For Over 30 Years, SINAI Has Turned Disabilities Into Possibilities

There is something special about a parent or a grandparent seeing their dreams of a happy, secure, confident child or grandchild emerge from a journey that they know could have taken a difficult turn. SINAI Schools has, for over 30 years, done this and more for well over 1,000 children, turning disabilities into possibilities.

Sam Fishman, SINAI Schools’ managing director, told The Jewish Link that “everyone’s heart goes out to our children. We are blessed to be part of a community where people care and want to help. And people know that if it’s February it’s time for SINAI’s annual benefit dinner.” The event will be held for the 30th year at its home away from home, the Marriott Glenpointe in Teaneck, on February 28.

This year’s honorees include Rena and Jerry Barta, Heshy and Eve Feldman, Rabbi Steven and Karen Finkelstein, Rosalyn and Stephen Flatow, and Jerry and Annette Kranson. Alfred Sanzari Enterprises, owners and developers of the Marriott Glenpointe, will receive SINAI’s Community Partnership Award.

Some time at the dinner will be spent dedicating the school’s new Bayrish Schreiber Music Therapy Program. AJ Schreiber and his wife, Leah, wanted to honor the memory of AJ’s father Bayrish, who had a lifelong passion for music and for tefillah.

Mr. Fishman said last year’s dinner welcomed over 800 people. “It’s a very special evening. We laugh and we cry together. Most of all we make a statement to parents of SINAI students that ‘you are not alone.’”

“They feel a communal responsibility to our cause,” said Mr. Fishman. They feel that there are certain essential services that a Jewish community needs to have. “Along with synagogues, a mikvah, kosher food and Jewish schools there is a need for educating children with special needs,” he said.

Event attendees learn that SINAI educates currently more than 140 students, and in its 34 years of service has educated well over 1,000. It hosts college-bound high school students at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, vocational students at the Torah Academy of Bergen County and the Ma’aynot Yeshiva High School. Elementary school students attend the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy or the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey.

One of the signatures of the SINAI dinner is its annual documentary, an inspiring look at how SINAI Schools changes lives, and a number of past films have gone viral on social media. The film is used, he said, as an important “form of education and outreach. It’s an important recruiting tool. People share our short films with friends or relatives who might have a child or grandchild who might benefit from SINAI.”

This year’s film, “Saving Freddy,” offers “a rare opportunity for a former SINAI student to describe, in his own words, his own disability and emotional state, and what SINAI did for him,” according to Mr. Fishman.

Freddy came to SINAI in crisis, after being placed in a school that was unable to meet his needs, causing him severe distress and depression. “He came to us in a bad way,” said Mr. Fishman. “But at SINAI he thrived. Last year he graduated. He was accepted to six colleges and is in college now. Although he is on the autism spectrum and had a learning disability, he is exceptionally bright and articulate. The candor and starkness with which Freddy describes where he was—and the joy with which he describes where he is—will surprise people.”

Karen Finkelstein and Rabbi Steven Finkelstein have already seen that word “thrive” manifest itself in their 13-year-old son, Moshe. At his bar mitzvah this past September, he leined his Torah parsha, and then later confidently led the Musaf davening. Moshe had struggled with motor and learning issues from birth.

Mrs. Finkelstein teaches Tanach at the Moriah School of Englewood. Rabbi Finkelstein is a rebbe as well as the director of guidance at Torah Academy of Bergen County. There, he seizes the opportunity to bring SINAI and TABC students together as classmates and friends. “The deciding factor for us was when we realized that Moshe needed an individualized program. He needed a tailor-made program—unique to him—so that he could get help where he needed it, but also have the opportunity to thrive and advance in his many areas of strength.”

Moshe’s confidence, since becoming a SINAI student, is showing up with vigor in his academic abilities and has spilled over into his independence in social situations. “He’s more likely to pick up the phone and invite a friend over,” said Mrs. Finkelstein. “His vast knowledge base and increased interests have given him the opportunity to connect with more people.”

