Building up, or building back up, a child’s self-esteem is often the first step required when a student begins at any SINAI Schools campus. SINAI operates full-service school programs for children with special needs inside yeshiva day and high schools, enabling SINAI students to interact as members of the larger school’s population as fully as they can.
SINAI’s dean, Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, explained that students come to SINAI at a variety of ages, often after any number of years of failure in other school situations. “They come to us with calluses, like layers of an onion. It can take longer to start their education because we have to peel back the layers, and build up their self-esteem first. We are working with their parents also so their interactions with their child can be more productive. We have to help everyone believe in themselves,” he said.
“Part of making a child believe in himself or herself is letting them know that we believe in them,” said Sam Fishman, SINAI’s managing director.
“Our children thrive because of parents who believe in them and who advocate and fight for them to receive the support that they need; because of deeply devoted and talented educators and therapists who believe in our students and who work tirelessly to find just the right way to reach each child and maximize his or her potential; and also, and this is essential, because of a community that believes in our children and believes in our cause,” said Fishman.
SINAI’s annual dinner is Feb. 23. Its theme this year is “I believe in myself…because you believe in me.” The dinner in itself is always a big public statement by the community. “By 1,000 people who come together every year to say, ‘We believe in SINAI’s children; we believe in SINAI’s work; we believe that all children deserve a Jewish education regardless of their needs and should be included in our schools and community—and that with the proper help, every child can succeed and grow up to live a meaningful, fulfilling life,” added Fishman.
As has become an annual tradition as well, each honoree represents an essential element of SINAI’s success.
Rabbi Yosef Adler
Fundamental to SINAI’s model, since the beginning, is that each one of its special education schools is set within a larger yeshiva day school or high school. The Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), of which Rabbi Yosef Adler is rosh yeshiva, is the very first high school to have partnered with SINAI. “In fact, during the entire 30 years or so that Rabbi Adler has led TABC, TABC was—and today still is—a SINAI partner school,” said Fishman.
“Rabbi Adler is a pioneer in inclusion in special education. He has set a wonderful tone within TABC and a wonderful example for the other schools that have since followed TABC and have become SINAI partner schools,” said Fishman.
Rothwachs added that Rabbi Adler is a leader in the Bergen County community and beyond, in lots of different ways, professionally. “Thirty years ago, he really went against the grain in terms of leadership, partnership and guts to include students with special needs, both at school and at his shul, Congregation Rinat Yisrael.” Rinat’s Shabbat morning programs feature inclusive groups that are known throughout the community and beyond.
“He had a hand in changing attitudes about how we include and educate children with special needs and has led the way for many of the younger rabbis in this community to herald inclusion in their shuls,” he said.
In the letter that Rabbi Adler wrote to the community, Rabbi Adler said that he feels “incredibly privileged to have enjoyed a front-row seat in witnessing the life-altering power of SINAI.”
He expresses that “the relationship has been equally beneficial for TABC students, as it brings to life in the most authentic way possible the concept of kavod habriyot—that every person is created in God’s image and hence deserving of the utmost respect as a human being.”
“Honoring Rabbi Adler is especially meaningful this year, because we have just entered into a new long-term agreement between TABC and SINAI, under which we will build an expansion of the TABC campus,” said Fishman. The expansion, which has been funded by a generous grant to SINAI from an anonymous foundation and a small group of dedicated philanthropists, will ensure that SINAI will have a wonderful new space to thrive and grow and will help both the SINAI and TABC students.
Recognizing Rabbi Adler is an expression of hakarat hatov (gratitude) to him for all that he has done. “Rabbi Adler has played a vital role in SINAI’s success, and his stalwart support has been instrumental in changing community attitudes toward individuals with special needs. SINAI is truly grateful for the opportunity to honor Rabbi Adler and publicly recognize these significant achievements,” said Fishman.
Philip and Peggy Danishefsky, of Englewood’s East Hill community, represent the extraordinary kindness and generosity of the larger community of SINAI supporters. SINAI is not like other schools, where the lion’s share of the support comes from parents or alumni.
“Rather, SINAI has been embraced as an essential community cause, with our support coming overwhelmingly from people who do not personally benefit from SINAI. Peggy and Philip are a quintessential model of this phenomenon,” said Fishman.
The Danishefskys have supported SINAI for many years, not because they need SINAI for their own children, but because, in their words, they believe that “the SINAI children are all of our children.”
