Sunday, March 19, 2017

Denise's Keynote Address

Boker Tov! Good Morning!
As I begin this keynote, you'll notice I have a unique way of speaking. Two reasons for it: First, I was born and raised in The Bronx, New York. Second. I have a disability--Cerebral Palsy or CP—which I've had since birth. CP mainly affects the part of the brain that controls voluntary movement, as with Neil and myself. But it can also affect area of the brain that are responsible for sight, hearing, cognition, and speech, depending on how the brain was impacted. There are several different types of CP, and no two people will have it the same way.... But getting back to my speech, it may take some of you a bit of time to get used to or comfortable with my accent. And that's okay. In the end, I always get my point across..., unless I'm arguing with Neil!
Today, I like to share with you my experience with Jewish Education both as a child and as an adult. Growing up, I didn't get a formal Jewish education. I never went to Hebrew or Religious School. My family weren't Synagogue Jews. My father went to High Holiday Services and, when a close relative died, he'd go say Kaddish during the year of mourning... My mother only went to say Yizkor for her mother. And to be honest I think my parents just had their hands too full raising two little girls, one of which, me, had a disability. Looking at the big picture, Religious School wasn't that important anyway, since only boys in my family had B'nei Mitzvahs... I remember my parents did send my sister one year, but she was never into it. I, on the other hand would have loved to go—but in those days, it was just an accepted norm that kids with disabilities weren't integrated into activities with children who didn't have disabilities.
So, how did I learn to be Jewish? Where did I get my Jewish identity? Well, from my family, of course! My father's parents emigrated from Russia/Poland to escape the Pogroms in the late 1800s. They were Orthodox Jews and remained so all their lives, so I knew that they didn't do certain things, like use the phone or ride on Saturday—on Shabbos. My father was less observant. I think because he often had to work on Saturdays. As for my mother's side of the family, both her parents were born in the United States. They prided themselves on being Americanized, hardly even spoke Yiddish. Yet, the maternal side of my mother's family kept their Jewish rituals. So, in the home I grew up, in we kept kosher, we lit Shabbos candles; my mother recited the prayer she had from her mother—with a few of the words, as I later learned, mispronounced.
In my informal Jewish upbringing, I learned about observing holidays—Rosh HaShonah, Yom Kippur, Chanukkah, Pesach. The stories. The food. The culture. The dos and don'ts. I remember going the Bar Mitzvah celebrations of all my male cousins on Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons, not even knowing they had been called up to the Torah on Shabbos morning. As a matter of fact, I don't remember even hearing the word “Torah” ever referred to when I was young.
I was always curious about knowing more but whenever I asked questions, I just received cursory answers. “Why don't Grandpa and Grandma ride on Shabbos?” “It's a sin!” “Why can't they turn on the lights?” “It's work!” The answers didn't make much sense to me. Neither did why only boys got to have Bar Mitzvahs! So in my mind, I grew to view Judaism as restrictive and very patriarchal.
When I moved to the West Coast in my twenties, I'd be invited to a Seder for Passover or a friend would drag to a High Holiday service, and although I would never admit, I longed to belong to a Jewish community. But I never felt like I fit in. I always felt like a stranger. No one was friendly. They were uncomfortable around me, so I was uncomfortable around them. It seemed like the very people who are inherently taught to remember their history of oppression and prejudice, were all too ready to exclude me. It didn't seem very Jewish to me!
So, nu, what happened? How did I get here—of all places?
Well, for one thing, I became a parent, and since Neil and I lived 3,000 miles away from our families, we wanted to make sure our son David got a sense of being “Jewish.” We enrolled him in Religious School.
I was definitely out of my comfort zone. David learned things that I had no clue about: Tzedakah boxes. Parshat. Havdalah.
Luckily, in the Reform Synagogue, Temple Sinai, where we ended up, there were enough congregants, clergy, and staff—just a handful, at first—who made us feel welcome. Rabbi Chester didn't bat an eye when we showed up the day of registration. He introduced us to Brunetta, who worked in the office; she nonchalantly asked if we wanted help filling out the forms. Barbara from the membership committee came to our home to welcome us as congregants. I met people who truly understood how to role model Jewish values. I was fascinated by a Judaism that centered around building community, a Judaism that requires us to show up and learn.
I began to attend services, take classes, become active and, speak up about accessibility. And I found out I wasn't alone; there were others in the congregation who spoke up, too. I began to get called on to join committees. The more I got involved, the more I broke down physical and attitudinal barriers toward disability along with other members of the congregation. Not all. It might never be all. But eventually, I felt a part of the Temple Sinai community.
Somewhere, along the line, Rabbi Chester put the bug in my ear—actually from the bimah at David's Bar Mitzvah—that I should have a Bat Mitvah of my very own. After thinking about it for a couple of years, I started to study Hebrew, began taking voice lessons, and set the date. I led the congregation in a Shabbat service one July morning in 2005, with a few accommodations. If I had it to do over, I'd give a shorter Drash!
But let's go back to Jewish Values. If you think about it, the great thing about Jewish Values is that they don't discriminate! That's why, as Jewish educators, you have a unique opportunity when you have kids with disabilities in your classroom because you're in a position to mold behaviors that foster confidence, community, and Jewish Values for every student. You can teach them that everyone has worth and ability, that everyone is made B'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. And it's not just your students who will benefit; it's their families as well. Parents of children with disabilities often feel isolated from other parents. They can experience being just as left out because of assumptions made about their child because he/she has a disability. They are used to having their child perceived as different in the secular world. But you have chance as teachers to educate, to be facilitators and role models of inclusion.
Isn't that the real beginning of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world?
Thank you.

