How to make sense of this new world: Sinai Schools’ educators help their non-neurotypical students deal with the situation in Israel

By: Joanne Palmer
Jewish Standard/New Jersey Jewish News

“It’s a difficult time to be Jewish in America right now,” Arielle Greenbaum Saposh, the Sinai Schools associate managing director and counsel, said.

To be clear, we all know that she means — and we all know — that it truly is a relatively difficult time to be Jewish, right here, right now. Antisemitism is on the rise. We live in a world that our ancestors, living say a century or so ago in the Pale of Settlement, would think of as nearly Gan Eden, with both modern conveniences and far more safety than they, huddled together against the Cossacks or the Red Army or the local bully, would have loved.

But just as it was far from Eden then, it’s not quite Eden here now either. The October 7 attacks on Israel seem to have unleashed people’s antisemitic tendencies; maybe at some time in the future sociologists and psychiatrists will explain much of the world’s need to prove, at least to themselves, that Israelis — or Jews — can never be victims. Murdered babies, therefore, are settler colonizers.

So yes, it is a hard time for neurotypical people to be Jewish.

Sinai at Ma’ayanot students and faculty stand together before the big rally in Washington. (All photos courtesy Sinai Schools)

But Sinai School students are not neurotypical. They represent a wide range of mood or intellectual disorders, so it’s impossible to generalize them beyond that statement, but none of them is neurotypical.

“Because of their disabilities and challenges, our students are having an especially hard time,” Ms. Saposh said. “Because of their disabilities and challenges, our students need a safe and nurturing environment that only Sinai can provide, an environment where their educational, social, and religious needs are met, and they truly can thrive.”

Sinai is in four elementary and three high schools in Bergen and Essex counties in New Jersey, and across the river in the Bronx and Queens; it also has a residential program for men in Teaneck. It offers its wide range of students educational programs tailored to meet each child’s specific needs; its placement inside larger Jewish day schools allows its students the chance to fit into the larger outside world, and it allows all the students in those day schools the chance to demystify and destigmatize each other.

This makes Sinai well-positioned to undertake the sensitive task of making our grim new world seem as unthreatening as possible, while staying within the realm of the real.

Sinai at Ma’ayanot girls pack supplies for Israel.

“We’re all trying to balance uncomfortable feelings of feeling unsafe here at home and in Israel,” Ms. Saposh said. “Every Jew in America is going through it. We’re all trying to balance living our lives with the constant distraction of the news and social media related to October 7, the war with Hamas, and antisemitism around the world.

“It’s really difficult for any of us to navigate antisemitism and to understand and digest the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment we’re faced with now, and that is especially true for children, and it’s even more true for the children at Sinai.

“Things that may come as second nature to a neurotypical child, or may be understood through one conversation, might have to be broken down into chunks and talked through different modalities — multisensorily, with talking and also with feeling, touching, writing, all sorts of different ways of enabling the child to grasp and internalize what’s being taught — rather than with a direct conversation.”

“We use those modalities all the time,” Sinai’s dean, Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, said. “We work with every Sinai student differently.”

IDF soldiers show some of the notes they’ve gotten from Sinai students.

One of the approaches that Sinai does differently than the schools in which it is embedded is that “they can teach and discuss certain things in certain ways with third graders, and in different ways with ninth graders,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. In those neurotypical settings, students’ chronological age maps more or less accurately with their developmental age.

That’s not true for Sinai students.

“Some of our students are more vulnerable, emotionally or socially,” he said. “We have some students — not all of our students, but some — who lack either the language or the social skills to navigate the world around them as their typically developing peers do. And now, within the context of what’s going on in the world, it can be even more difficult to make sense of it. The nuances that are so clear to us when we watch the news, when we are disgusted by what we see — it can be difficult for some of our students to find and understand those nuances.”

That’s one of the challenges Sinai students often face, but it’s not the only one.

Sinai students make art for IDF soldiers.
 
“Some of our students, aside from having academic and social challenges, might also have some underlying mental health challenges, including anxiety, which is now exacerbated by what’s going on in the world.

“Our children are not unique in that. Our world is full of people who live with anxiety, and these times are exacerbating it for everybody.”

It is no easier to shield Sinai students from the ugliness around them than it is to shield anyone else. “We’ve had students come to us, to their teachers or to their mental health professionals and say things like, ‘I saw protesters,” either in person, with their own eyes, or on TV, and they say, ‘It was scary.’ As indeed many of them are.”

“A number of our elementary school students saw hostage posters in our community, and then they saw them torn down,” Ms. Saposh said. How do you explain that? Particularly because it is very hard for most adults to understand it ourselves, how can you explain it to a child with academic challenges?

