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A Special School for Special Needs

A Visit to SINAI: A Special School for Special Needs

By: Joanne Palmer
for The Jewish Standard/Times of Israel

Last week, I found myself sitting in a circle of six girls, some of their teachers, the director of their program, and some other visitors, far more moved and infinitely more engaged than I had any reason to expect to be.

We were at Ma’ayanot, the girls high school in Teaneck; the six girls in the circle were part of the program the Sinai Schools runs there.

I have written about Sinai for years. (As always, I write about it a few weeks before its annual dinner, when it raises a large proportion of the funds it needs to fuel its work. To learn about this year’s dinner, see the box; to find out more about what it does, keep reading here.)

I know what Sinai does — it takes children who have a range of special needs, intellectual or emotional or physical or behavioral deficits — and it tailors an education to each of them. It gives each one of its students the attention and care he or she needs to flourish to the extent of his or her abilities; it carefully balances on its high wire, tugged between appropriately high expectations and too-soft kindness, which would camouflage but not undo a lack of real trust.

I knew that Sinai demands patience and intuition and knowledge and intellectual courage and resolve and clear-sighted realism from its teachers and administrators.


But until I sat there among the girls, I hadn’t realized — should have realized, but hadn’t — that the single most important factor, the one thing that makes everything else work, the thing that you can’t put into a spreadsheet but you can feel and recognize, is love.

As we went around the circle with the exercise Rose, Thorn, Bud — what do you have or what happened to you or what did you do today that is unequivocally good, what is or has been a problem, what on your horizon will bring you joy — as I saw that the girls were able not only to think about their blessings and challenges, but also to speak in public, to be themselves, to accept themselves and each other — I felt the love so strongly that it nearly knocked me over.

So with that preface, let’s get back to the Sinai Schools.

The Sinai Schools work with students from first grade until the school year when they turn 21; it uses a fastidiously tailored education and inclusion — usually concepts so different from each other as to be nearly impossible to pull off at the same time — to bring its students as close to the mainstream as makes sense for each one, and at the same time it demystifies and destigmatizes those students for the neurotypical majority.

It does so by placing its schools inside larger yeshivas. It now works with seven partner schools — three of them elementary, RYNJ in Teaneck, SAR in Riverdale, and Kushner in Livingston, and four of them secondary, TABC, Ma’ayanot, and Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck, and again Kushner in Livingston. Its students join with the students in the surrounding schools when appropriate — most of the Sinai students at the high school in Kushner join Kushner students at least some of the time, and many of them go on to standard college programs. Even when the students cannot be in class together, they can eat or ride the bus together. Friendships develop. Understanding takes root.


Meanwhile, teachers and administrators plot out courses of study and intensive therapy — including not only occupational and speech but also music and art — that will help students make sense of the world and their place in it.

Last week, I went to three of those schools — RYNJ, TABC, and Ma’ayanot — talked to the Sinai heads of school and students there, walked the halls, listened, and watched. It deepened my understanding of what Sinai offers its students, and the entire community.

Here’s some of what I learned.

Marcy Glicksman directs Sinai at RYNJ. She heads a large program; the students in it, from first through eighth grade, have a huge range of needs, some visible, some not.

Much of what she, like other Sinai directors, uses is from the Responsive Classroom program. Responsive Classroom, which is not only for students with special needs and is not aimed particularly at Jewish schools, uses “an evidence-based approach to education that focuses on the strong relationship between academic success and social-emotional learning,” its website tell us. Translated from educationalese, it means that it takes students’ emotional well-being very seriously, and understands that students who do not feel at home with themselves, who are grappling with shame or unduly high levels of insatiable frustration, cannot learn.

Students are taught to talk and to listen. “You cannot learn if you feel threatened,” Ms. Glicksman said. Students, even those in elementary school, often come to Sinai angry because they’ve been frustrated. That’s because “they have been in learning environments that don’t match their needs,” she said. Part of the education is about breaking through that anger to the problems and beneath that to the hope at their core by showing them that they can succeed.