“Peggy and Philip have taken their roles as ambassadors for SINAI very much to heart and are working so hard to make this dinner a success. We are blessed, and our children are blessed, to have them as champions,” said Fishman.
Community Partnership Awardee Brad Ruder/Brad-Core and Senior Source
Brad Ruder, the president and founder of Brad-Core/Humanism in Building and Senior Source, will receive SINAI’s community partnership award. “Brad is a force of nature, and a force for good,” said Fishman.
“For Brad, construction is more than a way to earn a living—it is also a vehicle through which he serves the community. He has created a specialty in innovative construction for individuals with disabilities and for senior citizens,” Fishman explained.
Ruder’s business philosophy is represented in the non-profit organization that he founded, Senior Source. Senior Source operates a non-traditional senior lounge at the Shops at Riverside in Hackensack for seniors to gather, free of charge, to socialize and enjoy a wide range of activities and resources.
“This is what brought SINAI and Brad together. An important component of our high schools for students who have intellectual or developmental disabilities is vocational preparedness. It’s not about learning a specific trade, but rather being placed in a variety of vocational settings over time in order to learn how to be an employee—how to deal with a boss, co-workers and customers, how to be responsible and professional. Senior Source has served as a vocational partner with SINAI Schools since 2015, welcoming SINAI high school students who work on a range of projects including creating promotional materials, event flyers, and offering technical assistance to the seniors,” said Fishman.
“In our high schools in Teaneck, vocational preparedness is an important component of what we are offering: for our students to be prepared at their own level to be as independent as possible in their own setting,” explained Rothwachs. “The experience, the skills that they can learn, are ones that are transferable from another context to another: working with others, professionalism, sticktoitiveness.
“We partner with dozens of businesses, large and small, and Brad and his team have been a partner with us for a number of years. The stuff they do is really next level. The staff appreciates the unique quality that SINAI students bring to their team. They say the students ‘add qualitatively’ to the product they are offering, and would not be the same without them. It’s really very special for an employer to recognize the value of each of our students,” he added.
“In Brad’s own words, he is ‘like a proud papa,’ having watched SINAI students become valuable members of the Senior Source family,” said Fishman.
“SINAI is deeply grateful to Brad for establishing The Brad-Core/Humanism in Building Scholarship Fund, which enables many SINAI students to receive the special education they need to succeed,” he said.
Rabbi Yehuda and Laurie Minchenberg
SINAI parents for over 13 years, Rabbi Yehuda and Laurie Minchenberg have three children at SINAI who each work to overcome different types of challenges. “All three of them have learned from their parents to try their hardest, and always to show hakarat hatov, gratitude, to the people in their lives,” said Fishman.
Many will remember that the Minchenbergs were the subject of SINAI’s emotionally powerful film, “Heroes,” which debuted at SINAI’s 2013 dinner and was the first of SINAI’s videos to “go viral.”
“That was the first of our films that developed a significant following online. The nicest thing about that—and this was a pleasant surprise to us—was the number of calls we received from parents and grandparents, seeking to enroll their children in SINAI,” said Fishman.
“We heard, again and again, and we still hear today, ‘I saw that video about the Minchenbergs online. I saw what you accomplished with Tuvia. I want that for my son. I want that for my grandson.’ The film was a catalyst to other children getting the help they need—and that is very gratifying,” said Fishman.
“Seven years later, at this year’s dinner, we will revisit the Minchenberg family in a sequel film called ‘Heroes Today,’” said Fishman. The short documentary will focus on the challenges of raising multiple children with special needs and the trajectory of the three Minchenberg children who have attended SINAI for many years.
Parent Speaker Adeena Rosen
Each year at the SINAI dinner there is one other element, a featured speaker. This year it will be Adeena Rosen, a parent at the new SINAI at SAR program that opened last year. “It was life changing for this child to stay with his siblings at school,” said Abigail Hepner-Gross, SINAI’s director of communications. “It was also life changing for this child to be at SINAI. He was transformed as a child in the way he sees himself,” she explained.
“It’s counterintuitive. Some of our parents think that if their child is going to school with a very wide spectrum of kids, they will feel bad about themselves. But actually, this parent told me that she found her son feels better about himself, that despite the fact that there is a wide spectrum of kids, he is getting what he needs to get and is being supported in school.”
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Link