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Learning Through Drumming – SINAI Schools’ Music, Art Therapy Programs Help Special-Needs Students

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

Every person is different, with different skills, interests, talents, and needs.

Every student is a person.

Most schools cannot give that kind of individualized attention to each student, and to be fair most students flourish without it. But for students with special needs, specialized and loving attention is not a luxury but a necessity.

The Sinai Schools, with its unique model, not only provides that kind of attention, but nestles it inside the Jewish world.

Sinai’s students go to programs housed in day schools — five of them, two elementary and three high schools, three in Bergen County and two in Livingston. Each student has an individualized program; Sinai students generally have their own classes but are mainstreamed when it is appropriate. Although most often Sinai students and students at the schools where Sinai is housed do not come together for academics, they spend time together on school buses, at lunch, and at other social occasions. Both groups — the Sinai students and the neurotypical ones — benefit.

Sinai provides its students with a wide range of therapies — speech, occupational, physical, and art. Now, it also offers music therapy, further expanding its students’ lives.

Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs is Sinai’s dean. “Each one of our therapies is provided as needed, both one-on-one or in groups. All are provided both as a pull-out model” — that’s when kids are called out of class — “and more and more of a push-in model. Typically, in most schools, if a kid has, say occupational therapy on his plan, then the teacher comes and pulls him out of class, and they focus on the skills they need, and then the kid goes back. Most of the time it is hard for those skills to be generalized to the rest of the week.

“It’s certainly not the therapists’ or the teachers’ fault. They work really hard to collaborate, but it’s hard if it’s not something you’re immersed in. In our model, all of our therapists are in the classrooms, and not only there but doing group work. So the speech therapist might pull out some kids, but also spends time, particularly in our younger classrooms, doing conversational skills with them. And the teachers are witnessing the strategies and techniques the teacher is working with, and they can use them the rest of the week.

Occupational therapist Darbie Rabinowitz works with a student.

“This way, we’re getting more bang for the buck. We can maximize the impact of the therapy throughout the rest of the week. Pulling kids out is just not as impactful as our model.”

On the other hand, given the school’s dedication to each student’s specific needs, “we do pull them out when their needs are individualized,” he said.

“Sometimes people ask me what makes us so unique. I don’t know of other schools that offer a collaborative therapeutic approach to the degree that we do. Not only other Jewish schools — special ed schools.”

When Steve and Laura Paley offered to fund art therapy some four years ago, he wasn’t exactly sure what it was, “but within a few months I was converted,” he said. “To watch Sarah Tarzik, our art therapist, in action is to see that there are children who aren’t able to or don’t express themselves in deep ways in typical talk therapy or with their teachers or their parents. Here, through this media, they are opening up, and sometimes they don’t even realize that they are doing it, because they are so comfortable with Sarah, and so enthralled and engrossed with what they are doing. You have children who express some very deep concerns or worries or insight or love — it is an incredible way of allowing them to express themselves.”

Sinai offers art therapy in both elementary schools, and in the Livingston high school.

Because the art therapy program convinced Rabbi Rothwachs of how potent visual art can be in reaching children, the music program, funded for its first two years by AJ and Leah Schreiber in memory of AJ’s father, Bayrish, was an easy sell. Just as the art therapy program does not teach students to be artists — although certainly if they are gifted in art it will allow that talent to breathe and flourish — the music program does not prepare students to become musicians. Instead, “for some of our younger students certainly, it is focusing on skills that are the foundation of basic communication,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “Erika Svolos, our music therapist, will give everyone instruments, for example, and give instruction, and they will have to take turns. There is so much involved in making it a success for students who are not tuned in socially. She is teaching them strategies for making eye contact, and for tolerating frustration. She is having them understand the cadence of a group discussion; there is give and take, time to be active, time to be quiet. It is really powerful.” Because the therapists and the teachers work together, they can share techniques. “It is integrative and collaborative,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.

“On another level, Erika is helping the kids regulate their emotions. She will do some really high-energy music, beating on drums and dancing, and then instruct them to calm down. It is hard for many of them to go from a high to a low; she uses breathing techniques to help them.” The teachers now use some of those techniques too.

Erika Svolos shows how to make music with a guitar.

“And then, for some of our high school students, who maybe are too cool to do that, she does things like lyric analysis.” Students will choose lyrics that speak to them, “and through that analysis they express their frustrations and their anxieties. You could appreciate that being able to reach kids successfully through all these different media and techniques takes a huge talent. We are so lucky.”

All of Sinai’s students have some kind of therapy; none of them have every single one the school offers. How do administrators decide which therapy is right for each student? “It’s all about getting to know the kids,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.