The children are encouraged to do their best. “They are put in learning situations that insure success, and once they have become more self confident, they are then able to go further and take risks in order to learn,”  she continued.


We saw a group of three students and three adults play a game called “the warm wind blows”; it involves listening closely to simple questions, and sitting or standing in response, and asking another. It’s a Responsive Classroom method; the intensity and kindness with which the adults — two teachers and a therapist — watched the children as they played the game was extraordinary. The game develops social skills, which clearly do not come naturally to these students but you could see being built, one slow step at a time.

Other small groups of students worked quietly, with teachers rotating to talk to them. Some of them clearly had special needs; others did not.

Two eighth-graders stood and talked to each other, and then to us. One was clearly recognizable; he was Binyamin, the focal point of the Sinai School’s film “Sweet Boy” a few years ago. Then, he was a gorgeous small boy who had been nearly disabled by rage and hobbled by the underlying problem that frustrated him so terribly. Now, he’s a pre-teen, self-confident, no longer angry, no longer hobbled. Does he have anything to say to Jewish Standard readers, he was asked. “I am awesome!” he said.

Clearly that is true.

Binyamin was standing with his friend Ezra, who wrote a morning message for the school to consider. He discussed the claim that Israeli scientists are working on a treatment that will cure all cancers, explained how important that would be, and then challenged the students to determine which disease they’d choose to cure, should they be able to cure just one. It’s a thoughtful and challenging and quintessentially pre-teen message.

There are 44 Sinai students at RYNJ now, Ms. Glicksman said; the classes are created not by age but by a range of other factors, and each student’s program is individual. “It looks different for each child,” she said.

Once they reach high-school age, the students most likely to be able to be mainstreamed go to the Maor program at Kushner. That’s also the only coed high school program, not because Sinai prefers either coed or single-sex schools, but because of the choices of the larger schools in which they are housed.

Sinai boys who do not go to Kushner go first to TABC; after they turn 18, they go to Heichal HaTorah. Girls go to Ma’ayanot from high school until they turn 21. Everyone ages out of the program at 21; for some unclear demographic reason, Sinai enrolls far more boys than girls.


At TABC — formally the Sinai Karasick Shalem High School at TABC — I met Sinai’s director there, Esther Klavan, and Rachel Peyser, its director of student life.

TABC also welcomes boys who had not been in Sinai for elementary school; they’re glad to take them whenever they show up, Ms. Klavan said, although the earlier they enter Sinai’s system, the less damage the school will have to undo. Years of failure leave deep scars, she said.

Both Ms. Klavan and Ms. Peyser stressed the diversity of their students; they also talked a great deal about the life skills classes that will help these boys once they age out of Sinai’s programs. We were offered warm kugel that one of the boys had baked; to create them, he’d had to shop, assemble the ingredients, and then figure out how to sell them; once he’d sold them he had to learn how to budget the proceeds, use some of them to settle the expenses, and then figure out what to do with the rest of it.

Some of the boys in TABC at Sinai are entrepreneurial, but the instinct to sell has to be harnessed to real-life practicality that does not come easily to them.

Ms. Klavan and Ms. Peyser talked about the vocational program that places each of the boys in workplaces, chosen to fit both their aptitudes and their interests. Local businesses work with the school; boys learn how to shelve and stock and clean and help with food service, among other tasks. They learn responsibility; that once you have a job you have to go to it and do it respectfully and fully; you have to dress properly, control yourself properly, behave properly.


None of the jobs are make-work; some local retail businesses, such as Grand and Essex, rely on TABC Sinai students at particularly busy times. One student has a real aptitude for mechanics that might well allow him to get a job in a garage when he is older. Another, who has problems being quiet inside but flourishes outdoors, works at the Tenafly Nature Center. Yet another, who is skilled at graphic design, got a job working for Senior Source in Hackensack. All learn habits of mind that will help them later.

They are taught academics as well, but as they get older, the emphasis for some of them at TABC Sinai shifts to life skills, which will be more important for them. “We teach them the soft skills they need to be employable,” Ms. Klavan said.

