Inclusion, Friendship, and Leadership at SINAI: Its new initiative honors partner-school graduates as they head out into the world

There’s something about those words that end in “ship.”

Friendship. Leadership. Relationship.

That suffix is attached to words that define a state or condition, the dictionary tells us.

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Students from Ma’ayanot and Sinai at Ma’ayanot work together in an inclusion chesed activity at Yad Leah. (All photos courtesy Sinai Schools)

When you get down to the most basic level, it’s what the Sinai Schools are about. Sinai (and talking about words, it’s hard to know exactly what noun to use for it; it’s not defined by walls, like a standard school, it’s far bigger than a program, and far more substantive than a theory or idea) enrolls students with developmental disabilities, and provides each one with a personally tailored education, delivered within one of its partner schools, each one of them an Orthodox day school in northern New Jersey, the Bronx, or Queens.

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Sinai and TABC students have fun together after lunch at school in Teaneck.

Sinai is defined by its relationships, developed over time and with trust, love, and care between and among its students, teachers, administrators, parents, and other leaders; by the friendships among students that grow out of its unusual approach; and by the leadership that many of the parents and students touched by it go on to display.

This year, the Sinai Schools has begun a new program, its Young Leadership Pipeline; its first cohort, five students who have graduated from its partner schools, have been nominated for the Dov Levy prize. Rabbi Dov Levy was the founder of the Seeach Sod Special Education Network in Israel; in its work in special education, it parallels (although it does not mirror) the Sinai Schools.

The young leaders in the new pipeline project will be the first in what Sinai leaders hope will be an ongoing initiative; the Dov Levy prize acknowledges those young leaders.

It’s all about connections. Sinai leaders heard about the Dov Levy prize through the Jewish Standard’s publisher, Jamie Janoff, who knows Gidon Katz, the CEO of an Israeli PR firm called IMP International. Mr. Janoff met with Mr. Katz, Sam Fishman, Sinai’s managing director, and Pam Ennis, its development director, for lunch this summer. Because the pandemic was raging, they met outside; both Mr. Janoff and Ms. Ennis remember how hot it was, and how it was both an exciting opportunity and a very sweaty meal.

It’s all wonderfully full circle.

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Sinai and SAR Academy students eat together at their Riverdale school.

Arielle Greenbaum Saposh is Sinai’s associate managing director. “When Sinai was established 40 years ago, and we chose this model” — of putting its programs into pre-existing schools — “we did not pick it for the purposes of impacting the community at large,” Ms. Greenbaum Saposh said. The school began as a program, started by the big-hearted Jewish educator Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene, at the school he headed, then called the Hebrew Youth Academy and headquartered in South Orange. (That school, which began in Newark and was peripatetic until it settled in Livingston, since has grown into the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, and each still houses Sinai.)

But as Sinai grew, as its success became more and more visible, as more and more parents wanted to send their children to Sinai — to acknowledge the reality of their kids’ needs rather than wish and pretend them away — the stigma that enshrouded special needs children and their families began to dissipate.

“It’s uplifting to hear stories about why people support Sinai,” Ms. Greenbaum Saposh said. “It’s not only that in supporting Sinai, they’re supporting our students, although that is very much true. It’s also so much more than that. It’s supporting the impact on stigma, and on how people view these disabilities in the community at large.”

Once the stigma is reduced — and in a chicken-and-egg kind of way, a way to reduce stigma further — Sinai students and their neurotypical peers have been able to develop genuine friendships. That, in fact, is what the Dov Levy prize is about.

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A Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey student helps a Sinai student put on tefillin in the River Edge school.

“I recently had a discussion with a donor who has children in one of our partner schools,” Ms. Greenbaum Saposh said. “The donor said how happy they are that their kids are in a school with Sinai in it, and they can develop friendships with children who are different from them, who learn in a different way or engage with peers in a different way, and sometimes look different. That’s an important part of the education — to learn that differences are a natural part of life.

“This is a beautiful reminder of the impact that Sinai — and there are only about 200 Sinai students — have on the broader community.”

Pam Ennis, Sinai’s development director, is the creator of the Young Leadership Pipeline. “The story starts at the end of last year,” Ms. Ennis said. “I want to make sure that we have young leadership. We’re 40 years old, and God willing, we have many more decades to come. We have to cultivate young leadership for that.

“We also have to make sure that there are leaders in the community who know what we do. Maybe there’s a family that is struggling and hears about us at the Shabbes table. They might be talking about how their child is struggling at school, and if people know about us, they can say confidently, ‘I know about Sinai. I know that your child can thrive there.’”