A Sinai student shows a thank-you note she’s written for an IDF soldier.
 
Sinai students, like their neurotypical peers, are growing up in families. Many of them have siblings. “We have some families who have multiple children with disabilities, and they say to us, ‘Please just don’t talk about the war.’ We have to balance the needs of the parents and the students. We know that part of being an educator is to look at the environment and the home, and to have a true partnership with the parents,” Ms. Saposh said.

“We have parents whose children attended public school before they came to us,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “A parent in this situation expressed to us this year how grateful they are that their children are in Sinai, because the child had experienced antisemitism in the public school.” That was well before October 7.

“We often serve the role as a safe haven for children in our community,” he added.

“This is about what’s going on in America, but we’re also hearing expressions of anxiety about what’s going on in Israel,” Ms. Saposh said. “We have students who have family members in Israel, and some are serving in the IDF. So there’s anxiety about what’s going on here, and also anxiety related to Israel.”

A Sinai student shows his Israel-themed art therapy project.
 

Many of the questions Sinai students have are the same as neurotypical students ask. The most basic one is “Why do people hate Jews?” That of course is a question that has flummoxed the community for millennia. “How do you answer the question about why, if it’s so hard and so bad to be Jewish, should we maybe not be Jewish?”

Other students have asked other existential questions. “A student who has a sibling in Israel, studying in a mechina there, asked if there would be an Israel after the war,” Ilana Picker, the director of the Sinai program at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck, said. “That question feels big.”

“We have students able to express ‘I am scared,’ Ms. Saposh said. “They ask things like ‘What do I do if someone yells at me in the street?’”

Ms. Picker went back to the questions of modalities. “I am reaching out to children because at Ma’ayanot we have a wide arc of ability,” she said. “We have the ability to work with our students in small groups; it is amazing to have the privilege of having students in small groups, reading and journaling. As Rabbi Rothwachs said, a lot of our students have language impairments and language-based disorders. That means that journaling is another way to meet them.”

Sinai at Ma’ayanot and Ma’ayanot students work together at the weekly cafe to raise money for Israel.
 

Ms. Picker read an excerpt from the journal one of her students kept. “It began, ‘I am heartbroken. I am devastated. It is not right to treat the Jews so horribly. I just want to call out to Hashem and ask why this is happening to the Jewish people.’

“This is a student who speaks little but writes much.” What she wrote shows a depth of feeling and understanding that’s not visible to a casual observer, but that a Sinai educator can identify, respect, and nurture.

Because the Jewish world is so small that there’s maybe a degree and a half of separation between us, “we have our one personal connection to October 7,” Ms. Picker said. “The stepdaughter of one of our assistant teachers was taken from the music festival.

“For all of us, and for all of the students, what happened to her was unknown, and the unknown is always scary.

Art therapy allows students a chance to show their support for Israel.
 

“For all our students, davening daily and not knowing what happened and seeing their teacher going through this struggle was very, very hard.”

“Starting last year, the Sinai at Ma’ayanot students joined Ma’ayanot students in the café they run on Friday morning. They have an amazing social emotional curriculum of the Torah. So for a year or so, on Friday mornings we make iced coffee and sell pastries. It’s so much fun! And the pastries are good.” The funds the girls raised went back to the schools for supplies.

“So now we decided we were going to donate the proceeds to the assistant teacher. It was truly incredible, the feelings and the camaraderie, and the love that we felt.

“We did it for three consecutive Fridays, and we raised over $500.

Sinai students work with Adopt a Family to Zoom with kids in Israel.
 

“Then we found out that she had been killed.

“In some ways, that finality allowed us as a group to grapple with it, and to support our assistant teacher. We were able to be with her and to daven with her. That was incredible.

“It is so painful, because she left behind a six-month-old baby, and her husband can’t work because now he has to take care of his baby. So this money is going to go a long way.

“Our students understand this on different levels. Some understood that this was money that was going to buy diapers and pay a babysitter. Some understood it as a really painful experience, about loss, about being raised without a mother.” Ms. Picker and her staff understand all of their students, and can help them individually, as Sinai’s model dictates, and as real life mandates.”

SINAI at Ma’ayanot girls write cards for soldiers.

Israel seems far away to many of Ms. Picker’s students.

“Most of our students haven’t been there, and it’s half a world away. So we try to bring it home to them. We talk a lot about Israel, about what it looks like, about what it feels like to be there, but we decided to make it more concrete for some of our students.

“One of our parents — Jill Friedbauer of Teaneck — had the idea of having Zoom sessions with teenage girls in Israel, girls who speak English, and working with a program called Adopt a Family.”