As all jobs are for all of us, these jobs are a combination of necessary tasks and fulfilling ones; as in so much of life, Ms. Klavan said, everything is a trade-off.

Once they graduate from TABC and go on to Heichal HaTorah, the boys spend more time at work and less time at school.

As we walked down the hall from Ms. Klavan’s office, we passed by a room where a student and a therapist were meeting one-on-one. The therapist is also a musician; we stopped to listen to him play as the student sang. The choice of music is directed by the student, Ms. Klavan said; to listen to him, to watch how watchful the therapist was, inevitably was to be moved by it.

We passed a creative writing class; the students were asked to describe something they saw, as accurately as possible. (That’s always a hard exercise for any writer, on any level.) One student asked a teacher to stand still as he described her. “She’s half blue, half black, and half gray,” he said; in fact, she was wearing all three colors, although not precisely in that proportion. “She’s short,” he added. “Smaller than me.” All those things were correct; the teacher verified them, and the student, with teenage imperiousness, allowed her to go.


In one classroom, three students were learning about the concept of making change, using the example of buying a slice of pizza at E.J.’s in Teaneck; another class, this one of four students, was reading a Torah passage in Hebrew and discussing the ethical guidance it provided. In yet another room, two students each were working individually with teachers. In every setting, the teachers’ intensity was apparent, and the students’ skills varied widely.

“We teach strategies for coping,” Ms. Klavan said. “We teach our students about setting a goal, about accountability, about appropriateness. We teach them about how to fit themselves into the world.”

When I met Sima Kelner, the director of Sinai Karasick Shalem High School at Ma’ayanot, I felt as if I were meeting a rush of pure energy, somehow encased in a hat and a sweater and a skirt. She moves in a swirl of air. (To be clear, all of the administrators I met are as passionate about their work as they can be dispassionate about the thought that goes into it. Each one is different. Each one is impressive.)

Ms. Kelner talked about how important it is to continue to build relationships with Ma’ayanot, where her girls are included frequently. They’ve worked on technology projects, she said, and on a 5K run; the more they do together, the better it is.

Sinai also works on the girls’ skills, self-confidence, and sense of self. Each Monday, one of them is asked to speak that Friday; it is her responsibility to find a teacher to work with on that assignment.

She invited us — by now that included Sinai’s dean, Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, its managing director, Sam Fishman, and its communications director, Abigail Hepner Gross, as well as its head teachers, some therapists, and six students — to the circle that usually closes each day, held early to accommodate us. (There are seven girls in the school; one was absent that day).

We went around the circle, and each of the girls spoke. As is true throughout Sinai, each student is entirely different from the others, and the school manages to love and support them all. As we went around the circle, each trusting the others as each talked about her hopes and fears for the day, the sense of connection was palpable. The girls weren’t being coddled in any way; they were being encouraged, supported, stretched, recognized, and allowed to grow.

Later, the administrators talked about the joys and challenges and hopes — the roses, the thorns, and the buds — of running Sinai.

It is necessary to realize how entirely different each child is from just about every other child, they said; in order to work with them effectively and efficiently, teachers, therapists, and everyone else has to work together closely. Each teacher and therapist has a good deal of supervision, and information is shared. When everyone gets together, “there are three-hundred years of special ed experience in that one room,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.

The ratio of staff to students is unusually high, although it is not purely a student to teacher ratio, Mr. Fishman said; many of the staff members are therapists or other professionals.

Although each student is different, many join the school with a similar presenting symptom — anger. The older they are when they come to Sinai, the angrier they tend to be, Mr. Fishman, Rabbi Rothwachs, and Ms. Hepner Gross agreed. That’s because they’ve had to struggle for years; they can’t do what has been expected of them, they fall behind, and the misery compounds. Often, parents don’t want to believe that Sinai is the best place for their children, even though it often turns out that Sinai is the one place that will give their children a future.

And then there is the question of paying for it.

