SINAI's Growing Again: Program for 18- to 21-year-old special needs boys to be housed at Teaneck’s Heichal HaTorah

The Sinai Schools always have taken daunting challenges and turned them into opportunities.

Yes, that sounds like a cliché, but it’s not. It’s the truth. Sinai takes children whose special needs have caused them to fail in school, some of them time after time. Children whose parents worry constantly about their futures — and for that matter their present. Children whose families have to overcome the stigma of special needs, and then conquer the fear of being unable to afford the special education their children need.

The Sinai Schools’ model places special-needs students in two elementary day schools and three Jewish high schools, giving both them and the other schools’ typically developing students the chance to spend social time together, demystifying both groups. It tailors its programs to fit each student’s unique needs, and it manages, through a complex web of funding, including gifts from generous local families and institutions, including Holy Name Medical Center, to fund almost all of its students, because it is the rare family that could afford to pay Sinai’s tuition bill.

All this is wonderful but none of it is new.

But using one of its foundational attributes, the ability to make something very good out of something inherently challenging, Sinai has faced a new challenge — it had been running out of space in one of its high schools — with a new leap.

A Sinai student enjoys a science lesson.

A Sinai student enjoys a science lesson.

In the fall, at the start of the next school year, there will be a sixth branch of Sinai. It will meet at Heichal HaTorah, a three-year-old boys’ high school housed at the onetime home of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, for young men.

Now, Sinai’s first- through eighth-graders go to either the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, or to the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston. Starting in ninth grade, students whose disabilities do not include the intellectual deficits that would keep them from college, go to the Sinai program at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. That program is for both boys and girls.

Boys whose future is unlikely to include college go to Sinai at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, and similarly circumstanced girls to go Sinai at Ma’ayanot. Both schools are in Teaneck, and both Sinai programs enroll students who range from 14 to 21, when they age out.

Sinai’s relationships with both schools are very strong and mutually beneficial, Sam Frishman, Sinai’s executive director, said. “The culture at TABC comes from the top and permeates through the staff and students. It could not be better in the way that everyone interacts with our boys, and with how much our boys gain from TABC boys in that environment.

“This program is about 20 years old, and there are now adult residents of Teaneck who grew up side by side with our boys, and have become major supporters of Sinai,” he continued. “They are now community leaders who are so sensitive to the issues of inclusion, and why it is so important to have children with disabilities in the same school as nondisabled students.”

Sinai students work on computer skills.

Sinai students work on computer skills.

The relationship with Ma’ayanot, too, is strong. “To its great credit, from the time it opened its doors, its leaders said that they wanted to establish Sinai there, and everything about it, both philosophically and the way its girls act, is consistent with the tone that it took at the very beginning.”

Now, though, as both TABC and Sinai grow, TABC is running out of room for more Sinai students, Mr. Fishman said. “We have grown more than 100 percent at TABC in the last six years, and the demand for this coming year would add about another 20 percent, just in one year. We have a large number of students graduating from our two elementary schools, and our phone is ringing off the hook with new prospective parents.

“The word is out. We are getting calls from near and far.”

It is Sinai’s mission to accept all of the students whose needs it can meet. So where to put them?

“We realized that there was an opportunity,” Mr. Fishman said. “We could continue to serve children who are high school age in one school, and then they could graduate and continue for the next three years at a new location.”

That will solve an occasionally thorny issue for the boys. They all graduate — Sinai students graduate from high school with their TABC and Ma’ayanot peers — but then the TABC boys and Ma’ayanot students go off to Israel or to college, and the Sinai students go back to high school. That situation will not change for the girls, because Ma’ayanot still has the space to accommodate them, but the boys, like their peers, will leave high school and move on.

A student and teacher work together on life skills.

A student and teacher work together on life skills.

The boys will go to Heichal HaTorah, where they will be made welcome. Mr. Fishman is thrilled with the reception Sinai got there. “We approached them and asked if they would be open to having a Sinai presence there, and the reaction was so heartwarming!” he said. “They said, ‘Of course we would love it! Those are exactly the values we want to instill in our boys.’”

Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs is the school’s dean. “We have had students in the past who have struggled with staying in high school longer than their typically developing peers,” he said. “To have this opportunity to split our school and offer them an opportunity to move on to the next part of their lives is something that we hope will be comforting to them and their families, just in terms of letting them do what everyone else is doing.”

As the Sinai students in the Teaneck high schools get older, the educational focus shifts “from academics and classroom experiences to vocational and life skills training,” he said. “At TABC, the approach for 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds is more and more on vocational training, on gaining more independence in the community.”

In order to concentrate on providing its oldest students — both boys and girls — and their parents with the strongest program possible, Sinai has hired a new director to head up not only the program at Heichal HaTorah but also to oversee all the education it offers those students.

In some ways, those three or four years are the bridge between the students’ adolescence and the lives they will lead once they leave school.

Jordan Silvestri, a social worker who has spent the last decade working at Ohel, “providing, managing, and overseeing community-based and residentially based programs for men and women with developmental disabilities,” is Sinai’s newest director. “One of the major things I’ve focused on has been residential services, working with adult males and females in their next stage in life, assisting them and guiding them, hopefully helping them develop independent life skills.” Like everyone else, these students’ trajectories could take many directions. They might live in group homes or with their parents; they might live with roommates, or date and marry.

Students learn vocational skills through Sinai.

Students learn vocational skills through Sinai.

“By the time their children are 21, our parents of students with developmental disabilities are very good advocates for them in the educational program,” Dr. Rothwachs said. “They know what their rights are, and how to navigate the system, and they work with their case managers and with us. But many parents describe their feelings, when their children turn 21, as walking off a cliff with no support.

“Jordan is very well versed in the new bureaucracy that parents will face, and therefore in how to prepare them for it.”

“When the students leave, our hope is to provide them with as much skill as possible to get to the next stage of life,” Mr. Silvestri said. “It might be a group home, living at home and going to a day program, or a vocational program, or some version of all three. What I have found in my years of experience is that people who are best prepared are most well equipped to go through a transition successfully, to take advantage of what the system can offer them, and to experience new parts of life.”

“Some people think that when you’re done with school, you’re done growing,” Dr. Rothwachs said. “That’s not true for anyone. We want to teach students and parents not just how to deal with the bureaucracy, how to live in a group home, but to be in a place where they can grow.”

For more information about any of Sinai’s programs, go to www.sinaischools.org or call (201) 833-1134.