Gaby Gotesman, Maurice Korish, Ayelet Fischer, Max Leibenstern and Uriel Ostrin are five graduating seniors who volunteered with SINAI’s Inclusion by Design program and are now being nominated for the Dov Levy Prize.
SINAI was born 40 years ago out of the yearning of parents to end the isolation of their children with developmental, learning and intellectual disabilities and to provide them with a special education that would instill pride in their Jewish heritage and a sense of belonging within the community.
Today, SINAI serves 200 students throughout four elementary schools and four high schools, each of which is integrated within a regular education Jewish host school. This “school within a school” model maximizes opportunities for social and academic inclusion. As the only Jewish special education school accredited by the prestigious Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, SINAI is widely recognized for its excellence and leadership in special education.
SINAI creates each child’s individualized program with all their needs — academic, social, and emotional — in mind. For some students, that means vocational training that leads to steady employment and independent living. For others, it means academic and social skill building toward a goal of attending college. For all students, it means gaining a positive self-image, an understanding that their disabilities do not define them, and recognition that they are valued members of their communities.
The following is an excerpt from an essay Gaby Gotesman wrote describing her work with children with disabilities and special needs:
“If I told you that my friend FaceTimes me when she’s bored and fills me in on her day, you might think she’s like any other phone-loving teenager. 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.”
“The fact that Tova and I [have become] such close friends taught me that a true friendship, one in which both sides genuinely care about one another, was possible regardless of differing abilities.”
Maurice Korish attended Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (RKYHS ), is studying in an Israeli yeshiva this year, and plans to attend Stanford University next year. The relationship between Maurice and Moshe, a student at SINAI’s Maor High School at RKYHS, developed as they worked together on a STEM project, which went on to win numerous local and national awards.
For Maurice, the awards were not the highlight of the experience. “I have truly been blessed to partner with so many incredible individuals at SINAI on varying projects,” says Maurice, “but, particularly, my work with Moshe will always remain close to my heart. He has inspired me to excel in my studies and has given me much more wisdom than I will have ever been able to give to him! I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude, and I am humbled by his tenacity and desire to innovate. I am certain that the friendships I forged and the relationships I developed with my peers at the SINAI School have taught me to pursue a life of kindness, compassion, and respect toward others.”
Ayelet Fischer became involved with SINAI early in her high school career, primarily through SINAI’s Lunch Buddy program where, over weekly lunch dates, she developed close and meaningful relationships with SINAI students. But what was most meaningful was her effort to teach SINAI students a dance routine that allowed them to participate in the annual talent show fundraiser at her school.
She said that she loved every minute of the many hours she spent practicing with her SINAI friends. “The SINAI students were hard-working, did not focus on their challenges, and just stayed happy and motivated the whole time,” she said. “And, despite their disabilities, they did a great job.”
Max Leibenstern recently graduated from Torah Academy of Bergen County. During high school, he described his relationship with the SINAI students as “mutually enjoyable.” He and a particular student, Chaim, became good friends, so much so that Leibenstern remembers fondly when Chaim called him at 3 a.m. just because he wanted to talk about politics.
Finally, Uriel Ostrin is also a recent graduate of Torah Academy of Bergen County and a current student at Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Tzion in Israel. He said he learned the importance of helping others from his parents. “Every person, regardless of ability or disability, should have the same opportunities to interact with the world,” he said.
Ostrin said he is excited about remaining involved with SINAI in the future.
About The Dov Levy Prize
Fifty years ago, when Jewish children and adults with disabilities in Israel were either hidden away or left to the care of nuns in Christian facilities, Rabbi Dov Levy fought to provide them with a Jewish education, hand in hand with the most advanced treatments. To this day, his Seeach Sod special education network is breaking ground on behalf of individuals with disabilities while fostering awareness and acceptance within society at large.
Throughout the Jewish world, great strides have been made for people with disabilities, but there is still a long way to go.
The original article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Jan. 16, 2022.