Because everything, including schools, shut down in Israel for a few weeks after October 7, “students were stuck at home in Israel, and they were sort of at a loss.” So Sinai at Ma’ayanot was able to connect with Yachad Israel, and with Adopt a Family. Sima Kellner, who was Ms. Picker’s predecessor at Sinai at Ma’ayanot until she made aliyah, now heads Yachad Israel, so the connection was natural. “We did some yoga, we played some games, we talked with each other about what life is like now.”

Elementary school Sinai students make popcorn to sell to support Israel.
 

Eventually schools reopened, but the Sinai Ma’ayanot students kept up their conversations with Adopt a Family.

“Basically every Israeli’s life has been disrupted,” Ms. Picker said. “No matter how you slice it. Either a parent is called up or the teacher or the teacher’s husband is called up or the school is closed or the family has to move. So this has been a way to open ourselves up to connecting with people abroad. We have developed amazing relationships with kids living in Israel.”

It’s also helped her students develop some practical understanding of basic physical realities. “Just the concept of Zooming with them at 9 o’clock in the morning our time, and it’s 4 in the afternoon their time — that’s something we learned.

“We’ve asked questions like ‘What does the siren sound like? What do you do when you hear it? Do you have school? What are you doing at school? What are you going to do now?’ These relationships have opened our students’ lives and their eyes, and they enabled families abroad to connect where there hadn’t been a connection before.

Sinai at Ma’ayanot students show some of the cards they’ve written.
 

“It’s been pretty awesome.”

“These relationships benefit our kids, but they benefit the Israeli kids too,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.

Sinai students are doing some of the things that other day school students do.

“They write letters to soldiers, and thankfully, many of our students have actually gotten emails or pictures back from them,” Ms. Picker said. “It makes it real. It means that somebody, a real person, really is on the other end. It makes a big difference to our students.”

 

Sinai at Ma’ayanot girls pack supplies for Israel.
 

A number of our students have been collecting and sorting things to send to Israel,” Ms. Saposh said. “So when they get back those pictures with people holding the objects, or a video saying thank you, it makes it even more real.

“Some of our students went to the rally in Washington,” she continued. “Some of our schools took students, and other students went with their parents. Some of our students wrote letters to President Biden to thank him for his support of Israel.”

“We got email from a parent afterward saying how pumped up his kid was about Israel after the rally.” Deciding to go had been a bit of a risk, but it was the right thing to do, and it paid off, Ms. Picker said. “But I do want to stress one thing that I am very, very big on,” she continued.

“We” — Sinai at Ma’ayanot — “are capable. We are able bodied. We are productive. We are responsible. We are contributing members of the community. We do not need people to feel sorry for us. You don’t get brownie points for spending time with us.

“Whether our students are sending letters to the White House thanking the president or going to the rally in D.C. or whatever else we are doing.”

It’s different taking Sinai students to a huge rally on the Mall in Washington than it would be to bring neurotypical kids, Ms. Picker said. Once the decision was made, “the expectation was that the whole school would go, so we had to make rules. And I made a completely different set of rules than most schools would have.

“The rules were about things like where you are going to sit on the bus. Neurotypical kids just get on the bus, but it is not as simple as that for our students. We had to plan every single step to get our students to the rally and back. It took a whole different set of rules, not just for the students but for their parents too.

“What we do, it looks different. It is different. We have to have rules about what they do if they feel stressed out at the rally. There were a lot of speeches. How do we manage that? How do we help them handle the subway? Everybody is packed in together, and some of our students have sensory issues. What tools can we give them?

“This is inclusion by design. This is how to do this in a way that is meaningful, can meet their needs, and allows them to be successful.”

When students at Ma’ayanot gathered so many supplies to send to Israel, and packed them, “so that the school looked like a warehouse,” Sinai at Ma’ayanot students joined in the work. “It’s all part of being a member of our community and contributing,” Ms. Picker said. “And at the same time, we are going to help you” — her students — “manage your anxiety. We are going to teach you about Israel and we are going to help manage your fears and we are going to work with you, and we have incredible infrastructure and incredible support in terms of mental health workers.

“We can do great things.”

It is important to remember that Sinai at Ma’ayanot is just one of the Sinai schools; only Ms. Picker was interviewed, but every director could describe ways of keeping students involved and supported, Ms. Saposh said.

Much of what Sinai schools are doing is similar to what mainstream schools are doing, but there’s always a twist, an extra layer of sensitivity and awareness and patience that teachers and administrators bring to their work.

“Oftentimes, people will ask if it wouldn’t be easier for us to have our own self-contained schools,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “They say they get the part about inclusion, but is it really that important?