So, there are two needs that face Sinai’s professional and volunteer leaders, as they face the leaders of any organization — how to develop the next generation, who eventually will replace them, and how to make sure that the community knows about this organization in the first place.

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New Young Leadership winner Gaby Gotesman is with her Sinai friend at Ma’ayanot in Teaneck.

That means that Sinai wants to nurture new leaders, at least some of whom already have an intimate understanding of what Sinai does, and of how it enriches not only its own students’ lives but the community’s.

“So last spring, I reached out to the directors of our four high schools” — that’s Kushner in Livingston, the Torah Academy of Bergen County, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, and Heichal HaTorah, all in Teaneck — “and asked them to nominate one or two students who are graduating from the partner school and through their four years in school were very involved with Sinai,” Ms. Ennis said. “I was trying to find kids for whom Sinai resonated.”

She was looking for students who’d developed real friendships with Sinai students; who had been able to see past surface or even more-than-surface differences to the characteristics that friends need — warmth, concern, compassion, interest, love. In order to be real, those friendships had to be mutual. They couldn’t be marred by patronizing, by any sense that this was charity work, or even the earnest fulfillment of a mitzvah.

It would have to be real friendship — the kind of friendship that you don’t want to insult by acknowledging as any kind of hardship.

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Sinai and Ma’ayanot students make blankets together.

“These friendships don’t benefit only the Sinai students,” Ms. Ennis said. “They are reciprocal. One of the students told me that they started out as lunch buddies” — that’s a program that Sinai and the partnerships schools run that match special needs and neurotypical students in the cafeteria once a week — “and they became such good friends that they both would return to classes from lunch late. They did stuff together out of school; they’d stay on the phone talking about everything. They’d talk about politics.

“They were real friends.”

As she wrote in the letter that she sent to the five candidates whose names she’d received, “Your relationships with Sinai students have evolved into mutually fulfilling friendships, which do not necessarily require special acknowledgement.

“We are thanking you, therefore, for your leadership — for the compassion and empathy that guide your social interactions, and for being a role model in showing your peers that Sinai students are important members of the community with whom authentic and reciprocal relationships are possible.”

The graduates now part of the young leadership pipeline are Maurice Korish, who went to Kushner; Gaby Gotesman and Ayelet Fischer of Ma’ayanot; and Uriel Ostrin and Max Leibenstern of TABC. Each of them had developed a strong friendship with a Sinai student.

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Inclusion comes naturally in the gym at the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck.

Ms. Gotesman wrote about her friendship with Tova for her college essay.

“If I told you that my friend FaceTimes me when she’s bored and fills me in on her day, you might think that she’s like any other phone-loving teenager,” she wrote. “If I said she has super trendy glasses and bangs I wish I could pull off, you might wonder if she’s interested in fashion. If I explained that we see each other every week, and love hanging out, you might ask if we go to school together.

“But from what I told you, I don’t think that you would guess that my friend has Down Syndrome.”

Ms. Gotesman goes on to talk about what she’s gotten from the friendship — Tova is one of “my closest friends,” she wrote, and that “helped me realize the errors in my understanding of friendships with those who have disabilities.

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Gaby Gotesman, Maurice Korish, Ayelet Fischer, Max Leibenstern, and Uriel Ostrin are the first members of Sinai’s Young Leadership Pipeline program and finalists for Israel’s Dov Levy award.

“Ultimately, I think we all know ability, age or background are not reasons a genuine friendship cannot exist between two people,” she concluded. “Sometimes, though, it takes a really good friend to remind you of that.”

Rabbi Yisrael Rothwachs is Sinai’s dean. “I see Sinai as one of the many organizations that can bring this world to a more inclusive, less stigmatizing place,” he said. “I’m 45 years old — I am just about as old as Sinai — and I remember that it was a very different world then.” Rabbi Rothwachs has a unique insight into that world; his mother, Laurette Rothwachs, was Sinai’s first teacher, and then its first dean, and in that sense Sinai’s mother as well. “It was different not only in Jewish day schools, but in the media too,” he said. “I don’t know what the workplace was like when I was 5 years old, but I do know that when you look historically you see there has been a great impetus to include women, people of all races, people with disabilities.”

Because he knows how history has progressed, and how Sinai both reacts to changing ideas and helps change them, “I don’t want come off as saying that we at Sinai are the only people who are holding this banner, and pushing it forward,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “But I do think that we are in the forefront in our community of helping it become more inclusive, more understanding, and less stigmatizing.

“I know that we have a long way to go, and I hope that when my kids are 45, they can look back and say, ‘I remember that my father talked about stigma.’”

Ms. Ennis told a story that illustrated how friendships between students at Sinai and the other schools can work.

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A Heichal HaTorah student pushes a Sinai student’s wheelchair at a basketball game in their Teaneck school.

