It is a bittersweet week.
On Monday night we celebrated the creation of 70 Faces Media, the new organization bringing together JTA, MyJewishLearning and Kveller. Later this week marks the first yahrtzeit of one of our honorary founders, Edgar M. Brofman, of blessed memory, the legendary businessman and philanthropist who created MyJewishLearning in 2002 and gave his blessing to the merger before his death in December 2013.
Edgar was a prince of his people, whose contributions to 70 Faces Media and, for that matter, the entire Jewish world, cannot be measured or sufficiently acknowledged. As just one act of our deep appreciation, and out of love and respect for Edgar’s passion for Jewish learning, we join The Samuel Bronfman Foundation in asking people to study and teach about Sh’mot, this week’s Torah portion, in Edgar’s memory.
In that spirit, let me share a few thoughts on this week’s parsha that connect to Edgar, as well as to his legacy that we at 70 Faces Media are working to uphold.
Parshat Sh’mot starts with the enslavement of the Israelites, the birth of Moses and the story of how he ends up being raised as a prince of Egypt. As the Book of Exodus and the rest of the Torah unfolds, Moses will earn his reputation as the greatest of all the prophets, when as God’s emissary he leads the Israelites out of bondage, delivers them the Torah and brings them to the edge of the Promised Land. But Moses’ first step back into the Jewish fold — his killing of the Egyptian taskmaster — is sparked not by a divine directive, but an inner sense of justice and concern for his people. Only years later would Moses realize his religious destiny.
Edgar did not start out life as an Egyptian, he never killed anyone, and he was never a believer in the traditional sense. But, still, he walked a similar path: Born the heir to a beverage empire, Edgar was in many ways a prince who was cut off from the everyday experiences of his people. Yet, like the princely Moses, he found it in himself to speak up and to speak out on behalf of his fellow Jews.
Edgar’s heightened sense of Jewish solidarity evolved to produce an equally passionate commitment to Jewish learning. He was not a man of faith, but he had great faith in the power of wrestling with sacred Jewish texts. Doing so, he believed, would help us both understand our traditions and past, and serve as a compelling way to bring diverse Jews together to think collectively about our present and our future.
We at 70 Faces Media are similarly dedicated to connecting as many people as possible to the unfolding Jewish story. And we share Edgar’s deep belief that — just like the Jews themselves — the Jewish story is an ever-changing one, made up of a multitude of perspectives and beliefs, reflecting the experiences of people and communities around the world.
By creating 70 Faces Media, we are working to ensure that everyone has a chance to connect to the Jewish story, whatever their level of Jewish knowledge or sense of Jewish identity — whether they are interested in ancient traditions or breaking news, pop culture or parenting, recipes or rituals.
Let the wrestling begin.
The recent Kveller post by Benay Josselson on her son’s positive and enriching experience at Rockland Jewish Academy made me hopeful about the prospect of a full, participatory Jewish day school education for special-needs children. Her tone, which greatly contrasted with her blog post from one year earlier when she assumed it would be tough to find a Jewish day school that would be able to work with her son who had been diagnosed with autism, reflects the steps the day school field has taken to make inclusion an educational priority. It also reflects more specifically the community that is being created at Rockland Jewish Academy under the leadership of Nellie Harris. (Full disclosure: Nellie is a Fellow in RAVSAK, the Jewish Community Day School Network’s, inaugural Head of School Professional Educational Program, which mentors exceptional new heads in the first years of their headship).
We already know Jewish day schools play a crucial role in helping develop the next generation of Jewish leaders, but now we see schools of all sizes taking a closer look at their policies on special needs students. As an organization committed to advocating the myriad benefits of Jewish day schools, this is an issue I have seen start with rudimentary programs and expand into mission-driven work, with full support from leadership and the community, at a growing number of schools. Overall, this is a huge positive for families of all types.
In the past, day schools have struggled to meet the educational needs of students with a variety of learning disabilities and other social, emotional, behavioral or health challenges. Today, great strides have been made, and more and more schools are working on identifying opportunities to increase access and developing an inclusive process for teaching students with far-ranging capabilities.
The ultimate goal is for children to become integrated into and embraced by the Jewish community, regardless of need. That’s what parents want, what the kids want, what everyone wants — to be full members of the community. Truly, a day school community can only call itself that when it reflects the make-up of the entire community from which it sources its members.
At the recent RAVSAK/PARDES Jewish Day School Leadership Conference, we dedicated an entire learning track to “Special Needs and the Diverse Classroom” to better educate those within our network and help them develop plans and strategies to become truly welcoming and inclusive institutions. Many attendees noted that it was an eye-opening experience that allowed them to gain a deeper understanding of the range of students characterized as special needs and learn new approaches to special needs inclusion.
All students benefit socially, emotionally and intellectually when children with special needs are educated alongside their classmates. With February designated as Jewish Disability Awareness Month, it is important to raise awareness not only about the psycho-social needs of students but the expanding response of the larger Jewish day school community and their ongoing commitment to make Jewish day school education a gift that all can share.
Certainly, this work is far from over; there are too many students for whom day school is not yet an option due to their specific challenges. But we have to recognize the small steps with which we begin a long journey, as it is by following the footsteps of others that change can gain momentum.