By Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, Director, Special Needs and jkidphilly

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made…”

In 1949, these powerful lyrics from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s award-winning musical “South Pacific” challenged assumptions about relationships between different racial and ethnic groups during the pre-Civil Rights era, suggesting what was then the highly controversial idea that prejudice and fear of differences is not born within us, but rather is transmitted from one generation to the next. Though it’s 65 years later, those lyrics resonate powerfully for me, as much of my personal and professional life relates to raising awareness of people who are “different,” not because of skin color, but because of cognitive, physical or developmental disabilities. Though many schools have done wonderful work in diversity training around race, gender, sexual preferences and other differences, our society still often fails to recognize the necessity for education about people who are differently-abled.

For people growing up as part of Generation X (in the ‘70s/’80s) like me, we went to public schools that were finally required to provide special education, but didn’t necessarily know how to integrate students with differences into the school community. I remember that my elementary school had one special education class, but we had no opportunity to interact with the students who spent their day in that room—away from us on the playground, in the cafeteria, or even in our assemblies. On the occasion when we did pass those students in the hallway, my friends and I would snicker at one girl in particular, who shouted out loudly and who sang through the hallways at the top of her lungs. I cringe with shame and regret as I recall how we laughed at her, but I also recognize that no adult stopped to explain to us that her brain worked differently from ours, and that the impulse control mechanism which stops us all from acting on every impulse that we have, was damaged in her brain. Did the teachers not hear our laughs? By not addressing our behavior, the adults taught us that it was acceptable to make fun of someone with a cognitive difference.

I know that I was a sensitive and generally thoughtful child who was highly aware of how different I felt, being one of two Jewish children in my grade, but my experience of being an “other” didn’t stop me from seeing those children as “other.” I hope that if an adult had explained to me and helped me to understand why that girl was acting that way that I would have smiled rather than laughed at her behind her back.

In my life now, as a parent raising a son with autism, I educate people by default about disability; it might be when explaining to one of my daughter’s new friends about why my son communicates using a keyboard on his iPad rather than speaking, or by engaging the kind man who runs the carousel at the mall and offers my son a free ride because he “looks a little handicapped” about the kinds of differences that he has. These conversations may be a little bit uncomfortable at first, but usually end with huge shared sighs of relief that we could speak aloud together what we were wondering about.

February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month (JDAM), and it is a time when we adults can stretch the way that we engage—and carefully teach—our children about Jewish values like B’tzelem Elohim (that all human beings are created in God’s image). Doing so will influence the way that we interact with people who have differences from us.

This Sunday, Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion initiative and jkidphilly program will create an opportunity for all families to start conversations with their children about differences. At a special “Cakes and Miracles” playdate, we will read one of our favorite PJ Library books about Hershel, a boy who is blind but exceeds  his mother’s expectations by making cookies in beautiful shapes because he is able to see pictures in his mind. Hershel’s ability to use his sense of touch teaches his mother—and his entire community—to focus on what he can do, rather than what he cannot.

That is the message that I share when teaching about disability awareness through Whole Community Inclusion: each of us has differences; each of us has abilities. At our playdate, we’ll read “Cakes and Miracles,” and share in a conversation that allows young children to recognize their own special abilities and to think about how they relate to someone who is different from them. Of course, we will also have snacks, time to hang out together, and help children create beautiful Purim masks to take home for their Purim celebrations.

I hope that if you are able, you and your children (preschool and elementary age) will join us:

Cakes & Miracles Playdate
3:30pm – 5:00pm on Sunday, February 16th
The Little Theater at the Video Library 
7157 Germantown Avenue / Philadelphia, PA  19119

As a community of adults, it is our collective responsibility to teach the important Jewish values that we want our children to live.

Join the conversation: How will you share the idea and practice of inclusion with your family and friends this month?