome would say it was bashert (Hebrew for meant to be). My heart broke as a I read her words. I wanted scream out that this is exactly what I do, that of course what she wants is possible! I wanted to comment and say, "Come to my place!" I wanted to call all of the synagogues in her area and offer my services as a consultant. And I started thinking that maybe it really was time to start my own blog. Maybe my posting this now is bashert...maybe the right person in the right congregation is reading.

So here I am sharing her post because it still gets to me. I am frustrated on her behalf. I am bewildered by how many families are told, "no" by their faith communities. And I am ready to help make a difference.

Special Needs…Disabilities…What’s the difference?



Do we really hear disbility and think broken? Removing the Stumbling Block

Sixteen years ago my synagogue hired me as our Religious School’s Special Needs Consultant. Within a year that title changed to Special Needs Coordinator. A subtle shift, but one that we believed demonstrated our commitment to the permanence of our program. Today I serve as a full-time Education Director with oversight of our disability inclusion efforts. But if anyone asks me what I do for a living, my reply is typically that I am a Jewish Educator and a Jewish Inclusion Expert.

Why so much focus on the semantics? Isn’t it just a job title after all? Isn’t the work I do far more important than the label we attach to it?

My congregation’s Outreach Committee hosted a breakfast to explore starting a support group for parents and grandparents of children with disabilities. When I helped to edit the invitation, I chose to write “parents and grandparents of children with disabilities”, thinking that it would make our message clear and might help us to draw participation from the larger community. However, a member of the planning committee, a mother who’s son is on the autism spectrum, immediately wrote and asked me to change it to “special needs” because “it seems less harsh than the term disability; disability just has a more negative connotation”.

Is that true? Does disability really conjure up negative images? 

Have we made no genuine advances as a society? Do we really hear disabled and think broken? Maybe that is why we have to celebrate when a young girl with Spina Bifida is on the cover of Parents Magazine:

Or when a boy with Cerebral Palsy and his brother are Sports Illustrated Kids Stars of the Year?

 
I feel sad that these aren’t just “normal” occurrences in our society yet.

Is “special needs” just that much gentler than “disability”, and is gentler better? Or are we perpetuating the use of an outdated euphemism that serves to harm more than help?

Honestly, I don’t have the answers. I prefer the term disability and use it almost exclusively in my writing and my work. But I know that there are others who disagree, and I acknowledge that. 

I will say this: The work I am honored to do is most definitely special. Maybe that’s enough.

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We are Playing Wheelchair

Like most parents, I have a lot of funny stories about my kids. 


Modeling works. Period. Lisa Friedman via Removing the Stumbling Block

I also have things I’d like to brag about, some frustrating stories, a few sad stories and a handful of stories about those “aha” moments. But every once and a while, there is a story that completely and seamlessly merges your parenting and your professional life.   

This is mine.

First, a little background. My husband and I have really close friends that we have known since high school.  They fall into that special category of “lifelong friends”, so of course our children have become friends. Their son is a year older than our oldest, three years older than our youngest. They have been playing together since they were babies. None of them can remember a time when the others weren’t a part of their lives. Oh, and their son has Cerebral Palsy and uses both a wheelchair and a communication device.

So one weekend when my kids were five and three, we all got together for dinner. It was unremarkable in that we went to our friends' house, the kids played and we parents schmoozed. Two days later I was in my kitchen making dinner when I looked up see my son pushing my daughter around our hallway at top speed in her small stuffed Princess chair. Immediately worried for their safety, I called out for them to stop and asked what they were doing. 

My son’s response?  “Mommy, we are playing wheelchair!”

In that moment a two things happened:
1. I cried.  Real tears.  The joyous ones.
2. I quickly closed the basement door so they would not topple down a flight of stairs and told them to go back to playing.
Since then I have reflected on this experience a great deal and I have told the story to anyone who will listen. I'm so proud that my kids have the gift of this friend in their lives. And I am so glad that they recall this story as fondly as I do.  It is a hallmark for me as both a parent and a Jewish Inclusion Expert. It brought together all that I had already known, all that I believe and all that I strive to teach.

Lesson #1:
Modeling works. Period. It is totally and completely possible to teach children that disabilities are a normal part of life. That wheelchair is not our friend’s son. It’s just a way for him to get around.

Lesson #2:
Children innately know how to overlook the things that make adults uncomfortable.  Adults bring complicated emotions to their interactions; children bring a natural sense of joy and wonder.  Of course my children wanted to have a wheelchair, they are big and shiny.

Lesson #3:
Every child is a precious gift from God.  Each of us is created B’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God). 

It really is that simple.  

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To Blog or Not to Blog?



Celebrating! Removing the Stumbling Block

In celebration of this blog's three-year anniversary I went back to the beginning. I am marveling at how much I have grown as a blogger and how much I have learned. It's been an amazing journey that I am so glad I have taken. Thanks so much for coming along for the ride.



So I have a good friend who has been encouraging me to start a blog.  I’ve been pretty sure that blogging is not for me, but she loves it and has experienced much personal satisfaction and professional success from hers.

Why do I think I’m not meant for blogging? Quite honestly, I think it is self-indulgent.  Why should anyone want to read my options over anyone else's?  I mean really, I know I have ideas, and I know some of them are good.  A few of them are probably really good.  But none of that makes me any different from anyone else, right?

Don’t get me wrong.  I am a fan of the internet (and social media and technology in general).  I respect its value and I am in awe of its power.  And I am well aware that I probably only scratch the surface of what it can really do on a daily basis.  And like everyone else, I can’t actually remember how I survived before its existence.

To blog or not to blog; Removing the Stumbling Block
And as for blogs in particular, I’ve read a lot of them.  There are good blogs.  There are some REALLY good blogs.  But I keep coming back to this idea of self-indulgence.  Why should anyone read MY blog?  Why are MY ideas any better than yours?  And so that’s what stops me.  Because I find that I can’t get past this idea that a blog is just simply a way to promote me.  And really, that’s just not who I am.

So who am I? I am all the things so many other bloggers are; I am a wife and mother, I am a teacher, I am a friend and an amateur chef and an avid reader. But I am also a Jewish Educator.  And a Jewish Special Educator.  And that’s where all of my pondering about blogging comes in. 

I have, for 12 years, been directing a successful special education program within a supplemental Religious School in a Reform congregation in Central New Jersey.  I have, for many years, been the only one in my area running such a program, and I am still the only one in my area running one that is so expansive.  I have been asked to speak about my experiences, share my expertise and both help and encourage others to start programs.  I have served on committees, chaired task forces within the Reform Movement and have written many articles.  I have been recognized for my work, which is an honor and a privilege.

And so over the years I have thought seriously about putting myself “out there” as a Jewish Special Education Consultant to offer the workshops that I have developed, to speak about my experiences and to help empower others to create programs of their own.  But this brings me back to where I started…how do you “put yourself out there” without being self-indulgent?  How do you say, “I have a lot to offer” without sounding arrogant?  Where is the balance between necessary promotion and self-indulgence, and how do you find it?

Rabbi Hillel teaches in Pirkei Avot 1:13, “He who advances his name, destroys his name” and in the Babylonian Talmud we learn from Rabbi Joshua ben Levi that, “Humility is greater than all other virtues”.

And so I decide...to blog.
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