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How SINAI Grew..Lovingly

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

As all sorts of nonprofit institutions — local, national, and international, Jewish and non-Jewish — try to figure out how to raise the money that they need to keep going, many of them have done a great deal of thinking about how best to explain who they are, what their mission is, and in general what drives them.

The Sinai Schools — the organization that provides special-needs education specifically tailored to each of its students, housed in Jewish day schools and both separate and part of those larger schools — is among those institutions. Sinai — whose unique and successful approach to special education has allowed it to grow, flourish, and advise other programs, but whose intricately thought-out model does not allow for a concise elevator speech — has decided to tell its stories online, week by week, through the end of the month.

We at the Jewish Standard have decided to tell Sinai’s story too; the tale of how a school can be conceived, created, and allowed to grow as needs change and are defined in increasingly sophisticated ways, is an inspiration not only for educators but for anyone who has a dream that both is aspirational and demands highly practical accommodations.

As we have seen, the Sinai Schools grew from an initiative created to fill the unmet needs of the children of four families, went through its first small incarnation, starting in 1982, as a program in one school, the Hebrew Youth Academy in West Caldwell, and its mom-and-pop administrative phase, until it became what it is today, a highly professional educational organization housed in eight schools in New Jersey and New York.

There have been many dedicated professionals who have contributed to that growth. Here, we look at two of them — Judi Karp, Sinai’s long-time associate dean, and Sam Fishman, who moved from being a Sinai parent to a Sinai volunteer and now is Sinai’s managing director.

Ms. Karp, who grew up on the Lower East Side, didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do when she grew up, but she was assimilating her parents’ experiences. Her father was an assistant principal, and her mother was a special educator “who worked in cutting-edge schools,” Ms. Karp said. So that background was there.

Ms. Karp went to Ramaz; when she was in high school, she had an internship at a Head Start center in Chinatown. “I went to college at Fredonia” — a SUNY college — “and it has a great education department, but I was too busy having fun. After two years, though, I had to declare a major, and I went home and I said that ‘I don’t know what to do.’

“And my mother said that I could be a paraprofessional in her school while I figured it out, and I could have the car when I needed it.”

She did that, “and I loved it.” She kept working and finished her degree at Hunter College. “I was very lucky that my parents pushed me in the right direction,” Ms. Karp said. “It was my direction. I always was the kid at school who someone would say ‘Judi, would you go be nice to that kid? Would you be her friend?’”

Ms. Karp lived in Maine for 10 years and worked as a special education teacher there; after that, she ran the resource room at the Yeshiva of Flatbush. “I was looking for something that would be a new challenge for me, and when I looked at Sinai, what struck me was how every kid was doing something different. They all were doing what they needed. It wasn’t cookie- cutter.

“The education started with the question of who is that child? What does that child need and how do we give it to them?”

In the spring of 1996, Ms. Karp had an interview with Sinai’s dean, Laurette Rothwachs. “It was clear to me from the interview that Sinai was an incredible place,” she said.

She got the job.

When she was hired at Sinai, it met only in West Caldwell, in the school renamed, about a decade earlier, as the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy. “I had the pleasure of starting school when it was in a building under construction,” she said. “It was like a fantasy. If you came to the end of a hall and opened a door, there was a construction zone. And every year, at the end of every summer, we would come back and there would be a new part of the building.

“At some point, Kushner opened the high school, and it kept growing, and our space in the building grew along with it. In my first year, space was really limited. The next year we got enhanced spaces with bigger classrooms and eventually therapy rooms and offices and staff rooms. Every year it grew, and it was new and it was exciting.

“Educationally, I was working with an incredible group of people,” Ms. Karp continued. She was learning from master teachers; “I would sit in meetings and just soak it up.” The educators used cutting-edge programs; for example, the Wilson Reading program, a multisensory way to teach children to decode written material “that was the gold standard.

“They just kept bringing these important educational programs to build our school.” At the same time, “you have to provide a good curriculum, but you also need someone who could deal with the children and their emotional needs.”

Soon Sinai began to grow, expanding into Bergen County. At first, administrators worried that its growth would outstrip the students who needed it, but that worry was needless. No matter how many openings there were at Sinai, there were students to fill them; the more the school contributed to reducing the stigma leveled at their students and their families, the more comfortable parents were in admitting that their kids would flourish there.

“We work hard to get to know our students,” Ms. Karp said. “Before we accept a child, we have to make sure that we have offerings that meet the child’s needs. We meet the children, read the evaluation, talk to their current teachers and therapists and parents. A lot of planning happens before we accept students.” Once a child is accepted, he or she has to be placed in one of the programs. “Geography is not the only priority,” Ms. Karp said. “They have to have friends, to have a peer group, children who learn the way they learn. Sometimes kid outgrow their groups, and we move them.”

