Every person has a place in our community

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

As Ilana Picker takes over as head of Sinai at Ma’ayanot, we look at Sinai and its work


Ilana Picker, the new director of Sinai at Ma’ayanot, shares a smile with a student. (All photos courtesy Sinai Schools)

When you talk to Ilana Zar Picker about her work at Sinai at Ma’ayanot, where she has worked for five years and just taken over as director, you are struck not only by her enthusiasm and deep involvement with her work, but also by her pronouns.

The Sinai Schools is the north Jersey-based institution that runs schools for students who are diagnosed with a range of developmental and intellectual disabilities within Orthodox day schools in Bergen and Essex counties, and now in the Bronx and Queens as well. Sinai personalizes its education, giving each student the support and services he or she needs to thrive, maybe to join the mainstream later, maybe to gain the life skills necessary to live a happy, as-independent-as-possible adult life. Sinai students have a range of abilities and needs, and Sinai meets each of them forthrightly.

Back to Ms. Picker, whose work is at the Rabbi Mark & Linda Karasick Shalem High School at Ma’ayanot High School for Girls in Teaneck.

Listen as she talks about how her students, who “always are looking for ways to connect,” and who typically “don’t belong to social clubs or, say, the Teaneck soccer team,” worked on a program with older people. First, students delivered challah. Next, “we made soup,” Ms. Picker said. “We put it in Tupperware. We delivered it.” It mainly went to recipients “who are open, and also looking for connections. I’m looking forward to expanding it, potentially to baking challah, and then to delivering it.

“Making the soup involved following a recipe, using functional math skills, life skills, and then social skills. Everything we do, every single decision, is made with intention and purpose. Nothing feels random.

“We are always looking for opportunities to embrace the outside world, to bring it to us, and us to them. I see my job as delivering education that is relevant and purposeful.”

So you can see in the way she talks about Sinai that Ms. Picker is all in; she is able to see her students both close-up, almost from the inside out, and also from the outside, as teenagers and young adults who can use her help.

Ms. Picker came to Sinai circuitously. She grew up in South Africa; when she and her husband, Saul Picker, another South African, got married, they planned to make aliyah to Israel. But “he’s a software engineer, it was pre 9/11, and the software business was booming. He had a business opportunity in New York and I said that I thought we should go to Israel later, with some dollars.

New Sinai at Ma’ayanot director Ilana Picker at work in her office.

“That’s how we ended up here.”

Ms. Picker followed her sister, Dr. Heather Zar, a pediatric pulmonologist, and her brother-in-law, Dr. Dan Stein, a psychiatrist, to Englewood; they’re back in Capetown now, but Ms. Picker, her husband, and their four daughters lived in Englewood for seven years, and now are ensconced in Teaneck.

“We wanted to buy a house by the sea, but that didn’t work,” she said. “Then we thought we would live in Tenafly. But then I saw a house in Teaneck in November, and the sun was setting, and I walked into the backyard, and there was a gorgeous tree. The whole garden was beautiful. And I said, ‘This is the house.’ I called my mother, who is an architect, and she asked, ‘What is the house like? You can’t buy a house because of the garden and a tree.’”

But she did. “I don’t know what kind of tree it is,” Ms. Picker said. “It must be 100 years old. It’s huge. And it tells me about the seasons. There are no seasons in South Africa.”

Ms. Picker started to work as an occupational therapist; after a stint in the Glen Rock public school system, she went to work at the Shefa School, a new community day school in Manhattan for children with “language-based issues,” she said. “It’s an amazing school.” It was created by Ilana Ruskay Kidd, “and I am so lucky that my path crossed hers,” Ms. Picker said. She learned to become a reading teacher there, as well as continuing as an OT. “The school just grew and grew,” she said. She was very happy there, when the school was on the West Side, but eventually it needed a bigger space, which it could find only on the east side of the park. The commute became too big a hurdle for Ms. Picker, whose children still were young. “Geography is geography,” she said.

But as she always has been lucky — or perhaps, she said, guided — in finding the right job, “I found Sinai five years ago, right here at Ma’ayanot, and I fell in love with it. With the idea of it, with the students, with the faculty, with the potential, and with the creativity.”

She also earned formal certification as a reading specialist from Fairleigh Dickinson, so her experience and education are theoretical and academic as well as practical.

The school’s director then was Sima Kelner, a woman whose narrow shoes will be hard to fill; a woman who radiates energy and love. (And a woman who is in the middle of making aliyah with her family, and who has helped Ms. Picker take over the job that they both love.)

As part of their regular chesed activities, students pack clothes for the needy at Yad Leah.

“Sima was an incredible boss,” Ms. Picker said. “She never said no. It was always ‘how can we tweak things to make this work?’”

She told a story that illustrated this flexibility, which represents the outlook of Sinai at Ma’ayanot then and now.

“So I said, ‘Sima, I believe that the body and the brain work together, and the students will have stronger, more available brains if they strengthen their bodies, so we will run a 5K race,’” Ms. Picker said. “And she looked at me like I had four heads, but she never said no.

