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There is More to Be Done: Caring for our Jewish Children with Psychiatric Challenges

By: Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs

Over the last few decades, the world of Jewish education and social services has exploded. We are fortunate to live in an era when resources are available to individuals with disabilities, and expertise is being developed and refined to address a myriad of challenges facing those individuals – challenges that in the past often were ignored. Although the stigma associated with having a disability continues to cast a thick cloud over many in our community, today both children and adults are able to access services which were unavailable in previous generations, services that promote not only their education but their mental health as well. But there is still more to do…

What has become increasingly apparent to me is that while, as a community, we accept and provide services for a wide spectrum of children with disabilities, there are many children in the Jewish community who require a very different type of educational environment. Specifically, I am referring to students who suffer from emotional and behavioral disorders, students who struggle in school (and at home) not because of a cognitive deficit or even because of an academic or social disability – but rather as a result of psychiatric challenges. These challenges include, but are not limited to, depression, suicidality, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and conduct disorders. Many private secular schools exist which specialize in servicing this population, but the Jewish community is yet to respond directly by creating a school for Jewish children with these particular challenges. A Jewish therapeutic school – one that would focus on the emotional and psychiatric needs of its students, helping them and their families manage their illnesses – is in great demand. I, along with colleagues from other schools, identify scores of children each year who could benefit from this type of model, but for whom, unfortunately, it has not yet become a reality.

Yes, we have come so far – but there is more work to be done. My dream for our community is to create an environment that not only can provide services for these children and adolescents, but that will change the trajectory of their lives. In the right environment, a child who struggles with these particularly debilitating challenges finally can become empowered to access the range of academic and emotional opportunities that the rest of us often take for granted. If we can realize my dream by creating a Jewish environment for these children that addresses their needs, we send the message that they, too, are valuable individuals who deserve to be included in our Jewish community.