Both Ms. Tarzik and Ms. Svolos are enthusiastic, even bubbly, as they discuss their work at Sinai.

“Most of the children are unaware of what they’re capable of,” Ms. Tarzik said. “I use art to show them that they are capable of doing more than they thought they could, and that expands to other areas. Art gives children a voice. Things that they could not express verbally come out in the artwork. It is an extremely powerful way to help children express themselves both concretely and symbolically.”

What does that mean? “Concretely, they can draw representations of what they see, and of how they feel inside,” she said. “They can draw messages to their friends that might be difficult to say. And symbolically, they can share their hopes, their journey, their love in their artwork.”

Art teacher Sarah Tarzik helps students who are engrossed in their art work.

Students are asked to say something positive about everyone else’s artwork in each art therapy session. “It teaches them not only to look for the good in each other’s artwork, but in each other too,” Ms. Tarzik said. “There is always something good, something positive, and I train them to look for it in their artwork. A color, a design, a stripe, something that they can relate to and enjoy.

“The children beam with pride when they hear their friends say something complimentary about their work. I work on children having pride in their own work, in getting the self-esteem to say something nice about their own work, because I believe that their work is an extension of themselves. If they can see the good in their own art, that is seeing the good in themselves, and that empowers them beyond the art.

“I am amazed again and again by the power of art. I think that it has to do with the creative process, creating a safe space for them to access this creative part of themselves that they don’t usually get to touch.”

Children beam as they display their artwork.

Ms. Svolos defines music therapy as interventions that “work on emotional, social, academic, motor, and communications skills. We use music sometimes as therapy, sometimes in therapy.”

What does that mean? “When music is used in therapy, there is usually other stuff going on too. We might listen to a song and then talk about it, so it is verbal techniques. The music is not used as an avenue to connect.” Words are. “When we are using it as therapy, then we are connecting through the music, which might be improvised through instruments or singing together.” When it is used as therapy, participants make music.

“I try to use music as therapy more, because especially for children with disabilities, the more talking that happens, the less connected and engaged they are, and the easier it is to become disorganized and confused. That’s especially true if the language being used is wrong for their thinking process. I find that music really helps get to them more directly.

“Also, it is so engaging. The children really love music. They love to play instruments and sing. Our little ones love to move to music. It is much more effective and less threatening than talking.”

Music is so potent that it also carries risks, she added. “Music can hurt too. It can happen with any children, but particularly with adolescents. You may trigger hidden trauma without realizing it. As therapists, we are trained to recognize it. There are times when working with it is appropriate, but in school I try not to go too deep. You have to send them back to class. I don’t want to open a Pandora’s box. It is a delicate balance — making sure that you are keeping them at the right level.

“At Sinai, I see children who have developmental disabilities like autism and Down’s Syndrome and cerebral palsy. Right now, I am really focused on working on some of the basic skills you need to be able to be in a group and work with others. You need the ability to control your impulses and attend to what is going on in the group, so I have created experiences to help the children work on those skills through music.

“They don’t necessarily know that they are working on those things. They think they are just participating in creating interesting things with their voices and instruments, and all the while they really are practicing the skills they need to control their impulses. Music is such a wonderful avenue for that, because to play music you have to have control over yourself and your instrument. To make music with other people you have to be aware of what your part in the group is; when it is time for you to play and when it is time for you not to play.

“Music is an inherent biological thing. Our bodies are music; the pace of our heartbeats, our blood moving. The human makeup is very musical. There are very few people who don’t enjoy music — I have come across a few of them, but it is very rare. Most people enjoy music on some level, whether participating in making it or listening to it. It’s evolutionary; back when we were cavemen we used to groom each other to it. We have always used music to mark births and deaths and holidays. It is part of the human experience. Music therapy capitalizes on the love that people have for music and builds on it.”

Students work with eggshakers, a type of musical instrument.

Ms. Svolos remembers a middle-school drum circle. “We do improvisation through drum circles; everyone has the chance to come in. It is organic; it flows. Every time we have done it, it has been the most beautiful sounding music you could imagine. You would think it was a group of professionals.”

Although she reveled in the sounds, still, “the point isn’t to sound good,” she said. “Here was a group of students with problems connecting and listening and communicating with each other,” connecting and listening and communicating without words, but with rhythm and music. “The teachers just looked at me, and their jaws dropped. I said, ‘Did you all hear that?’ And they said, ‘We did.’”

