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How the SINAI Schools started

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

This pandemic year, we are telling the story of the Sinai Schools by installment.

That’s unusual. We’re not big on serializing — we’re a weekly newspaper, not a Victorian publisher — and Sinai usually gears itself up for its huge annual dinner, where an astoundingly thorough cross-section of the community comes to think, to learn, and to feel about what a special education means, and what it means to be a community that supports it so completely.

This year, though, when the kind of humming, vibrant, forget-about-your-personal-space-because-there’s-just-not-enough-room-and-you-want-to-talk-to-absolutely-everybody gala would be actively dangerous, is a time to rethink how we do things.

Throughout its four decades, Sinai always has been a place where its leaders rethink how to do things — how to think about disabilities, how to think about stigma, how to think about tailoring an education for every child, how to balance reality and hope.

It’s also a place with a lot of history. Our first installment took us through the late 1980s, when Sinai still was part of the Hebrew Youth Academy, then in Caldwell, before it morphed into the Kushner elementary and high schools and moved to Livingston.

One of the themes that runs through Sinai’s story is the way its parents became its lay leaders, often continuing to work as volunteers for the school, both formally and informally, long after their own children had graduated. Mark and Linda Karasick, who live in Fort Lee now but made Teaneck their home for decades, exemplify that. They began as parents of Sinai students; Rabbi Karasick became its second president, in 1991, and now he’s chairman of its board, a position he’s held since 2003. Ms. Karasick created the school’s iconic dinners, and oversaw them for more than 15 years.

Many years ago, Linda and Rabbi Mark Karasick posed for a formal portrait with their four sons. Clockwise from the bottom, the boys are Yitzi, the youngest; then Avi, Zev, and Yaakov.
Many years ago, Linda and Rabbi Mark Karasick posed for a formal portrait with their four sons. Clockwise from the bottom, the boys are Yitzi, the youngest; then Avi, Zev, and Yaakov.

The Karasicks have four sons, Zev, now 46, Yaakov, 45, Avi, 42, and Yitzi, 38. Two of them — Zev and Yitzi — are neurotypical (brilliant, in fact, so maybe atypical in the other direction, but that’s an entirely different story) — and Yaakov and Avi both have special needs.

“It was hard,” Ms. Karasick said. “It really was very challenging, trying to juggle schedules, psychologists, PTs, OTs, speech therapists, and trying to keep the so-called regular ones’ schedules too.”

Yaakov Karasick went to Sinai during its second year. The first year, his parents tried sending him to the Community School, the Teaneck public school system’s solution for children with special needs. It was close to home, so it would have been far easier, but it didn’t work. “Yaakov was 6 years old, and he decided to wear a yarmulke to school,” his mother said. “He’s always been very strong in his religious principles and his observance. We said to him, ‘You don’t have to wear it,’ — no one else did in the school — but he said ‘No. I am wearing it.’

Avi Karasick, foreground, in class at Sinai at HYA.

“He was assaulted in the bathroom once. He was not hurt, but we saw the urgency at that time to have a program started in the yeshiva.”

Next, the Karasicks put Yaakov in a local yeshiva. “It just didn’t work out,” Rabbi Karasick said. “And the principal told me that the school didn’t have any children with learning disabilities. He said that our son Yaakov didn’t have any either; that he’d outgrow his issues.

“It wasn’t as much denial, just a lack of education,” he continued. “It was 40 years ago. That’s a long time ago. Now yeshivas accept the act that there are kids who have limitations. Back then, a lot of people didn’t know.”

The Karasick boys went to Caldwell on the regular bus. “Yaakov met some of his best friends there,” Rabbi Karasick said. “They were at HYA, not Sinai. Ari Green, Rabbi Green’s son, who founded the band Barock, loved Yaakov.” Later, in fact, Yaakov would drum for Barock in rehearsals, and often accompany the band to weddings and other smachot.

“Children on both sides” —Sinai and HYA — “were able to see their differences and accept them.”

As the relationship between HYA and Sinai continued, “They accommodated us in every way they could,” Rabbi Karasick said. “As they added the high school, Sinai went there with them. They have always made us welcome. To this day, it helps us to be as successful as we are. It sets the tone for the other schools.”

