Teaneck—There is a boy who calls his grandmother on his bus ride home each day from school, of course to tell her that he loves her, but also to tell her, with unabashed glee, what he had for lunch that day.
Until this fall, this child with special needs was in public school, before switching to Sinai Schools. “There can be so many barriers to normalcy for a Jewish child with special needs in a public school. Just to be able to have a kosher lunch in the lunchroom with all the other kids in the school, it made him so happy,” said Sam Fishman, managing director of Sinai Schools.
The child is connecting with his parents and grandparents for the first time on a Jewish level. “What they saw was almost like flipping a switch within this child. His Jewish soul began to emerge so quickly.
“I got a call from his father about a week after school started that the boy was talking about his siddur, Rosh Hashanah, and the holidays. Recently, I got a call from his grandmother; she was so emotional to tell me that he can write his name in Hebrew. And he still loves the food,” said Fishman.
Sinai Schools, based in Teaneck, is recognized as one of the country’s leading Jewish organizations serving children and adults with learning or developmental disabilities. Each Sinai school is housed in a regular education partner Jewish elementary or high school, and the goal is for each student to be included as full members of that school’s culture and community.
In an ideal world, everyone’s education is transformative. In thought and deed, one’s education should be a blueprint for how a person should behave, how to respect and pursue knowledge, and how to prepare for the world ahead. But for students with special needs, there are barriers to receiving that education in either public school or yeshiva day school, and so they, with their parents, have to work much harder to overcome obstacles in order to receive the education and training they need.
Helping children and their parents with these challenges is the mission of Sinai Schools. Established in 1982 as a small class in the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, Sinai today has a presence on five campuses in three cities in Northern New Jersey, and the schools’ population continues to grow at a rate of 10% each year.
In honor of its 32nd year, which corresponds to the word lev in Hebrew, meaning heart, Sinai has chosen to honor those at their annual dinner who have a special heartfelt connection to the school and its programs. The dinner is being held February 9, 2014 at the Marriott Glenpointe.
One of the five dinner honorees are the grandparents of the child who calls from the school bus, Cantor Joseph and Beatrice Malovany, because there are few greater loves than grandparents for grandchildren. Cantor Malovany has been chazzan of New York’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue since 1973.
Sinai’s campuses are located in two local yeshiva elementary schools: the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey (RYNJ), in River Edge, and at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston. Three yeshiva high schools in Northern New Jersey round out the rest of the facilities: Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, both in Teaneck. Sinai Schools also runs two programs for adults; a residence for men and a day habilitation program, both also in Teaneck.
Sinai’s 122 students are integrated into the partner school communities. Sinai creates each child’s individual program with all of his or her needs in mind, with a collaborative therapeutic model using both push-in and pull-out methods of teaching, including occupational, speech, and vocational therapy. With each child’s education costing close to $60,000 per year, very few families can afford full tuition without significant financial aid. The ratio of staff to students is one to two.
Another of the dinner honorees for this year are Willie and Gail Hochman, of Fair Lawn, who have worked tirelessly for Sinai in a special way related to the school’s unique financial challenges. “Willie agreed to join our board, and has applied his business and analytical ability to our work in so many ways,” said Moshe Weinberger, president of Sinai Schools. “The challenge to make a school like this work, with the numbers involved, is so great. Willie has given so much,” he said.
“Our philosophy of inclusion is highlighted by being located in partner schools,” said Rabbi Yisrael Rothwachs, who has worked for Sinai Schools for 16 years, the past three as its dean. “We want all of our students, regardless of their abilities, to feel like valued members of the Jewish community,” he said. “They go on the same buses as their siblings, go to the same Shabbatons, and sometimes even the same classes. And that inclusion experience is individualized as well. It brings them into the broader school community,” Rothwachs said.
Also being honored at this year’s dinner are David and Marjorie Bernstein, parents of Gabe, a Sinai student. The Bernsteins, since they joined the Sinai community, have sponsored various Shabbatons and special events to make it possible for all students to attend. They never wanted any children to be excluded because of financial concerns.
“The goal of Sinai Schools is to integrate the students into their communities and make them active participants,” said the Bernsteins. Gabe, over the past two years, has now become able to fully participate in family events and religious events, and looks forward to going to shul and communal events. “We have seen our son grow in leaps and bounds over the past two years,” they said.
“Tailoring the inclusion experience and improving it for each child is something on which we always working,” Rothwachs said. “One child may be ready to be included in recess, while another child may be ready to be included in academic classes. It’s different for every child,” he said.
Another of the Sinai School dinner honorees are Aryeh and Arielle Sheinbein of Bergenfield. Arielle is a teacher at Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, and has sought out and made it a special mission to include Sinai children in her classes. “For inclusion to work, you have to have a teacher whose heart is in it,” said Fishman. “Almost nothing boosts a child’s self-esteem more than being included in a regular education class. It is a huge morale boost for the parent too,” said Fishman.
“Everything we do is individualized and purposely we don’t do a one-on-one program for every kid. While we could in theory do that, we don’t want to do that because we want them to have peers,” Rothwachs said.
Sinai’s student body is diverse and disparate. Students come from all over the tri-state area, including Passaic, Rockland County, and the five boroughs of New York City. There are also those who have moved from all over the country to have their children attend Sinai. “We service a broad spectrum of disabilities: developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, attention deficit, Asperger’s, and many others,” said Rothwachs. “The students our high school at Kushner in Livingston, are on an academic track and are college-bound. At our schools at TABC and Ma’ayanot, we are primarily working with students with developmental disabilities, so we focus on functional academics, life skills, and vocational training,” he added.
In terms of vocational training, there was one Teaneck business, coincidentally also established 32 years ago, that readily opened its doors to Sinai Schools. They are also being honored at this year’s dinner. Yossie Markovic and Stuart Kahan, co-owners of Ma’adan Caterers, were one of the first businesses to make it possible for Sinai students to become employees.
“From day one, Yossie and Stuart welcomed all of the young men and women of Sinai who worked for them, with open arms and respect, making them feel valued and needed, and treating them like everyone else,” said Rabbi Mark and Linda Karasick, who are longtime supporters of Sinai. Rabbi Karasick is a past president and is the current chairman of Sinai’s board of directors.
“Our own son Yaakov was their first employee, and we are eternally grateful to Yossie and Stuart for providing him with the tools to be a confident, successful individual,” the Karasicks said.
At this year’s dinner, the new Sinai Schools’ video “Sisters” will debut, following up on last year’s video “Heroes,” which told the story of the Minchenberg family and specifically Tuvia Minchenberg’s path to his bar mitzvah, which was a runaway viral success, garnering more than 10,000 views.
Sinai Schools is dependent on community support to ensure funding for its programs. To support Sinai or to attend the dinner, visit https://www.sinaischools.org/dinner