Moreover, it happened over and over. “It isn’t a fluke,” Ms. Svolos said. “The psychologist said that it was a cognitively low group, and I said that it’s a group that’s really high in making music. It’s organic. They found a way to be together in that space, in that moment. They could just be themselves. It was really awesome.”

Ms. Svolos isn’t Jewish. She loves the chance Sinai provides her to learn about Jewish culture. “It’s a wonderful experience for me, being able to come in and learn from the kids,” she said.

She also is able to compare Sinai to programs in the non-Jewish world. “Sinai really understands the children’s needs at a very deep level,” she said. “I have been in the field for over 15 years, working in a number of environments — in public and private schools, in hospitals, in clinics — and Sinai is just really unique. There is individualization. Every child has a unique need. They have a really well-trained staff, and they collaborate.”

Because Sinai is so unusual, it has attracted activists, donors, and board members who do not have children, grandchildren, or other family members with special needs, but who are attracted to its mission and its effectiveness.

Daniel Federbush of Englewood is among that group. When he first heard about Sinai, some 20 years ago, “I was very impressed that there was a program that could deal with children who had special needs on a more serious level than the yeshivot could. I know of secular programs that people were forced to send their children to because the Jewish day schools couldn’t give them what they needed. And I was very impressed with the school’s philosophy. Being part of another school gives the kids an opportunity to mainstream, whether it’s on a social level, for lunch or recess or davening, and also gives them the opportunity to work on whatever skills they needed.”

Mr. Federbush, a businessman, allowed himself, somewhat reluctantly, to be honored at a Sinai dinner, and that was that. “I started to learn more and more, and I was really awestruck by the individualized program,” he said. “Over time, I have helped out in whatever ways I could, fundraising, helping with the dinner, trying to get honorees,” he said.

In fact, Mr. Federbush has donated huge amounts of time to Sinai, and with his wife, Thalia, has given a fully equipped therapy room and a computer room to the school, and has equipped the school with technology. He has raised more than $20 million for the school. (He did not mention any of this, it is important to note; the information is straight from Sinai.)

What he does talk about is the school’s mission, its success, and the effect it has on the community. “I have been on the executive board for 10 years or so, and I know that the school has evolved into something incredibly impressive,” Mr. Federbush said. “I see kids at the school year after year, and the change in them is unbelievable.

“You see kids mainstream, and then mainstream more, and then mainstream more, and sometimes become professionals. One has become a rabbi. Without Sinai that might not have been possible, and even if it had been possible in another program, they wouldn’t be part of the Jewish community. These kids remain part of the Jewish community. They are not isolated; they are very much part of the community.”

The only downside, he said, is the space limitation. The five schools — the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, the Torah Academy of Bergen County and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School, both in Teaneck, and the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston — can house only so many Sinai students, along with their own mainstream kids. “We have to figure out what will be the next big step.”

Because Sinai’s student-teacher (and student-therapist) ratio is so high, and the education it supplies is so specialized and cutting-edge, costs can be prohibitive. In fact, most families cannot afford the full tuition. That’s why fund-raising is so important to Sinai, which does not turn away children it can help. “It is tremendously rewarding to see families go from a place of despair, with a tremendous weight on their shoulders, to see their children come around and make changes and grow and reach their full potential,” Mr. Federbush said. “It is tremendously rewarding.”

Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck is a longtime supporter of the Sinai Schools, providing not only jobs and training for students but also funds for scholarships and many other kinds of financial, organizational, and educational help.

The pride Holy Name takes in its work with Sinai is reflected in the billboards that loom over Route 4 in both directions; many of the larger-than-life photographs are of Sinai students.

Moshe Rosenberg in front of his billboard.

This one is of Moshe Rosenberg of Edison, who was in last year’s graduating class and now works in Barnes & Noble. A man of few words, Mr. Rosenberg was glad to share his reaction to seeing himself in the billboard: “Very good. I like it a lot.” And his feelings about Sinai: “I loved being at Sinai.”

Holy Name’s president and CEO, Michael Maron, spearheaded the medical center’s deepening involvement with Sinai.

“Seeing the picture of Moshe smiling, confident, and proud in front of his billboard reaffirms the missions of Holy Name Medical Center and Sinai School,” he said. “This young man has his own set of challenges in life. The fact is we all do — it’s just that our challenges manifest themselves differently. His poignant look of dignity, honor, and self-esteem should remind us that what really matters in life is the feelings we can generate with our hearts when our mind is open, our attitude humble, and our resolve actionable.

“We hope the light of this moment forever enhances Moshe’s purpose for being, and we are privileged for our part in making this possible.”

Originally published at: Learning through drumming | The Jewish Standard