How did that happen? “Mazel,” Ms. Karasick said. Luck. “It goes both ways,” her husband added. “The principals of most of the schools were very welcoming. At worst, they were neutral. None was resistant. Some of them said to us, later, ‘Don’t thank us. We want to thank you, because our students get more from having your children in the school than your children do.’”

One of Sinai’s strengths is its realism. “We have always been very sensitive to the host school,” Ms. Karasick said. “We are careful not to interfere where we shouldn’t, and not to push ourselves where we shouldn’t. The schools sometimes have their own space problems, and we have withdrawn. If they have more space, we use it.

Laurette Rochwachs is in her office, talking to Avi Karasick.

“We have had occasions where we inquired about certain locations, and when we sense that there was not the acceptance level we were comfortable with, we backed off from those schools.”

The school’s students have changed over time, Ms. Karasick said. “Our population started with kids who had more issues, who were more neurologically impaired. We’ve expanded to students with slight learning disabilities. Some of them are termed ‘gifted handicapped.’ That means that they would not survive in a regular classroom because of issues like ADHD. Some of those students have gone on to have their own families, some even to become rabbis in large communities.”

“One of the keys to Sinai’s success is that all the presidents, through Leo” — Brandstatter, who we interviewed in the first installment — “through me to David to Moshe and now to Avi have recognized that we have one area to be responsible for.” (Those former presidents are known more formally as David Shapiro, Moshe Weinberger, and Avi Vogel.) “That’s fundraising. We have never involved ourselves or interfered with the running of the school.

“I often speak to parents and principals in other places throughout the country, and I never have heard of any community that has been as supportive as ours. When you say it takes mazel, when you say it takes a village — it takes this whole village to make Sinai successful.”

Linda Karasick, now the grandmother of nine children, ranging from 15 to 6, looks back to her experience as a mother of four boys, two with special needs. “There were days that I just had to go on autopilot just to get through it,” she said. “If not for Sinai, and especially for Mrs. Rothwachs…” Laurette Rochwachs, Sinai’s first teacher, became its first dean.

“She was always there to listen, to comfort us. She reassured us that things were going to be okay. She dealt with the children’s academic skills, and also with their social skills, which was unique at the time. She realized that these kids’ social skills were so important long term, so she took them to functions outside of school — to weddings, bar mitzvahs, engagement parties, other smachot — to teach them how to behave.”

Now, Avi lives in HASC, a group home in Brooklyn, where he can have the higher level of supervision that he needs, but Yaakov, who is more independent than his brother, lives at the Sinai School’s Sheli House in Teaneck. His mother reports that everyone in town knows and loves him; “many people call him the mayor of Teaneck,” she said. “Wherever we are in the world, and particularly in Israel, we can hardly go three or four blocks with Avi and Yaakov before someone stops and comes over to talk to them. I have friends in Teaneck who say they’ve lived there for 10 years and don’t know nearly as many people as they do.

“There was a time when I was very angry,” Ms. Karasick said. “I had two disabled children. Zev saw me crying, and asked me why. I said why is it so difficult for us? Why have we been given those two special needs children? And he said, ‘Mommy, if you did not have Avi and Yaakov, you would not have started Sinai.’ That’s how he rationalized the whole balagan.

Leo Brandstatter, Sinai’s first president, and Linda and Mark Karasick watch as a sofer adds letters to a sefer Torah.

With both Avi and Yaakov, their social and religious IQs far surpass their intellectual IQs. You don’t have to put a number on it to be a mensch.”

Ms. Karasick looks back at the dinners she began; the dinners that will have to be paused this year. They grew from small melave malkas at HYA’s chilly gym in Caldwell to the extravaganza at the Glenpointe in Teaneck. As they grew, though, and even after she passed the baton to the organizers who came after her, Ms. Karasick made sure that some basic rules were followed.

The dinners are not lavish, she said. There is enough food, but there is not waste. No money is wasted. Everything Sinai raises goes back to Sinai, not into flowers. “When I go into a dinner and see the excess, it’s a turnoff,” Ms. Karasick said. She made sure that Sinai dinner would not induce that feeling.

