My parents did not send me to Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC) for high school because TABC hosted a SINAI school. But the life lessons that I learned from going to high school together with SINAI students were profound and had as much impact on me as anything I learned in class.
Growing up, my parents had instilled in my sisters and me that kindness was always of paramount importance. They taught by example, and we learned from their constant acts of chesed. A second value that we talked about at home is that people with disabilities have no less human worth — and deserve no less respect — than any other person. But growing up I was never really friends with anyone who had a noticeable disability. So this second value was mostly theoretical to me – until I got to TABC.
Every day at TABC, I walked the halls with boys who had disabilities that were pretty easy to spot. As a freshman I watched how the older TABC students behaved around the SINAI students. They would high-five the SINAI boys as they passed each other, or help a SINAI student who was agitated over losing his backpack to look for it. The atmosphere seemed to be filled with kindness.
So I figured, ok, this is an opportunity to do chesed, and I started to strike up conversations with the SINAI boys, to be nice to them. But then, slowly my perspective began to change. I realized that I genuinely enjoyed hanging out with these boys, that they weren’t really that different from me after all.
Max, one of the SINAI students, was on the basketball team with me. The significance of the message it sent to all of us to have a SINAI student on a competitive sports team was powerful. The determination it took Max to make what so many would consider an easy layup, trying once, twice, three times, and often times not making a single basket that night. Yet, unwilling to be deterred, he would set out to try again.
The teaching moment for me came when I realized that having Max on the team may have appeared like an act of chesed, but it was actually an important part of Max’s education, and an even more important part of mine. As I got to know Max, I came to understand that he craved the same team comradery that all of us did, and benefitted just as I did from the discipline and from learning about team play. That’s when I realized that Max wasn’t an object of chesed, and he was no longer the “other.” He was a high school student. I was a high school student. He was my teammate. He was my friend.
Purely by coincidence, my mom recently found this email which I sent to my parents when I was a junior in 2007:
This email encapsulates my SINAI education. Initially, it may have seemed like an act of chesed to call Brandon up to the Torah. But he belonged up there as much as any of us.
I learned a lot in high school, but so much of what really matters in life I learned from my high school friends at SINAI. They showed me what can be accomplished with hard work and determination, and what it means to go out of your comfort zone. Whenever I am feeling challenged, I think back to the guys I knew in high school who worked so hard to accomplish what might have been so simple for me, whether it was having an Aliyah at davening, or sinking a basket at a game, or just making eye contact and saying hi to a friend in the hallway. The SINAI students I went to school with are my role models. They faced their challenges head on, and they never gave up. They changed how I look at the world, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to spend my high school years with them.
Tzvi Solomon lives in New Milford, New Jersey with his wife Erica and sons Matthew and Caleb. He is a Vice President at Goldman Sachs, and a member of SINAI’s Executive Committee and Board of Directors. His dedication to SINAI is the direct result of his high school years at TABC, and the friendships he made with the SINAI students there.