Two former presidents of the special-needs school tell what it took
By Joanne Palmer for The Jewish Standard
When people talk about something as having a lot of moving parts, unless they’re actually talking about a piece of machinery, usually they’re being metaphoric.
When you’re talking about a school, though it’s entirely literal. Students rarely sit still, and their teachers rush to keep up with them.
When you’re establishing a new school, when you’ve gotten beyond the very beginning but you’re still building — when, say, you’re the Sinai Schools, you’ve started as a program of the Hebrew Youth Academy in South Orange in 1981, and you’re moving forward, inventing as you go — you have so very many moving parts.
Remember, you’re a special-needs program. Or are you a school? Or a hybrid? Or something entirely new? Whatever you are, you have to keep innovating.
Your moving parts include the students, the curriculum, and the services they need to support them. They include the schools that have allowed you to embed your program within their walls and in the hearts and minds of their mainstream students. They include the parents and the broader community. And they also include the administration, which figures out the finances and thus ensures that the school can continue to exist.
This year, Sinai’s annual dinner, where all the community comes together not only to celebrate its accomplishments but to be deeply moved by the students who embody them, and the teachers, therapists, and other professionals who enable them, cannot go on as usual. Instead, Sinai is telling its story online, at www.sinaischools.org — and we’re telling it here.
So this is the next installment of Sinai’s story.
From the beginning, Sinai’s education was cutting-edge; its highly professional teachers read, researched, and applied the approaches that worked best for each student. From the beginning, the education was tailored to be specific to each child. But its administration necessarily began with the mom-and-pop model; families met in each other’s homes as they created the structure they needed. It was based on the needs of the earliest students, the children of those Sinai pioneers.
The idea of Sinai — a place where children with special needs could get a Jewish education, like their neurotypical siblings, and also where they could get the specific education and training that would allow them either to join the mainstream or live happy, productive lives outside it — began in 1980, with three sets of parents literally in a living room. The program opened in 1982 and immediately started growing.
In 1988, Sinai was established as an independent nonprofit, in 1989 it opened a branch at the Torah Academy of Teaneck (a school better known now as TABC), and in 2003, David Shapiro became Sinai’s third president, taking over from his good friend Rabbi Mark Karasick.
That’s where our Sinai story resumes.
Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Shapiro was not the parent of a Sinai student. He was a professional, a CPA, with a background in nonprofit finance; he’d spent 15 years as comptroller at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and then, for almost five years, he was the executive director of HAFTR, as the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns on Long Island is called when it’s at home. Now, he’s Birthright Israel’s chief financial officer. And he was — and is — an active member of the Jewish community in Teaneck. So he was well equipped to take Sinai in a more professional direction.
It made sense, then, that Rabbi Karasick, who was one of Mr. Shapiro’s best friends and still is today — “came to me and said, ‘We are having trouble with our budget. Would you mind taking a look at it?’ So I did, and reported back to him, and he invited me to a board meeting.” At that board meeting, Mr. Shapiro said that the school would have to raise tuition; the response to what he thought was a simple statement of fact, and the competing fact that parents might not be able to afford it, made clear to him that to run a school like Sinai, competing realities would have to be reconciled. It was a lesson he took to heart.
He soon became Sinai’s treasurer, and then its president.
During that time, Mr. Shapiro, his wife, Alona, and their family were struck with tragedy; the Shapiros’ son Eitan, the youngest of their four children, was diagnosed with lymphoma. Eitan died when he was 18, in 2002.
Rabbi Karasick asked Mr. Shapiro to become Sinai’s president soon after Eitan’s death. “He said, ‘I would like you to step up and be president in Eitan’s memory,’” Mr. Shapiro recalled. Yes was the only possible answer.
“I am very proud that during my tenure, we first got accreditation,” Mr. Shapiro said. That accreditation, from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, is prestigious and hard to get; Sinai is the only Jewish special education school to have earned it.
During his tenure, Sinai moved not only to TABC but also to Ma’ayanot, also in Teaneck; it went to Yavneh for three years, although at the end of that time Yavneh ran out of room as it grew, and Sinai moved to RYNJ in River Edge.
It was also during Mr. Shapiro’s time in office that Sinai moved to its own offices, then on Teaneck Road.
Mr. Shapiro also is proud of the way that Sinai faculty and administrators were able to foster the sense of inclusivity that helps the neurotypical students at Sinai’s partner schools understand Sinai students not as outsiders but as kids like them, differently abled perhaps but similar in so many other ways.