“So we started a training program. We learned about safety and leadership, and we started to run. We do it in the fall and in the spring, and it culminates in a 5K race.

“We join forces with other groups. We joined a veterans’ run, and a run with Yad Leah, and with Bergen Community College.”

Because the education that Sinai offers is holistic, Ms. Picker brought in a veteran to talk about what it means to have been to war and then come home. The students pack clothing to help Yad Leah; the organization collects clothing and then sends it to needy recipients in Israel.

Last year, students studied about immigration, “and then we went to Liberty State Park. When we read about hunger, we read about Mazon.

Sinai at Ma’ayanot students and staff stand together at a year-end celebration as students proudly display their award certificates.

“When the war started in Ukraine, I thought that it was important for our students to know about it. So we studied about Ukraine, about what’s going on with the refugees, and we decided to raise money for them.

“We held a bake sale. First we baked, and we followed a recipe — that used executive function skills, planning, and safety skills — and then we sold what we baked. That used more skills, talking to Ma’ayanot students, selling, making marketing fliers.

“We raised more than $150, and then we had a Zoom session with Debra Karger of Federation, because our money was going there, and we brainstormed questions.” (Ms. Karger, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s principal gifts director, is a strong supporter of the Sinai Ma’ayanot girls, visiting in person or talking over Zoom whenever she can. The relationship between Ms. Karger and the students is an example of the kinds of connections the school and its students forge.)

“How does the money get there?” they asked. “What will it be used for?”

The education’s multidisciplinary nature means that each student is affected by different parts of it, according to who she is.

“One of our students, who just graduated, gave a speech and a big piece of it was about her running,” Ms. Picker said. “She spoke about how she hated it in the beginning, because she thought she couldn’t do it.” And then she talked about how she learned that she could, and she did.

“It always starts with students who are stressed and unmotivated,” she continued. “We do it very gradually. We run and walk and walk and then run, and then we run more and walk less until we are all running.” (Note how she’s talking about “we,” not “them.”) “And then we bring in their math skills; every week the students get a chance to write down their mileage, and they see how in the course of the week we ran five or six miles. And at the end, we have a big celebration, where we invite Ma’ayanot students.

“In the past the Ma’ayanot track team has joined us. Sometimes we train together. We are always looking for ways where we can collaborate.”

Sinai students at Ma’ayanot deliver goodies to senior members of the community.

She and the rest of the Sinai faculty, both at Ma’ayanot and at the other schools that house Sinai programs, are multidimensional.

When she read a book about Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued many thousands of Jews during World War II, and then disappeared into the maws of the Soviet Union, whose representatives are presumed to have killed him, “I knew that I had to teach our students about him,” Ms. Picker said.

“I have to teach them about what he did, with no skin in the game, with no rhyme or reason, just the need to do the right thing. It’s a message about what one person can do. It’s about the human potential of one human being with no ulterior motives.

“It’s so empowering. I don’t want our students to be passive people. They have special needs, but they are capable and smart and talented and they have potential. They can drive things and movement. They can have opinions.

“They matter.”

There’s a reason why her students are so open to the world, Ms. Picker said. “They are authentic. They don’t have the layers of filters that tell them ‘I can’t.’ ‘I shouldn’t.’ When they hear music, they want to dance. There’s no one more joyous at a chagigah,” a celebration.

“All those things that other people worry about, about what other people think of them — that’s completely stripped away. What you see is what you get. They are so honest, so authentic, and truly so spectacular.

A student spends time at the community organization Senior Source.

“We have the most incredible students.”

Ms. Picker knows what she wants for them.

“I want them to be in this world with confidence,” she said. “They matter. They have the right to do things as much as I do or you do or the person sitting right next to us does or as any other human being does.

“If I can give that to them, then I will know that we have done well. If they can leave with a sense of purpose and contribute to the world, then we will have done well.”

Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs is Sinai’s dean, Arielle Greenbaum Saposh is the school’s associate managing director and counsel, and Abigail Hepner Gross is its communications director. On a recent morning, the three administrators and Ms. Picker gathered over Zoom to talk about Sinai at Ma’ayanot.

Ma’ayanot has been open since 1996, and Sinai has been part of the school since then, Ms. Greenbaum Saposh said; it was Sinai’s first [girls’] high school. “We are very excited to have Ilana rise up through the ranks to become our director; Ms. Picker was empowered by Ms. Kelner in her organic rise up Sinai’s ranks.

“She is dedicated, she is kind, she is passionate, she is deliberate, she is articulate. We are excited to see what she will do at Sinai Ma’ayanot.”

Rabbi Rothwachs talked more about empowerment, “because it is really at the heart of everything we do,” he said. “Ilana says that she felt empowered by her supervisor to think out of the box, and we inspire the faculty to stretch each other, to challenge each other. And that’s also what we encourage our students to do. Our board members are very empowering to the professional leadership.”

Ilana Picker and one of her students work on a reading exercise.

