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Born to teach

By: Joanne Palmer
The Jewish Standard/New Jersey Jewish News

 

Aliza Strassman of Fair Lawn is the new head of Sinai at JKHA in Livingston. (All photos courtesy Sinai Schools)

 

At its core, all education depends on relationships.

Most children rely on their teachers to convey not only chunks of information but also the social context that gives the data meaning. That’s why small classes with engaged teachers are so much better for children than large, impersonal ones.

Even autodidacts, teaching themselves alone, in a library or a bedroom or a basement, develop relationships with the books they read.

If the relationship between teachers and students — and between teachers and administrators, and students and administrators, and between students and other students — is important in educating all kids, how much more important is it, then, in educating children with special needs?

That’s the model that the Sinai Schools has used since 1982, when the institution was founded, as a program embedded in what was then the Hebrew Youth Academy in West Caldwell — now it’s the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston.

Sinai’s model includes cutting-edge practices, highly skilled and trained educators, and programs tailored to each child’s very specific strengths, weaknesses, needs, abilities, and interests — and all that comes together in a teacher who develops a real relationship with a student, based on a combination of realism and love.

The need to develop relationships quickly and authentically — because it’s important to note that if this isn’t real, if there’s any note of fakery in it, it won’t work — becomes clear when a new teacher joins a school, and it’s even more clear when there’s a new head of school.

Aliza Strassman works with new students before school opened this fall.

Sinai Elementary at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy has a new director, Aliza Strassman of Fair Lawn. She’s replacing its longtime head, Judi Karp, who is retaining her other title; she’s still the overall school’s associate dean.

Ms. Strassman is beginning her tenure at Sinai with her work at relationship-building already begun; her background, interests, and history help her fit in seamlessly.

Her life has been pulling her toward this job, even though she couldn’t see that tug as clearly as people around her could, she said.

Aliza Riemer grew up in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh’s Jewish neighborhood, and went to day school there. “I am not the kind of person who thought I would be a teacher since I was 3,” she said. Instead, she went off to Yeshiva University’s Sy Sims School of Business as a business major, her career path laid out straight ahead of her. But “I very quickly realized that it was not for me,” she said. Because she hadn’t applied to Stern College for Women, the undergraduate option that increasingly seemed more appealing to her, she stuck it out at business school for four years, and graduated with a business degree. “In the meantime, though, ever since my 11th-grade summer, I’d been working at Camp HASC,” a summer camp in the Catskills for Jewish kids with intellectual and physical disabilities, “and I loved it so much,” she said.

“I’d keep in touch with my campers during the school year, and I kept in touch with one of the teachers — her name is Stacey Sharoff. I called her one day and I said, ‘I hate business school, and I don’t know what to do with my life.’

“And Stacey said, ‘Aliza, you are a special ed teacher.’ I said, ‘I am?’ and she said, ‘Yes, you are.’

“She had watched me for all of those summers as I took care of my campers, both in and out of classroom settings. It was so clear to her that I had the passion, and that I had something — maybe talent is the right word — something I had already. At camp, I watched what she did and I soaked in everything she said. Her guidance was huge for me.”

Sinai Schools students are taught in the ways that each one is best able to learn, and their joy in being in school is palpable.

 

So when it came to Ms. Sharoff’s assertion that of course, Aliza, you’re a special-ed teacher, “I needed someone to tell me that directly,” Ms. Strassman said. “I am so grateful to her for making that lightbulb click on for me.”

After YU, Ms. Strassman went to the Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan. “I did their dual master’s program in childhood and special education,” she said. She continued to work at Camp HASC, where she became a teacher, just as her mentor had been. “At that point, I thought that I would use the special ed part of that degree more, and throughout graduate school I had experience in lots of different kinds of classrooms, but post-graduate life kept leading me to general classrooms.”

“Those were the jobs that made sense. Those were the jobs that were local, and commutable.”

During that time, she got married; she and her husband, Chanan Strassman, whom she met at HASC when she was a teacher and he was a division head, lived in Washington Heights. She worked in local day schools on both sides of the Hudson; first at SAR in Riverdale and the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan and then at the Ben Porat Yosef, in Paramus, once they moved to New Jersey. (The couple have two daughters, Orit, 11, and Tziona, 7.)

“I was at BPY for 10 years,” she said. “I started as a teacher, and I had another one of those aha moments when I was talking to my supervisor, and she said, ‘Aliza, you run your classroom like a special ed class.’