Before she moved to Sinai, she worked at Ma’ayanot, she said; one of her jobs was looking for photos to show donors and parents of prospective students. Schools need parents’ permission before they can use students’ pictures. “There was one Sinai student whose parents did not allow the use of her picture,” Ms. Ennis reported. “I remember that whenever we had a chagigah,” a celebration, “or any kind of fun event, I had so much trouble finding pictures to use, because this girl was in the middle of everything.” These weren’t Sinai celebrations, remember; they were school-wide, and there are far more Ma’ayanot students that Sinai ones.

“Then, it was genuinely frustrating,” Ms. Ennis said. “We didn’t have any pictures that we could use.” The Sinai girls — particularly the one whose picture she couldn’t use, but really all of them — were always there, in the thick of things, always an integral part of the celebration.

But now that she works for Sinai, Ms. Ennis sees the inherent beauty in that problem.

“If I were talking to a Sinai parent now, I’d tell the same story, from the other side.

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The minyan at the Yeshiva of Central Queens includes Sinai students.

“And from both sides, it’s really beautiful.”

“When we talk about how far we have come, and how far we still have to go, I think that’s why this plan to involve very young future leaders speaks to us so much,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “We have done so much, and we have so far to go.

“These young leaders now are 19 years old,” he said; now they’re spending their gap years in Israel and then they will enter college. “In a few years, they’ll be married and have kids of their own, and they’ll be in a position to be inclusive. They’ll be open and understanding with their peers who have children with special needs, and they might even have kids with special needs. They’ll be able to approach this journey in a much more confident, comfortable way.

“These are some of the seeds of the initiative that we hope will come to fruition over the coming years.”

He is particularly hopeful about the future of friendships between Sinai and partner school students because of the effect on Sinai’s parents. “Stigma is a huge issue,” he said. “Everyone wants their children not only to feel like they’re included, to have it look like they’re included, but to truly be included. They want their children to have the same opportunity for friendship that other children have. Our parents really struggle with that.

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Sinai students invited the Ma’ayanot Environmental Committee to their Earth Day presentation at their shared Teaneck school.

“Sometimes when I talk to parents who are considering Sinai, they feel that even though we tout the banner of inclusion, they think, ‘What will it be like, really? My kid is on a different track. What kind of relationships can they really build?’

“So we hope to inspire them with stories about these friendships.”

We hope that this initiative not only will plant seeds for future parents, but also paint a picture for current parents showing them that we really do live in a different world than we did even a few years ago, and that the relationships that are being built in our classrooms and the halls of our schools are not chesed projects but authentic, sincere relationships.

“We hope that parents don’t hesitate to allow their children to benefit from Sinai. We hope that they don’t let the fear of stigma hold them back. We are not the school that you went to 20 or 30 years ago.”

“This initiative is something new,” Ms. Greenbaum Saposh said. “Part of it is holding on to these students post-graduation, to have them continue to work with us in accomplishing this goal. But we also know that this has been happening naturally for a long time.”

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Socially distanced lunch buddies share a table at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston.

Sinai encourages friendships between its students and those in the partner schools through such projects as sending professionals into classes that might include a Sinai student “to talk about what it means to make your classroom and school feel inclusive,” she said. Most Sinai students do not join mainstream classes — their contact with the partner school’s students happens mainly in the halls, buses, meals, celebrations, and other afterschool or out-of-school experiences, although at times Sinai students can “be the captain of the wrestling team or the star of a play,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.

But “we want to be proactive,” Ms. Greenbaum Saposh continued. “And partner schools ask us to do that, because they recognize the benefits of doing it.”

“Our partner schools deserve a tremendous amount of credit for partnering with us,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “This is a really meaningful way to change lives, and we couldn’t do it without them.

“In many ways it would be easier for us to have our four walls, because then we could have total control, but we don’t do that because inclusion is so important for us, and our partner schools recognize and promote that.”

Ms. Greenbaum Saposh and Rabbi Rothwachs talked about a recent day when a Sinai student at Kushner gave the schoolwide d’var Torah. “Our students are part of the community, and the other students see that ‘they’re just like us,’” Ms. Greenbaum Saposh said. “It doesn’t have to be explicit spelled out to get that lesson across.

“When one of our students won the school’s bracha bee” — a schoolwide contest at Kushner — “the nicest thing was that it wasn’t a big deal that he was a Sinai student. He was so happy, and he celebrated, just as anyone would, and the other students clapped for him, and they moved on with the day.

“Everyone was happy for him, just as they’d be happy for anyone else.”

That’s real inclusion.

To read this story as it originally appeared in the Jewish Standard, click here.