What We Can Learn From “Special Ed”?

Thank you for inviting Denise and me to today's conference. I'd like you to consider whether the way we teach children with disabilities should be the way we teach all children. I will contrast my school experiences attending a segregated public program for children with disabilities and an integrated Jewish education after school program. I will also discuss the importance of setting high expectations for all students and why I think it is the most critical factor in education.

I grew up in the 1950s in Brooklyn New York. I attended a public grammar school that was an hour bus ride from my home. The school had a quote health conservation unquote program for children with disabilities that was in the basement of a school. My classmates and I yearned to be with the quote normal unquote kids who were upstairs. We wanted to go to school in our neighborhoods with the other kids who lived on our block. As my classmates and I grew older, we became strong advocates for mainstreaming.

The only time I was with non-disabled kids was in religious school. The after-school program was 3 long blocks from my home and on the 2nd floor of an inaccessible building. The school bus would drop me off near the after-school religious program. My Mom would meet me there and drag me upstairs. 90 minutes later she would return with my 2 wheel bicycle that had training wheels, and I would pedal home. I wasn't allowed to have a wheelchair until high school, and I wasn't allowed to have a powered wheelchair until I went to Grad School at U.C. Berkeley.

As I age, I often wonder whether my advocacy regarding mainstreaming was backward. Instead of integrating children with disabilities into normal classes, should we integrate children without disabilities into special education? Should special education be the norm?

I need to quickly point out that I am biased by the fact that I had the same excellent teacher from the fourth grade through the eighth grade – Mrs. Diane Cantor. Mrs. Cantor saw the potential in me, pushed me hard, and often told me that I needed to be better than normal kids. She taught me to excel at what I'm good at and not worry about what I can't do. She explained that the main idea behind special education was to find the strength that each child has, exploit that strength ensuring the child will be able to live as independently as possible. I acknowledge that many people that went through special ed think their education was inferior to their non-disabled peers. They feel they were not adequately prepared for quote real world unquote. However, shouldn't the education I received be the goal for all education?

The children that attended the segregated special education program were indeed my peers. We all had disabilities. We went to therapy. We went to special segregated recreation programs. We played together, and we had a common goal – to be like the kids upstairs.

In hindsight, I wonder whether I would have done as well if I was the only disabled child in a regular education class. I wonder if I would have known how to play with non-disabled kids. Most importantly, I wonder if the teacher would have had the same high expectations of me. In the after-school religious program I attended, I never played with the other children. We never hung out together. The teacher did not have any real expectations for me. Occasionally I'd deliberately mispronounce my Hebrew to see whether the teacher would correct me. They never did.

Expectations are the most crucial success factor in education and inclusion. We usually live up to what people expect of us. If we expect our students do well, they will. If we expect our students not to do well, they will do that too. If we expect someone to be friendly and fun, they probably will be, and if we expect them to be boring and hard to understand, we'll be right about that too.

One of my favorite rabbis, Rabbi Berlin, tells a story that illustrates the importance of having high expectations has on inclusion. Her family, which included a brother with a developmental disability, did not feel welcomed at their old synagogue. Although her family was active at their old temple, there was no role for her brother. The rabbi at the new synagogue immediately asked her brother to please turn the lights off before Havdalah and turn the lights back on at the end of the service. Her brother was thrilled! From then on he had his job. He knew he was needed. He and his family knew they were wanted. The rabbi had created an environment where everyone was expected to contribute and where everyone felt valued.

Working for a profit-making business also illustrates how having high expectations can lead to feelings of inclusion. Although big banks and big corporations have received bad press lately, working for Wells Fargo was terrific for me. Working there, you really understood that if you did well and contributed to the bottom line, it didn’t matter what sex you were, what religion you practiced, what color you were or even what you sounded like. There were many nights when there were system problems. They would call me and inevitably find a way to understand what I was saying – because they needed to! I was expected to do well. One of my favorite stories happened near the beginning of my career before there was online computing, The system crashed at 1AM. My van was in the shop, Trains in the Bay Area don’t run all night. Wells Fargo sent an armored van to transport me, and my 300 pounds powered wheelchair to the data center.

My favorite Torah story is God's denying Moses's request not to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. God expected that with the right tools, Moses, with his speech impairment, would be a great leader. Sure enough, with tools including a rod and a Communication Assistant, Moses was a great leader.

After 29 years of working at Wells Fargo, I retired as a Sr. Vice President to start a disability-focused employment company that specializes in consulting on staffing and placement issues. I quickly realized that there are systemic problems that intrinsically inhibit people with disabilities from working and being productive. Our society holds meager expectations for individuals with disabilities. Defining disability as the “inability to work”to receive disability benefits is an inherent disincentive. I am dedicating the rest of my retirement to see that these old policies are changed. I am doing so by working with The World Institute on Disability where I am leading an initiative called CareerACCESS.

My request to all educators is to please have very high expectations of all students. Discover what they are good at and help them make it great. Discover what causes the gleam in their eyes to sparkle and help them focus on that as much as possible. Discover what makes them angry and what they want to change. Help them find strength in their anger turns it into actions. Help students learn what tools they need to succeed and how to acquire them. Most importantly, teach students to have fun. These are the ideas behind special education. These are Jewish values I most appreciate. These are things all children need and deserve.

Thank you for listening and Go! Go! Go!