There is no question that Sinai is expensive. It’s far more expensive than most parents can afford. Many parents do not want even to try for it, because they are sure that they cannot afford it. But that’s not so, Mr. Fishman said.

When Rabbi Rothwachs meets a prospective student and the student’s family, it is his job, working along with his team, to decide if Sinai can help; there are some conditions that the school is not equipped to handle, he said. As always, Sinai’s administrators are realistic. But if they think they can work with the child, they admit him or her.

By the time he sees a student’s family, that student already has been accepted, Mr. Fishman said. The next step is up to him. “If we can help you, it is my job to make it work,” he said. It’s not a painless process, but it is a doable one.

He knows what it’s like. One of his children went through Sinai when the school was new; that son is doing just fine now. And he also remembers what it’s like not to have enough money, and to feel different and isolated and shamed for that reason.

“My parents struggled financially,” Mr. Fishman said. “We lived in Brooklyn, and I remember one day being pulled out of class — I was at a yeshiva — and having to sit on a bench.” It was because his parents hadn’t paid his tuition bill. It was mortifying. That memory still energizes him.


He’s been involved with Sinai since its beginning, first as the chair of its scholarship committee, and then as a professional. “I want parents to feel that if they are at the right school, then we can help them,” he said. “We value promptness — once a parent applies, we generally give them a response within one to two days. And we value courteousness, compassion, and confidentiality.”

So how do they do it?

“A big part of it is that we are lucky to be in a very generous community,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. And because of the internet, people around the world have heard about it. “We got a donation from Israel, and it came with a long letter,” Ms. Hepner Gross said. The gist of the letter was that although the writer doesn’t need Sinai now, “you never know who your grandchildren will be.”

Once they see the need in their families, people move to be closer to Sinai, Rabbi Rothwachs said. “We have a family who relocated from Holland, Florida, and another one from London.” Other educators are interested in trying to replicate the model. “I am getting calls from across the country,” he said. “Not a month goes by without a call like that.”

“There aren’t any other schools that go to the lengths that we go to for inclusion,” Mr. Fishman said. “We don’t own any of our buildings. We have to form relationships.” That necessity has ended up being a clear virtue. “That means that we really have to make inclusion work.”

There are schools that are very good at special education, he added, “but they’re self-contained. Nobody combines the models of special education and inclusion the way we do.”

The Sinai team also values the way their deeply Jewish institution reaches out into the non-Jewish world. “What is the probability that Sinai’s biggest donor would be Holy Name — a Catholic hospital?” Mr. Fishman asked rhetorically. “And then the next thing is we have the Inserra family, and then we have Cross River. It is so gratifying.”

“We’ve come so far in 37 years,” Ms. Hepner Gross said. “Then, it was a question of whether kids with special needs should have an education. Now, we are proud to be able to give them the best special education possible — and it’s also a Jewish education.”

“You are getting a world-class, accredited education on top of the Jewish education,” Mr. Fishman added.

They came back to the children.

“Behind each child is a story,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.

Here’s one of many stories.

Chaya, like many Sinai students, is immediately recognizable to anyone who’s watched Sinai videos. She’s a vivacious teenager who’s been at Sinai since she was a little girl.

Her English reading skills have improved tremendously in the last year, but her Hebrew reading lagged; it’s harder to teach rote reading skills in a language you don’t understand, and Chaya’s Hebrew comprehension is not nearly up to her English.

This is not a terrible problem, but it nagged. Reading Hebrew is of great value in her family.

“Her teachers, Miriam Mathel and Rochel Field, came up with an ingenious solution,” Ms. Hepner Gross took up the story. “She started a weekly tehillim” — psalms — “prayer session for the girls, to be led by Chaya.” That made her feel important — in fact, she is important, every student is important — so she devotes time and energy to it. And of course, the more successful she is, the better she feels about herself, and the more energy she has for that and other tasks.

The particulars of that story will not resonate with everyone, but the underlying values might.

So at the bottom, at the heart, at the core of all of these children’s stories, beneath the realism and the care and the attention and the intensity, is love.

This article was originally published in The Jewish Standard.