It is a distressing time for Jewish children across America right now, but all the more so for children who have complex learning disabilities or special needs. We have all been affected by the war in Israel and the rise in antisemitism here in the U.S. Yet for the children of SINAI Schools, the difficult environment can be even more challenging to navigate, and SINAI has needed to respond and teach each child individually, to meet his or her specific needs.
SINAI Schools’ Dean, Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, and its Associate Managing Director Arielle Greenbaum Saposh, sat down with Abigail Hepner Gross to discuss how the SINAI students are coping during this stressful time, and what SINAI is doing to ensure that their students with special needs navigate the world safely.
Abigail Hepner Gross: Since October 7, the world has been a frightening place for Jewish children, both in terms of the war in Israel and the rise of antisemitism in the U.S. What makes it different for SINAI students?
Rabbi Rothwachs: That’s a great question. I should start by pointing out that we serve children with a really wide range of disabilities, so we are seeing a really wide range in their understanding of what is happening and how it impacts them. I really don’t like to generalize when it comes to our students, but by and large our students are more vulnerable than children the same age who are neurotypical. Many of them have challenges with social skills, and their inability to understand nuances can make it more dangerous to navigate potentially dangerous situations.
AHG: In what way?
Rabbi Rothwachs: I’ll give you an example. Many of our schools took students to the rally in DC. Obviously, that was not going to be appropriate for all of our students, but even for those who were able to handle the long day and who could understand the significance of why it was important to be there, our teachers and therapists had to spend a lot of time preparing them for what they might encounter at the rally. Even with our high school students, we had to practice how to not respond if they ran into protestors, because we realized our students might respond to baiting in a way that could become dangerous. We also had to provide a lot of supervision to make sure that our students did not become emotionally overwhelmed, and that they remained safe. Baruch Hashem, they didn’t encounter any protesters that day—but our teachers continue to repeat these lessons over and over, so that our students can remember how to respond if they run into any similar situations when their teachers are not around.
Arielle Greenbaum Saposh: Some SINAI students also have mental health challenges, which can heighten the anxiety that they already struggled with even before October 7. We’ve heard fears from our students such as, “What if someone yells at me on the street because I’m Jewish?” or “Why do people hate Jews? Maybe it’s bad to be Jewish.” You might expect these kinds of questions from a young child, but they are also coming from some of our older students. Our teachers and therapists have to tackle the students’ anxieties while helping them make sense of the information they are exposed to all around them, which often comes from outside our classrooms.
Rabbi Rothwachs: Exactly. On top of everything else, we need to navigate the fact that age-appropriate information being shared in the partner school might not be developmentally appropriate for our students.
Arielle Greenbaum Saposh: Also, our students need information broken down into smaller pieces, taught through different modalities, and often repeated many times in order for them to fully understand what they are being taught.
AHG: So what are the SINAI teachers and therapists doing to address these children’s anxieties?
Rabbi Rothwachs: It’s important to point out that because of the wide range of students we serve, there is a range of how our students’ anxieties manifest. Some of our students have siblings who are serving in the IDF, while others have a limited understanding of what is happening in Israel. Some have expressed fear of being the targets of antisemitism, or have told us they are so relieved not to be in public school this year. So we address our students’ anxieties individually.
Arielle Greenbaum Saposh: Just like everything we do at SINAI is individualized to meet each child’s needs, the ways in which our educators manage each child’s anxieties is also individualized.
Rabbi Rothwachs: Right! Of course, we have added extra therapy sessions for the students who need them. We have built in different modes to share information and discuss the students’ feelings—at morning meeting, through journaling, before davening, and so on. We’ve added extra sensory breaks for our students, and tried to get them more exercise. And we’ve also guided our parents on how to discuss these difficult topics with their children.
Arielle Greenbaum Saposh: And then there are all the activities that we are doing with our students to support Israel, like writing letters to chayalim, organizing bake sales, collecting and sorting for Israel, saying extra Tehillim, and so on.
AHG: Those types of things are happening at all the schools. What makes it different for the SINAI students?
Arielle Greenbaum Saposh: Well for one thing, for some of our students, participating in activities like these which might be par for the course for neurotypical kids is extraordinary for them. For example, for a student on the Autism spectrum who struggles with empathy, writing a letter to a soldier is a real accomplishment.
Rabbi Rothwachs: The other thing is that a major part of our mission is to teach our students that they are part of the larger community. When our students participate in the same types of activities as every other child in Jewish schools across America, it shows them that they are part of something bigger than themselves—that they are a part of Klal Yisrael just like everyone else.
Arielle Greenbaum Saposh: Some of our students come to us from public school, where obviously they would not have this sense of belonging and where they would not be taught how to navigate being Jewish in this precarious environment. At SINAI, they get all of this while also getting everything else they need academically, socially, and emotionally. We are able to address all of their needs within our safe and nurturing environment.
Rabbi Rothwachs: I think that has never been more important than it is right now.
This interview, conducted by SINAI’s Director of Communications, Abigail Hepner Gross, has been edited for length.
SINAI operates elementary and high schools across New York and New Jersey for students with a wide range of complex learning disabilities and special needs. In light of the war in Israel, SINAI will not be holding its dinner celebration this year. The success of its annual campaign, which is currently underway, is critical to SINAI’s ability to continue to provide the highest level of special education to children throughout our community, addressing their academic, social, and emotional needs.
Contribute to SINAI at www.sinaischools.org/support.
To read this story as it originally appeared in The Jewish Link of New Jersey, click here.