I had always envisioned my children growing up feeling the sense of “Jewishness” that was so special to me in my own childhood, so we started our son at a Jewish preschool at the age of 2.
But it quickly became clear that he simply couldn’t function in a classroom and was getting nothing out of school. Our journey, which eventually led to an autism spectrum diagnosis, brought with it a roller coaster of emotions and never-ending to-do lists, and dealing with all of that required me to push aside my disappointment about giving up his Jewish preschool. It had become obvious that we had to send him to a special education program to provide the hours of intensive therapy he needed. So without so much as a glance back we forged ahead on this path, and amazingly after two years he had progressed so far that he was almost unrecognizable from the 2-year-old he was before it all started.
We found ourselves at the beginning of this current school year, his last year of preschool, with some decisions to make. The special education preschool program in our new school district, as remarkable as it is, did not provide enough hours of school for him with only four short afternoons a week. We knew we should consider a mainstream preschool as a supplement to his special needs program. He would benefit socially from being around “typical” peers, but we couldn’t help but wonder if he was really ready for it.
Then it struck me that this could be our chance to get some of that “Jewishness” that I had always wanted for him and had never been able to provide. We had spent so much time and energy on his special needs, we had been just too exhausted and overwhelmed to incorporate much Jewish education at home. And it saddened me that at family celebrations his cousins knew all about the Jewish holidays, while he didn’t. Weighed down by our fears, we decided to take the risk and send him to a Jewish preschool for part of his day.
In my mind, our decision was validated with the goose bumps I felt while reading the words highlighted on every communication from the school we had chosen, a core belief supporting “the full inclusion and participation of all people in religious and communal life, regardless of abilities,” and asserting that they “strive to accommodate all learners and appreciate individual differences.” It’s logical that a school built upon Jewish values would promote this philosophy, but certainly not every Jewish preschool states it so explicitly nor practices it in reality. My hesitations still loomed (would they be equipped to handle his behavioral challenges? Would the other kids like him? Would he get anything from the program?), but the school’s mere desire to be inclusive felt huge to me, like we had already won half the battle.
Today, I look back on the first half of the school year, and I know that his inclusion has not been a breeze. It hasn’t been easy for him, for his teachers, for the director, or for me. His behaviors did in fact prove to be challenging for the school. We partnered together, we communicated a lot, we did a whole lot of troubleshooting, and we had many doubts throughout. Yet in all of this, there were glimmers of hope and success: stories he brought home of new friends, excited chatter about Jewish holidays and classroom happenings.
The most unexpected and touching discovery we made was his passion for music, and a love for Jewish music in particular. Our house now fills with the strumming of his toy guitar and the sweet sound of his voice singing Jewish songs. It seems to truly touch his soul, and it is exactly what I had been hoping for him: a feeling of connection with Judaism that I treasure from my own childhood. The music, I believe, has eased his transition to this new school setting where he otherwise struggled. He now eagerly anticipates music class and Shabbat, welcoming havens for him where the music itself motivates him to join his class, a task that may seem small for others but has never come easily for him. It has allowed him to connect with friends and access the curriculum in a beautiful way that we hadn’t anticipated.
On top of all that he is gaining, one of my hopes is that by sending our son to this preschool and partnering in the process of his integration, we are also bringing the school a little bit closer towards their goal of inclusion, and perhaps, helping to increase the accessibility of Jewish education for families like ours. The year is only half done, and I know that we are getting what we wanted for our son. And now, like everything else in my life, the way I look at Judaism and Jewish education has become amazingly complex and deeper than ever, and I am grateful to him for that.