Sinai’s elementary schools are more or less geographically based, with students going to the school most convenient to their homes, but by high school, they’re more specialized. Although it’s hard to generalize, Rabbi Rothwachs stressed, the students more likely to be mainstreamed, occasionally in high school and more frequently after it, tend to be sent to the Maor High School at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. The students with a different range of challenges tend to go to the Shalem Sinai schools. The girls go to Ma’ayanot, boys to TABC or Heichal HaTorah. All three of those schools are in Teaneck.

Sinai at Ma’ayanot is expanding the profiles of students it can accept; some of its students fall between the traditional Shalem and Maor descriptions. Ma’ayanot has accepted more students this year than it’s ever had before — last year there were seven, and this year there will be 12 — and the students will have a greater range of possibilities, as always based on their own situations. It’s a function of the new elementary schools that are adding more students to the schools’ pipeline, and it’s another exciting new development, the administrators said.

They’re pleased with the relationship between Sinai and Ma’ayanot.

“Ma’ayanot is known as a student-centric culture, and students there are given a lot of opportunities for leadership,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “The students are learning from their mentors about what it means to be inclusive, and on their own they’re reaching out to us.

“I constantly hear from Ma’ayanot faculty, asking how they can be part of Sinai,” Ms. Picker said. “There’s an amazing lunch program, a chevre, where I think twice a week they have a lunch and learn together.

“Ma’ayanot’s math teacher brought her track team to run with us, and the experience of running together showed us how capable we are. It’s a strong message both to Sinai students and to neurotypical students, that we can collaborate and join and be successful.”

“I did the Rubin Run at the JCC” — that’s the annual Mother’s Day run to support people with special needs at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly — “and I saw at least one Sinai Ma’ayanot student there, running with her dad,” Ms. Hepner Gross said. “It was so great! She had learned to feel confident, to be competent, to run outside the Sinai cocoon.”

Ilana Picker, other Sinai teachers, and students encourage each other before their final run of the school year.

That being outside the “Sinai cocoon” will be truly physically at Ma’ayanot this year. “We never had a Sinai wing there, but both our classrooms and our lockers were clustered together,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “Now they will be interspersed. Lockers will be alphabetical.

“These small things make a huge difference, both aesthetically and emotionally. It’s different when you’re a Sinai student and go to your locker, and on your left there’s a Ma’ayanot student and on your right there’s a Ma’ayanot student.”

CB Neugroschl is head of school at Ma’ayanot.

This year, just as the leadership of Sinai at Ma’ayanot has transitioned from Ms. Kelner to Ms. Picker, Ma’ayanot has grown, both in the number of students it has accepted — there will be 100 new freshmen this year, which is an all-time high — and in its physical space — the school has added 12,000 square feet.

Despite the changes, some things will remain unchanged, Ms. Neugroschl said. “We are committed to maintaining the solid relationship that Sinai and Ma’ayanot have, which we all appreciate, and the incredible sense of learning that happens by virtue of our shared facilities and shared values. We are committed to the sense of building a community that reflects and appreciates each of our kids and what they bring to the table.

“We constantly see our students light up when they have the opportunity to build real relationships and real friendships with the Sinai students.

“Our core values tell us that learning happens for all of our students in different ways. A school is healthier when it can build out its programs to honor that type of learning. Sinai does that with an exceptional degree of personalization.”

Sinai’s combination of idealism and realism have much to teach. “Sinai represents a real-world awareness that our families, our communities, and each of us have different strengths and challenges, and we still all are one community,” Ms. Neugroschl said. “We learn from one another. We bring the strengths of our Sinai students, especially in the co-curricular realm, to Ma’ayanot programs.

Students engage in a Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey-sponsored Mitzvah Day project.

“It inspires all of us to recognize and celebrate each other.”

There are far more Ma’ayanot than Sinai Ma’ayanot students, but the lessons that the Sinai girls can teach their peers at Ma’ayanot are profound.

“The strength is in saying to each other, and to ourselves, and out loud, that we all have different paths,” Ms. Neugroschl said. “That’s true of every single one of us, in the Ma’ayanot community, and in the world. I love that our students can see how true that is, and that they can see how much happiness, joy, love, connection, occurs dafka in knowing that. In not being on this cookie-cutter rat race that any community of meritocracy at times ends up promoting.

“This idea that I have to go to this school, get these grades, be in this club, that it’s all a big part of what it means to be successful — that is not very real for anyone.

“Through Sinai, students learn to define themselves. It forces everyone to ask yourself: ‘What is my story? What are my strengths? What am I contributing to my community?’

“Sinai models that every single day. It shows us that every person has a place in our community. Every student will be successful, and every student has to identify what the right measures of success are for themselves. That’s true for everyone.”

Ms. Neugroschl sees in Sinai “a sense of commitment to making every student be successful, and making sure that everyone knows their value to the community. It is incredibly rewarding for every educator, for every student, for every family to know that those commitments are real, and that they’re happening for everyone.”

To read this article as it originally appeared in The Jewish Standard/Times of Israel, click here.