There is no journal; acknowledgments from their friends is gratifying for honorees to see, but it’s also a huge waste of paper, ink, and money.

Speeches are minimal. No one wants to listen to them at dinner, she said; if you want to hear someone speak, you are better off going to a lecture. There will always be a professional looking video, and it will be emotional; the way to reduce stigma is to introduce real feeling. “My test is that I don’t want anyone to leave without some tears,” Ms. Karasick said. That means real people telling real stories, not glossing over difficulties while glorying in growth.

The format doesn’t change from year to year, although it might be refined, as, say, plated meals, except for those served to elderly or infirm guests, are replaced by the buffet that allows people both to choose their own food and to move around and network. But there is no need to reinvent, rather than occasionally to reinvent, something that already works.

As a result, most of the guests are not Sinai parents. “Even 30, 35 years ago people were very moved by the videos, and at the same time, they were very happy that they were not in that situation,” Ms. Karasick said.

Perry Saperstein, who now is 45 and lives in Baltimore, was one of the five boys in the first class at Sinai; his parents, Ray and Risha Saperstein, were one of the three founding sets of parents who oversaw the school’s creation.

“I was there for the second, third, and fourth grade,” he said. When he was at Sinai, the program was smaller and therefore there were fewer options for children. Perry was the oldest Sinai student in the class, and his challenges were unlike those of the other four boys; he did not have their intellectual deficits. Therefore, logically, he was mainstreamed — and it didn’t work.

Perry Saperstein, one of Sinai’s first five students, and his late wife, Shira.

Today, Sinai students sometimes are mainstreamed, particularly the ones at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School. That’s by design. Many of those students go on to college with their neurotypical peers, and often end up leading entirely mainstream lives. Then, though, there weren’t enough students to permit the kind of specialized education that is at the heart of Sinai now.

Mr. Saperstein and his family moved to Atlanta, and then to Baltimore. He has worked since he graduated from high school; he discovered that he’s good at selling, he said, and now sells kosher cell phones. He got married, and he and his wife, Shira, adopted two children. (His sister, who now uses her married name, also was Shira Saperstein, he added. “My wife was the new Shira Saperstein.”) But the new Shira, who was disabled, died last year.

He has fond memories of Sinai, although they are the memories of a small child and from a very long time ago, he said. “I remember color war. I remember the fun stuff.

“And I remember how caring they were. I remember that I freaked out, and they were patient and they walked me through it. They don’t throw you out when you freak out. They teach you how to deal with it.

“I remember that even when I was mainstreamed, Mrs. Rothwachs used to come to get me to go to the research room. I have a memory of doing the story of Billy Goat Gruff. The story with the troll by the bridge.”

He was not allowed to eat sugar, he remembers, and “Mrs. Kulick, in fourth grade, brought rosh chodesh packages of candy for the kids, and I wasn’t eating it. So she brought sugar-free chocolate bars. She went out of her way to buy stuff for me. It’s hard, when you’re a little kid, to understand why you can’t have what other kids have, and it was very special that she took time to get me what I needed.”

Perry took the bus from Fair Lawn to Caldwell; one of his friends on the bus was Sruly Rochwachs, Laurette Rothwachs’ son. Ms. Rothwachs was the program’s first teacher and later its dean; Sruly, now Rabbi Yisrael, is its dean now. “I grew up down the street from him,” Mr. Saperstein said. “We used to go over his house all the time for Shabbes.

“I am very proud of what I did back then, and I’m proud that Sruly is involved,” he continues. “There are so many parents who said, ‘I don’t want my kid playing with your kid.’ Mrs. Rothwachs always made a point that I was friends with Sruly. That meant a lot to me.

“There are a handful of kids from then who I still talk to today. There are still some friends I made then who I’m still friends with to this day, 40 years later.”

Eventually, Sinai expanded to other schools, and became a separate entity. More parents became volunteers and the professionals at the school; its founding leaders turned their portfolios over to the next generation, and the one after that. We’ll look at those changes in the next (probably last!) installment of this decades-long story.

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