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May All Our Dreams and Prayers Come True

May All Our Dreams and Prayers Come True: SINAI Schools’ video shows way forward for each child as it looks to February Gala

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

It’s all about the honesty of faces. 

At its beginning, the children in the SINAI School’s new music video, “Prayers From My Heart,” stare out at us, reproachfully, angrily, with frustration. They are open, honest, vulnerable, and shinily wide-eyed. Always wide-eyed.

Over the course of the not-quite-three-and-a-half-minute video, we see those children look at us again with dawning glimmers of hope, and then again, at the end, with glistening, eye-moistening joy. Some of their teachers and parents and mentors are with them, the adults mirroring the children’s nearly palpable emotions as they too look directly at the camera, or instead at the children, clearly pouring their entire beings — their love, their help, their hope — into those children.

And the thing is that it’s real. You look at it and you see that artistry has gone into allowing these children and adults to show us their truth.

How do they do that?

At its core, even deeper than the art and the craft that have gone into the video, there is the truth that SINAI’s approach to special education, which remains entirely unmentioned in the video, permeates it.

SINAI places its students, who have a range of special needs, in six schools, five of them in Bergen County and one in Livingston; the next academic year will see the opening of another high school, this one in Riverdale, N.Y. Each SINAI student is given a personally tailored range of services and therapies that helps him or her develop to the fullest extent possible. The school begins in first grade; some students remain with SINAI until they’re 21; others go on to a mainstream college career after they graduate high school.

The experience offered to each SINAI student is as unique as each of the faces we see in the video.

Every year, SINAI offers the gala evening that is a cornerstone of its fundraising, and every year for the last many years that evening has included a video. This year, this video is an appetizer for the gala.

“The song is the collaboration of three SINAI parents,” Sam Fishman, the school’s managing director said. He’s one of them; Abigail Hepner Gross, its communications director, is the second, and C Lanzbom, the musician and composer who works with composer and singer Noah Solomon on this video — the pair worked together for years as Soulfarm — is the third.

Mr. Fishman and Ms. Gross worked together on the lyrics.

“My sweet child, it’s hard to watch you struggle,” they begin. “I worry about you every day. I want to do much to ease your pain and trouble. I wish I knew what to do or say.

“Sheyimalu misha’lot libeynu,” it continues; may the prayers of our hearts be answered. “Prayers from my aching heart. I want so much for you.” And then that section ends, as all three sections do, with “May all our dreams and prayers come true.”

After they finished a preliminary draft of the lyrics, Mr. Fishman and Ms. Gross sent them to Mr. Lanzbom. Mr. Fishman also sent songs that had the mood he wanted. “There were about six of them, classical, pop, that captured in different ways the elements I wanted,” he said. That unlikely group include Pachelbel’s Canon in D, the theme from Chariots of Fire, Crosby Stills and Nash, and some country music. Mr. Fishman went to Mr. Lanzbom’s studio. “It was a hoot,” he said.

Each measure of music is carefully matched to every shot in the film; each child’s face moves us because the emotion it shows is mirrored in the music. (The photography is by Jamestown Associates.)

As the song moves from the second section to the third — it’s already gone from despair to hope — “then there is a full bar of pause, when we come to ‘I am so proud of you,’” Mr. Fishman said. The image onscreen is of a father and son. “You see the dad, his heart rings out,” he added. It’s true. His face radiates joy.

It was cathartic for them to create this video, Mr. Fishman said of his and Ms. Gross’s experience.

Although he is in charge of the school’s business side, he works with parents constantly, Mr. Fishman said. The school accepts every student its administrators feel it can serve, and then undertakes the monumental task of figuring out how to pay for it. It is expensive to educate a student with special needs, and it also is expensive to provide a uniquely tailored education to help that student grow. That’s Mr. Fishman’s job.

It is also his job, and Ms. Gross’s, not only as administrators but as parents who have been through the experience themselves, to help other parents understand the future as it spreads out in front of their children. They try neither to alarm nor to sugar-coat, but to provide honest hope.