“I think that the answer for sure is yes.” Partly, that’s because it’s been Sinai’s model for more than 40 years, and it’s worked, he said. “But there are times in Jewish history — and this is one of them — that show why it’s so important that our kids are part of a larger community.

“Some of our partner schools have 1,000 kids, and our kids realize that they are part of the community, just like every other child in that school, and everybody’s getting together to dive in to whatever they’re doing. Everybody’s getting together to write letters to the government, or to sell cookies, or to pack duffels.

“That’s empowering for our students, and it’s a reminder of why we’re set up the way that we are. Our students are experiencing the world around them, each in their own way. In school, we can help them overcome some of the challenges they face, and they’re still part of the community.

“Although our students may be at different developmental stages than other students, it is important that they are exposed to information in appropriate ways, and that they are given the support they need to process it safely in their own way.

“We are blessed to have mental health professionals at each of our schools during the last two months. We’ve been doing things a little differently. We have offered extra therapy sessions to some of our students, either individually or in groups, to help them make sense of some of the craziness that is around us. We have occupational therapists who are helping our teachers figure out how to offer our students even more sensory breaks than they otherwise would have, because some of them — not all of them, because each of them is different — but some of them are internally off-balance. We have done different things for our parents, in terms of Zoom sessions, webinars, or one-on-one meetings to help them help their children.

“Our children are worlds unto themselves, but they also live in the world of other people. Their parents sometimes can use a little more advice in helping them navigate the world, so we have been helping parents help their kids manage their anxieties.”

“Our students typically do better with predictability and routine,” Ms. Picker said. “Everything now is so unpredictable, and that is anxiety-provoking, not only for the students but for the faculty and staff. We had a student who is graduating and was on track to go to a seminary for girls with special needs in Israel. It was all planned and organized, we knew what it would look like, I was in contact with the director, and it felt like it was all ready to go.

“And then the war happened. And for a student like this, it is very hard. Neurotypical kids just go and visit and it’s fine. She is not neurotypical. She was expected to do the same thing, but it just isn’t happening.

“Safety is an important part of our school. We create a safe space, where students can feel comfortable, where they know they are loved, and they can be who they are without judgment.”

“We adults all have our own struggles with all of this,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “With everything that’s going on, how do we create an environment in our school where the feeling is positive?

“I am reminded of something that someone told me a long time ago, in another context. He said that the Hebrew language has two words for why, madua and lama. Why do we have two words?

“You’ll see that when it’s used in Tanach,” in the Bible, “madua means why did this happen? Why did HaShem create this war? Why did HaShem allow hundreds of people to be taken hostage? We can’t answer those questions. We are not prophets.

“The other word, lama, is for what purpose? It’s not asking what the intent was, but how am I going to create purpose out of what happened?

“A lot of what we’ve been talking about is not unique to our school, but it’s true for the community as a whole. We all are creating purpose. We are strengthening our spirituality and our connection with others. We are strengthening our commitment to the state of Israel. The list goes on and on.

“That is my long way of answering how do we do it? We are in pain ourselves. We try to contextualize for ourselves — and that takes work — and that means that we have to take the world around us and create purpose. We have to create an environment in the school where are kids are focused not on why things happened, but now that they did happen, what can we do together to create positivity.

“And our kids are doing an amazing job with that.”

“I feel really blessed to work with these students,” Ms. Picker said. “It’s really amazing, what they are able to bring — their resilience, their strength, their kindness, and their compassion. It is really inspiring. I love that each student is different, each person is different, and each person has their own space to be different.”

The Sinai Schools need funding to provide the inclusive, tailored education that so deeply benefits its students. Every year until covid disrupted it, the school had a fundraising dinner in February that always was a joyous, deeply emotional celebration of its work and the students whose lives it has helped. It attracts people from across the Jewish community, and it is perhaps uniquely undivisive.

This year, Sinai’s leaders decided not to hold the dinner.

Arielle Saposh explained why.

“So many people look forward to Sinai’s dinner every year,” she said. “We typically draw about 1,000 people, who come to support Sinai and to show their love for our students and families. So the decision we made not to hold our annual dinner gala this season was made with a heavy heart.

“But in light of the situation in Israel, it just didn’t feel right for us to plan what, over the decades, has become one of the largest celebrations in our community. That said, our mission continues, the need for Sinai is greater than ever, and we are helping the greatest number of students in our history. So we are proceeding with our annual campaign, which is our most important fundraiser, and we really need everyone’s generous support.”

To contribute to SINAI’s annual campaign, visit sinaischools.org/support.

To read this article as it originally appeared in the Jewish Standard/New Jersey Jewish News, click here.