“I have community service in my heart,” Mr. Shapiro said. “Before I stepped up at Sinai, I was president of Jewish Family Services. And I’ve done this professionally — been involved in nonprofits — for my whole career. I have it is my blood. This is my heart.” But he also saw it as imperative that Sinai professionalize its operations. “Being a mom-and-pop shop is not the way to run an organization,” he said. “You present yourself as a professional, successful organization, and everything else will flow from that. That’s what we do at Birthright. Just because you are nonprofit, that doesn’t mean that you are not professional.”
In 2010, Mr. Shapiro stepped down, and Moshe Weinberger became Sinai’s president. Mr. Weinberger is profoundly of Teaneck — not only does he live there now, but he grew up there, and his parents and four of his five siblings live there too.
Like his predecessor, Mr. Weinberger did not have a child at Sinai, but he felt connected to it nonetheless.
“There was no eureka moment,” he said. “I felt involved in Sinai since the 1980s. My father was very close with Mark Karasick, and I was at school in Moriah with the Karasicks’ oldest child, Zev, who was one of the smartest kids in the class. Our families were very good friends. The Karasicks have two children, Ya’akov and Avi, who were Sinai students. Yes, they were different — but I thought then, when I was a kid, that if I have to go to school, so should they.
“When you get involved in something, like learning a foreign language, or philanthropy, at a young age, it takes. No one had to tell me that it is very important to support children with special needs, but I was exposed to it, and it stuck with me. So when my wife and I moved back to Teaneck, before we had children, when we talked about what we’d like to be involved with, Sinai was always important. You see how hard it was for families, and we hoped that we could help alleviate the burden in some way. And then, when we had children, we realized how hard it would be to have a child with special needs, and it became even more meaningful.”
Mr. Weinberger never sat on the boards of the schools that his own children went to — Yavneh and Frisch — “not because it wasn’t important to me, but because I am a donor, and if I were on the board people might think that I was doing something because of my children. It is true that we would do anything for our kids.”
But at Sinai, where his ties were from the heart but not specifically through his own children, “I felt that I was able to be dispassionate.” He could be passionate about the school, that is, but from a slight remove.
“It is an objectivity,” he said. “If my kid is involved in something, whether it is a sporting event or the school play, it is very difficult to make a decision for the greater good of the class without even subconsciously thinking about the best decision for my child.” As a non-Sinai parent, he was spared that divided consciousness as its president.
Mr. Weinberger talked about another pull that Sinai had on him. “When I was growing up, I remember that my parents did not go out a lot, but they would go to the Sinai dinner,” he said. “The Sinai dinner was the community charity event in the 1980s and 90s. Over time, thankfully, so many great organizations have opened up, but I continued going to the Sinai dinner.”
He’s most proud of getting younger people involved in Sinai, in being part of its expansion into more Bergen County schools, and in overseeing its continued move toward organizational professionalism.
Like Mr. Shapiro — like every one of Sinai’s professional and lay leaders in this story — Mr. Weinberger is proud of how his community has worked to overcome the stigma that bedeviled the developmentally disabled and their families. The next generation seems to be freed from that trap, he said. “I think that there will be an entire next generation of parents who have grown up seeing special-needs kids as normal.” Their children will be born into that les judgmental understanding of the world.
“I feel more proud of my work with Sinai than of anything I have done in my work life,” Mr. Weinberger said. “I think that this is something that will have an impact for generations to come. And I have been so lucky to work with so many great people. I should get so little of the credit. It should go to the teachers, the counselors, the therapists. I couldn’t last a day in their jobs. They are the real heroes of the story.”
Both Mr. Shapiro and Mr. Weinberger feel strongly about Sinai’s new legacy program.
“We have been around for 40 years now,” Mr. Shapiro said. “Now we are trying to build up our legacy campaign” — encouraging supporters to remember Sinai in their wills — “as another step in our program. It is important that we grow not only our annual campaign but the legacy campaign as well, to ensure the future of the operation. I am very gratified to see that that now that we have kicked the program off, the early returns are very positive. Quite a few of our board members already have signed on to it.
“It is an incredibly important way to ensure that this program is maintained financially.”
“I’ve reached out to people about the legacy program, and the result has been amazing,” Mr. Weinberger agreed. “People feel that if they can take care of Sinai while they are living, it will be great to continue it. It has resonated with some people as a way to keep it going well after they are gone.”
To read this article as it originally appeared in The Jewish Standard click here