“So even though I kept getting general ed jobs, special education was so much a part of me that I was using it. Special education is good education, and the way that you are going to teach every learner in your classroom, whether they are struggling or super advanced. I realized that even if I was not teaching special ed, I was using those tools.

“So I went from being a teacher to becoming the director of special services at BPY. I stepped into that role, and there I could really help the students, the teachers, and the parents of kids with learning disabilities. I could help them navigate the system, I could mentor the teachers, I could help them figure out the puzzle of each kid, and I could help walk the parents through it.”

She could practice differentiation. “That’s a buzzword that means teaching to your students’ abilities, needs, and interests,” she said. “It means giving students different topics to read about, different math problems to solve.”

That sounds a lot like the personally tailored education that Sinai offers its students. Yes, it does, Ms. Strassman agreed. “Every student has a jagged profile. You can look at that from so many perspectives, at their strengths and areas of need. A really good education tailors to that jagged profile.”

Ms. Strassman began her work at Sinai in July. “One of my big goals for the summer was to have as many conversations as I could, to meet as many parents as I could, to meet as many therapists and administrators and other stakeholders as I could, to start to get to know them and their Sinai stories. To learn what brought them to Sinai and what they love about it.

“It’s all about building relationships. That was important when I was a classroom teacher, and now that I’m an administrator, it’s still important.”

From back when she started talking to Sinai administrators, before the last school year ended, Ms. Strassman was struck by what she saw. “When I see the classrooms in action, the dedication and love of the teachers, and how it is felt by the students, stands out,” she said. “When I walked around, I didn’t just see teachers who are obviously so connected and invested in their students. I also saw students who are excited to learn.

“They were excited to do whatever it was they were doing — reading a book, doing a math problem or a science experiment. It’s a huge testament to the teachers and the administrator that the feeling has trickled down to the students.  They’ve created an environment and culture where the students love coming to school and learning, and there is huge growth because of that.

“They can make such huge strides and grow throughout the years because of the high expectation for them, and the scaffolding around them, so that they can achieve those expectations. Because the teachers are there for them, tailoring the experience for them.”

“The students clearly love to be there. They are invested in their own learning, and that creates incredible growth.”

Realism always has been part of Sinai’s model; it tempers the enthusiasm without dampening it. “You have to be realistic,” Ms. Strassman said. “You have to know: What is the first goal that I can set? How can I help the student get there? And then I set a new goal and build on that one.

“Realism is integral to the whole program,” she said.

Sometimes it can be difficult for a new person to replace a beloved figure, who has been in the organization for a long time and has deep connections to just about everyone in it. It can be an out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new impulse. On the other hand, sometimes organizations can be deeply resistant to change, and fight back against it.

It’s one thing if an organization is failing, but another if it’s doing really well.

This doesn’t seem to be an issue at Sinai.

“I want to build on the foundation that Judi created,” Ms. Strassman said about her predecessor, Judi Karp. “This is a school that is so strong. I am coming into a school where everybody knows what needs to be done. That is such a testament to Judi, and to everything she has put into this school for so many years.”

Chanan and Aliza Strassman and their daughters, Orit, left, and Tziona, at Camp HASC.

“She has been mentoring me all this time, and she’ll continue to do so. She has so much wisdom and knowledge and understanding, and she has been an incredible resource for me in helping me figure everything out as I get started.

“I really believe in the idea of mentorship. When you have a mentor, you have somebody you can ask for advice, or who can call you out when you’re wrong or help you resolve what you truly value.

“I have had wonderful mentors over the years, and I am excited about adding Judi to the list of people who have helped me grow.”

From the outside, it seems as if the transition is going smoothly. From the inside, Ms. Karp, who now is working part-time, after more than 25 years, sees the same thing.

“Aliza and I started to work together last January, when I started to send her some emails,” she said. “Just a few at a time, and not too many a week. They illustrated big-picture issues that we would talk about at a later date. As we moved into the spring, I started to send more emails.

“When you come into a new job, you have to learn the flow of the job. In a school, the flow has a lot to do with the time of year. I wanted her to see the spring issues, the summer issues, what she would need to plan in the summer for the fall. About what would be likely to come up.

“I would put stuff out there, and we would talk about it, so she could get a sense of that flow.”

Rabbi Yisrael Rothwachs talks to Aliza Strassman.

“Sinai has a very strong sense of the way to do things,” Ms. Karp continued. “The children always come first. Their education always comes first. But it’s one thing to say that, and another thing to make it happen.

“Aliza is very smart. She picks up on the nuances of what we are talking about very quickly. She has great experience with kids, and she is a wonderful communicator. So she is starting her new role with many positives going for her.”