And connect is what Moshe loves to do. His mother said that Moshe can talk sports, politics, parsha and pretty much anything. “He is an integral part of every conversation that he participates in,” said Mrs. Finkelstein. “Moshe has transitioned from a child who could barely follow, to a child who can now lead.”

You can hear the smile in Stephen Flatow’s voice when he spoke to The Jewish Link about his 10-year-old grandson Natanel, who brings so much nachat to him and his wife Rosalyn.

Mr. Flatow remembers fondly attending a melave malka for SINAI when it first opened. Instead of the 800-person dinner, there were plenty of bagels and cream cheese to go around.

“To watch from the sidelines as the school has grown over the years, and then to add a grandson into the mix, takes on a significant, personal meaning,” said Mr. Flatow.

Netanel, he said, has Down syndrome. Mr. Flatow said that his family was “shaken to the core” when they learned of his condition. “But you have to stop and pause for a second. Netanel is part of our family. He’s smarter than I am. He has a method of getting his way that is both loving and caring. He can wrap anyone he meets around his pinky.”

Mr. Flatow and his wife know all too well about being “shaken to the core.” Indeed, it was in 1995 that their 20-year-old daughter Alisa was killed in a terrorist attack while a student in Israel. They are both heavily involved in the fight against terrorism. And they are major supporters of Jewish education. Mr. Flatow, the owner of Vested Land Services LLC, is a well-known op-ed writer to various newspapers, in addition to JNS.org, to which The Jewish Link subscribes and often picks up his pieces.

Flatow doesn’t refer to Natanel as disabled; he instead sees his grandson as “differently abled.”

“We have been amazed by how much he has grown and matured in his years at SINAI,” said Mr. Flatow. “We have watched him with awe as the dedicated staff at SINAI teaches Netanel to read, write and add, something we take for granted and expect of other 10-year-old students without learning disabilities. The light that Netanel brings to our family and to all who know him glows much brighter because of what SINAI has done for him.”

Avi Vogel, SINAI’s board president, said that the outpouring of support shown at the dinner “really reflects how dedicated the community is to making sure that all of our children have access to a Jewish education even if they learn differently. I am so proud to be part of an organization that cares so deeply about every child. Our talented administrators and teachers are always finding new and innovative ways to reach even the children with the most complex needs.”

Mr. Vogel talked about how AJ and Leah Schreiber approached him about making a gift to Mr. Schreiber’s late father, Bayrish.

The Bayrish Schreiber Music Therapy Program became a perfect fit, targeting SINAI students who have emotional issues and/or difficulties in language and communication.

Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, dean of SINAI Schools, said that music therapy means so much to the students.

“We have children with a variety of challenges,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “With music therapy, we can reach these kids.

“For some kids, music therapy is another tool in their arsenal to help them learn strategies in social skills and in terms of emotional regulation,” the rabbi continued. “When you are together with a group of students and they are playing instruments together or beating on drums, the expectations are you take turns, or follow the leader, with each student taking a turn at being the leader. To make eye contact and feed off of each other with an instrument in hand helps to strengthen so many other areas we’re working on.”

Music therapy, explained Rabbi Rothwachs, helps students learn to manage their emotions, and to use breathing techniques taught through music that they can use to calm themselves down. There is so much more to it. Students at SINAI Schools use music therapy to be able to express what emotion is going on inside of them by singing or playing music of their choice.

Looking ahead to the dinner, Rabbi Rothwachs said that for people who don’t have a proper frame of reference, the event is like no other school dinner out there.

“The program is so carefully interwoven and sewn together with tremendous amounts of thought,” he said. “It’s non-stop with never a lull. Our short film or speakers give something purposeful. Every word that is chosen is to create the optimal experience for the people giving a few hours of their time so graciously.

“I’ve had friends of mine who know I work at a school for children with special needs,” Rabbi Rothwachs added. “They come to the dinner for the first time, and they are hooked, because wow!— you feel like you’ve done a mitzvah, being part of a group that feels strongly about the importance of Jewish special education and inclusion education.

“I don’t know of any other community that comes together for a cause like this,” he said.

By Phil Jacobs