“In my role at SINAI, every day I talk to parents who have children who have been at SINAI for some time, and to parents who are earlier in their stage of life, whose children might be here for a short amount of time, and to parents whose children are getting close to leaving SINAI,” Mr. Fishman said. “And while I am not a prophet, I have stories to tell, both about my own child and about other children and families I know.

“Our purpose in creating this song is community first and foremost,” he continued. “When I talk to parents who are just starting out considering SINAI, or who live in other parts of the world but have children with special needs, Abigail and I can say that we’ve been there.

“We get it.

“We get the ache in a parent’s heart. You just don’t know how to help your child. We have a community, a staff, a mission to help families, to show them that there is hope, to show that when it works you go from a feeling of being lost, from a lot of pain, to a feeling of hope, to seeing progress.

“We speak about parents seeing a spark in their children. I see the spark, and I know that if we reach that potential, we can be happy.”

His child is older than Ms. Gross’s and Mr. Lanzbom’s, and “we’re at the point where it really has worked out,” he said. “My son, Mike, has a master’s degree in special education.

“He is a brilliant young man with a lot of social issues,” he continued. “I think that today he would be classified as having Asperger’s, but that was not a term that was used then. His problems largely were social, and to me the most meaningful thing is how empathetic he has become.

“Of my four kids, he’s the one who always remembers my birthday. My wife and I have been blessed to go to four college graduations, and when I think of the arc from ache and despair to joy, I have hope.”

“My son is at Kushner, in 11th grade, and thinking about college,” Ms. Gross said; in fact, he’s actively engaged in that often overwhelming process. He’s also a gifted artist. “His life is ahead of him.”

Mr. Lanzbom’s child is married, a mother, and a teacher.

Ms. Gross points out, however, that there are children with a wide range of disabilities at SINAI, as the video makes clear.

In fact, there is a wide range of children at SINAI period. “There are boys and girls; some you could tell by looking are disabled and some you can’t,” she said. “There are some children of color.” Many come from Orthodox families but many others do not. All of this is clear on the video.

“There is no one SINAI student,” Ms. Gross said. “That’s what we are trying to get across.

“And there is no one measure of success,” Mr. Fishman added. “Some will never go to college. Some will never live independently.” But just as each child is taught individually, each has his or her own measure of success.

“And I don’t think the journey ever ends,” Ms. Gross said. “That’s always true, but it’s more true when you have a child who struggles.”

“We know,” she said. “We’ve been there. And that’s what makes what we’re doing worth doing every day.”

C Lanzbom (that’s how he spells his first name, with no period; just call him C) is profoundly moved by SINAI; it “saved my child’s life,” he said. He was thrilled to be able to write and then perform on the video, as he is every time he can contribute to the school.

“My child is brilliant, but my child’s learning was different from regular kids,” he said. “SINAI was able to understand the right path for her, and she was able to get on it and succeed. In my opinion, and in my wife’s, it saved her, and she had a beautiful experience. So I will do anything for SINAI.”

When Mr. Fishman and Ms. Gross gave him the song’s lyrics and the inspirations, he and Mr. Solomon were able to come up with music that they felt worked quickly. “As luck or fate had it, we came up with something naturally and quickly,” he said. “It was a matter of experience and being lucky; we felt we nailed it.

“You get together,” he said, talking about the way he and Mr. Solomon collaborate. “And you have done it year after year, and it’s hit or miss, and sometimes it’s not right, but we have our skills. And we get up to the plate, and we were able to hit it out of the park.

“Of course when you write something, you don’t know how it will be accepted. And you also can write something and be a real fan of it, even though you wrote it, but still you don’t really know the full impact it will have. That’s more a social thing.”

The musicians — aside from Mr. Lanzbom, whose solo guitar work begins the video, and Mr. Solomon, they are Dave Eggar on cello, Joel Diamond on piano, and Ben Antellis on drums percussion —tell the story of the children’s move from despair through hope to joy.

“It tells a universal story,” Ms. Gross said. “It is the story of success. What that success means is up to you to interpret.”

Sheyimalu mish’alot libeynu
Prayers from a joyful heart,
I see such change in you.
Sheyimalu mish’a lot libeynu.
May all our dreams and prayers come true.

Originally published by The Jewish Standard. Click here to read the original article.