Like everyone who works with or at Sinai, Ms. Karp talks about the relationship between Sinai and its partner schools as a necessary part of Sinai’s success. “We work with our partners, who are incredible educators themselves, and who welcome our students into their schools and treat them like their own,” she said. “We work together to sensitize mainstream kids and to educate them. In non-covid times, our kids are involved with each other, in normative kinds of ways, like in recess. There’s a sense that we all belong here.

“When something does come up — and things do come up — we talk about them. We go into classes, and we talk to the school psychologist. Kids can be cruel sometimes. When there is name-calling, we treat it as a need for sensitivity, not for punishment.

“I can’t speak for my partners at Kushner, but they have been known to say that their kids gain as much as ours do from being in this cooperative setting,” she said.

Ms. Karp remembers how all the work the school had done, all the thought and energy and wisdom and intuition she and her staff had put into it, came to their rescue on September 11, 2001.

“There was a big-screen TV in one of the classrooms, and Susan Dworken Koss, who was the principal of Kushner, pulled me into her office. As the day unfolded, of course everyone was internally panicked, while working hard to look externally calm. As it got toward afternoon, it was clear that those of us who lived across the river were not getting home that night.

“We stayed at two or three peoples’ houses; maybe eight or nine of us, a bunch of kids who did not have their medications. Some of the kids had seizure disorders. We had kids for whom accepting change was very hard. And here we are, telling them ‘You are not going home tonight. You are going to sleep at at your teacher’s house.’

“We divided the kids into two or three groups. I stayed at a teacher’s house with three kids. Cellphones weren’t working, and it was very hard to communicate, but over the course of the afternoon and into the early evening we contacted all the parents and told them we couldn’t get their children home. They helped us by having their doctors connect with pharmacies in New Jersey to get the medications that we needed for our kids.

“It was quite a night, just getting the kids to bed. But they were troopers, and the faculty was incredible in the way that they opened their homes to us.

“The next morning, we went back to school, and the next night we went home.”

She is matter-of-fact about how the trust she and the rest of the Sinai educators, therapists, and staff build with their students helped get them through a time that was traumatic for everyone. Then they went back to work, nurturing their students, refining their education.

Sam Fishman of Fair Lawn is a living example of how Sinai Schools can change an entire family’s life.

Mr. Fishman grew up in Borough Park, into a modern Orthodox family that believed strongly in the need for a yeshiva education but did not have the income to make the choice come easily to them.

“My father had some financial success early in life,” Mr. Fishman said. “He’d been a manager in Gimbel’s, in Manhattan. But his job required him to work on Saturdays, and my mother was shomer Shabbat, and told him that she wouldn’t consider a relationship with him unless he left that job.”

He did. The marriage between Jerry and Sarah was happy, as was the family that followed, Mr. Fishman reported, but his father never found a career that he liked and that also paid him well. He went to yeshiva, but remembers once being taken out of class, made to sit in front of the principal’s office waiting for his mother to come pick him up, and then learning that this was not because of anything he’d done, but because his parents were late in their tuition payments.

This is worth reporting because now, as Sinai’s managing director, Mr. Fishman determines how much a family has to pay, and helps them get scholarships. He knows what both sides of that equation are feeling, and he knows in particular how students, who have no power but are at the fulcrum of the relationship, feel. “I know the pressures that school executives feel when they rely on tuition and have to deal with parents not paying. I don’t know of any school around here that would do what my school did when I was a kid, and certainly nothing like that ever happened or would happen under my watch, but I grew up with a sensitivity to it. I really wanted to make a Jewish education available. That’s what motivated me to join Sinai’s financial aid committee.”

But we have to go back further into Mr. Fishman’s life to learn what attracted him to Sinai.

When he was a freshman at yeshiva high school in Brooklyn, he started dating Esther Chanis, also a freshman but on the girls’ side of the school. They married when they were 20, and their first son, Moshe, was born when Esther was 21 and he’d turned 22. His little boy “had these huge, captivating, mischievous blue eyes and flowing blond hair,” Mr. Fishman said. “He was gorgeous — yes, I know, every father would say that. But he was.”

Moshe — today he’s called Mike — was Esther and Sam’s first of their four children, and the milestones he missed were subtle, so at first they didn’t notice them. “There were some signs that he was not developing as he should have been,” his father said. “But we had no context to really understand milestones. He looked like a neurotypical kid, but something off was in his affect.”

In 1984, the family moved to Fair Lawn. “We’d arranged to enroll Moshe in pre-K in one of the local community yeshivot for the remainder of that year, but almost immediately that school alerted us that something might be off, and recommended that we have him evaluated,” Mr. Fishman said. “It was around that time that we started to hear words like autism spectrum, possible learning difficulties, and possible learning impairment. Those words were like daggers in my heart.”

As Moshe was getting rejected from the yeshiva his parents had set their hearts on, “some of my friends in Fair Lawn introduced us to Rabbi Wallace Green,” Mr. Fishman said. “I was told that his program was a school within a school for children with special needs, and that it was a chance of mainstreaming kids. It was crazy concepts flying around, and I didn’t understand them.