Like so much of life, Ms. Strassman’s new job involves balancing competing goals. “The director has to be able to see both the big pictures and the minutiae,” Ms. Karp said. “That’s very important, and Aliza homed in on it quickly.

“You have to balance your school, your faculty, the parents, whose perspective is very important, and the kids; at the same time you have to keep your school going.

“And at the same time, you have to work with the host school.”

There are now eight Jewish day schools hosting Sinai School organizations; they’ve branched out from Bergen and Essex counties to the Bronx (okay, Riverdale) and Queens. The relationship between each of those schools’ administrators affects the way Sinai is able to function, and the relationship between Sinai’s students and the host schools’ affects Sinai kids’ happiness and the host schools’ students understanding of inclusion, and their ability to see each person clearly, not as the pitied representative of an unfortunate group but as a fully human, entirely unique, completely individual person.

“Aliza and I had a Zoom with a third party this summer, on a very sensitive topic, and it was wonderful to see how sincere and caring and professional she was,” Ms. Karp said. “She worked through the issue with the third party.”

A student picks a book from the library’s shelves.

So that’s another tension, between being caring and being professional. To have Ms. Strassman’s new job, it’s necessary to care deeply about your students, “but at some point you have to be firm,” Ms. Karp said. “That is the art of being a school director, and Aliza is artful.”

Ms. Karp no longer has daily responsibilities at Sinai at JKHA, but as associate director, “I have some projects,” she said. “Rabbi Rothwachs” — that’s Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, the Leo Brandstatter z”l dean— “and I are working to strengthen the connections between all of our Sinai schools, and to think creatively about some of the issues that we face as an institution with eight schools.”

And, she said, “I will continue to work closely with Aliza, and to mentor her.”

“Aliza is great,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “We are very lucky to have her on our team. She has come to us with years of special ed and administrative experience, and she’s ready. She’s primed for the new challenges that we have to offer.

“I went to Kushner a few times last week, during professional development and teacher orientation week, and she was doing exactly what she should be doing.

“Her areas of strength include her relationship building and her sincerity. I see her ability to shine there, and I have all the confidence that she will be great.”

He talked about the bittersweet nature of leadership transitions, and how to emphasize the sweet part.

A Sinai student stands by a bulletin board.

“We’re not losing Judi,” he said. “We’re gaining Aliza.” Now they have Ms. Karp’s more than 25 years of experience at Sinai combining with Ms. Strassman’s recent work at other schools to weave into that experience. “Aliza is managing to balance our history, the way we do things at Sinai, with fresh energy and new ideas.”

Yes, she looks very young. “I remember very clearly having a conversation with somebody during my first or second year as a teacher,” he said. “I was very young, and I looked even younger. I met someone in person for the first time, about three-quarters of the way through the year, and she looked at me, and she said, ‘You’re Rabbi Rothwachs?!?’

“Aliza has a lot more experience to offer than I did then, and as skilled and knowledgeable as she is, she’s also humble.

“We are dependent on each other. It is a great balance,” he concluded.

Rabbi Eliezer Rubin is the head of school at both the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School; the lower and upper Kushner schools share their cleverly built, creatively organized Livingston building and campus with Sinai at Kushner.

If Rabbi Rubin were not to work well with Sinai’s director, it would be hard for Sinai to flourish. But he always has, and both he and Sinai’s administrators are sure that the relationship between the two schools will not change.

“Aliza is coming into a very strong system, that has both support from Sinai and collaboration from JKHS,” Rabbi Rubin said. “It has a very established, professional, and committed staff. She has the opportunity to take this Sinai division to the next level. This is a great opportunity for her, and for the school.

“What I like about her background is that she is comfortable in mainstream student activity and student life. Her Bank Street degree will bring a spirit of newness and educational flexibility and elasticity that Bank Street is known for.

“On the one hand, she was handed a school that is very professionally run, and she will bring her own brand of leadership, which will be spirited and refreshing.”

The Sinai school at Kushner and JKHA share values, Rabbi Rubin said, and at base that’s what makes the relationship work. “They both have the mission of meeting every child where he or she is, and at setting expectations while giving meaningful support.

“That is the Sinai method, and it is the JKHA philosophy.”

In other words, combine creativity, patience, passion, compassion, realism, flexibility, and love, and you’ve got the Sinai Schools.

To learn more about Sinai, go to its website, at sinaischools.org.

To read this story as it originally appeared in The Jewish Standard/New Jersey Jewish News, click here.