“But I was told that our Moshe would be able to go to yeshiva, like his siblings and our friends’ kids. So I arranged for Rabbi Greene to meet our son.”

It all worked out.

Moshe went to Sinai through elementary school; there was no Sinai high school for him then, so he was mainstreamed. Every Sinai student is different; Moshe was academically gifted, but still he needed Sinai. “Mrs. Rothwachs and her staff knew our son inside out and upside down,” Mr. Fishman said. “They knew what made him tick. They worked really hard with him. They got him motivated. They knew how to press his buttons.

“I would say that the zenith of our experience as Sinai parents was Moshe’s bar mitzvah,” Mr. Fishman said. “Sinai does this with every child when they reach their bar or bat mitzvah. My son read from the Torah in school at the main minyan. All the kids, not just the Sinai kids, were around him, singing siman tov v’mazal tov, just as they did for everyone else. It was just so emotional for us.

“And then at shul, at Shomrei Torah, he read his entire parshah — it was Bereishit,” the first chapter of Genesis — “and he also studied with Rabbi Yudin, just like all the other boys, and he gave a speech from the podium that was extraordinary.

“The speech was tightly scripted, and he’d practiced and practiced it. And then he got up to the podium and read a few lines, and then he put the speech to the side and looked out and said, ‘I have a few things to say.’ And then Rabbi Yudin looked up and made eye contact with me and threw up his hands as if to say ‘Oh no!’ And my son started this impromptu riff on how he was looking forward to life after his bar mitzvah, when his mom would have time to cook for him. Frozen fish sticks were okay, but they weren’t really doing it for him.

“I was dumbfounded, laughing and crying. I couldn’t get the song out of my head, ‘Where have you been, my blue-eyed son?’

“My children all graduated from college, but I cried at only one graduation. That’s when Moshe received his master’s in special education. It was profoundly moving for me.”

Mike Fishman is now married and the father of a daughter, and he teachers seventh grade special education in a public school in the Bronx. “I couldn’t be prouder of him,” his father said.

That’s how important Sinai has been to the Fishman family.

Esther Fishman was the first in the family to volunteer at the school, Mr. Fishman said; after a few years, she was invited to join the board. A few years later, he was asked to sit on the board as well. “This was not unusual,” he said. “It was a small organization, and all of us as parents felt a responsibility to make it work.”

Mr. Fishman’s background was in business, so it made sense that he was asked to lead a committee that would shape Sinai as it changed from a small program in someone else’s school to an independent organization. He also represented Sinai on the JKHA board. In 1998, Sam and Esther were honored at the Sinai dinner.

“In 2006, I got a call from Leo Brandstetter,” one of the original Sinai parents and board president, who remained deeply involved with the school. “He told me that Sinai was facing some financial difficulties and that some of the old crowd and some new people were getting together at the office in Teaneck. He said that the problems were pretty serious.”

The financial problems stemmed, ironically, from a generous, large, and unexpected inheritance from a benefactor who had died unexpectedly and tragically. “Decisions to use it had been made from the heart,” Mr. Fishman said, but those decisions proved to be unsustainable. “I presented them with numbers and said, ‘I can’t tell you if it will be at Chanukah or Purim, but I can tell you that Sinai will close unless we do something.”

They did. Their actions included stepped up fundraising — and inducing Mr. Fishman to join the staff as managing director.

“My object always was to manage Sinai professionally, like a business, and to look at what we can do to serve the children and the community better,” he said. But because he’s been a parent and a volunteer, because he does everything that he does with both a complex spreadsheet and an open heart, the balance is there.

It allowed the school to survive the tsunami of the financial implosion of 2008.

Mr. Fishman raves about the staff; Rabbi Sruly Rothwachs, its dean, and Judi Karp, and also Laurette Rothwachs, its first teacher and first dean, and Susan Dworken Koss, who led JKHA when Moshe was a student there, and who helped Sinai grow. He also is eloquent about a fellow Sinai parent-turned-communication director, Abigail Hepner Gross, who works with him on many projects, including creating the films that Sinai shows at the dinner every year. Those films, which are emotionally direct and powerful, not tear-jerking because they are palpably true, are a high point of the evening, and they’re Ms. Hepner Gross’s babies. (Ms. Hepner Gross combines an unerring eye for detail and nuance, an unswerving talent for organization, and an overwhelming and unmistakable kindness that make her extraordinary at her job.)

The staff, Mr. Fishman said, “are a veritable army for good.

“I am fortunate that Sinai was there for my son when I needed it, and like many other Sinai parents, I try to pay forward to future parents the kindness from which I benefitted,” he added. “I have witnessed in my lifetime tremendous progress in communal attitudes toward individuals with disabilities, and I am blessed to be part of an organization that helped precipitate that progress.”

To read this article as it originally appeared in The Jewish Standard Click Here.