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Opening hearts and minds at Sinai

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

It’s fair to say that the Sinai Schools both benefited from and contributed to the societal changes that started to nibble away at some of the stigma surrounding special education. Children who could not keep up academically or behaviorally with their peers used to be seen as embarrassments to their parents, burdens to their families, bars to the marriageability of their siblings.

Over the last 40 years — that is, over the years that Sinai has existed — that worldview has changed substantively. Educators began studying special education, developing techniques that could help students understand the world and their parents, families, and communities to understand them.

Dean Laurette Rothwachs works with a student in 2006.

Dean Laurette Rothwachs works with a student in 2006.

The more seriously that educators took their mission to help developmentally disabled students learn, grow, join the mainstream if possible and live as independently and as fully outside the mainstream if not, the better those educators could do that job.

We have seen that the Sinai Schools, which began as a program of the Hebrew Youth Academy in South Orange in 1981 and has grown to be an independent organization with students in seven schools in New Jersey and now New York, has helped many thousands of developmentally disabled students and their families find their place in the world, has opened the hearts and minds of their neurotypical peers and their families, and has helped educators, administrators, and donors learn more and more about how best to work with their students, what therapies to offer them, and how to guide them into life after high school.

We have traced the path of the Sinai Schools since it opened; now, as Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month draws to a close, and so does Sinai’s online fundraiser — this year’s replacement for its always packed, successful, informative, and emotional dinner, which includes students’ stories and the film that always is the dinner’s high point — we will bring this series about Sinai to a close by talking to its founding dean, its present dean, and its president.

One of the characteristics that always has marked Sinai, and that we have noted in our earlier stories, is the way it has managed to combine the thoroughgoing professionalism of its staff with the warm, personal commitment, emotional openness, and all-around mom-and-pop-ness of its educators and volunteers. In fact, some of those staff members, educators, and volunteers have been in more than one of those positions, at times all of them, and are able to combine in themselves those complementary characteristics of professionalism and warmth.

One of the surprising facts about the Sinai Schools is that it has had two deans, and the first one, Laurette Rothwachs, who is one of the intensely focused educators who first shaped the school, is the mother of its second dean, Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs.

It is important to stress that Sinai might have some mom-and-pop feelings left over from its creation, but leading it is not a hereditary position. Sruly Rothwachs does not lead Sinai because he inherited the job. He leads Sinai because the passion for teaching, for helping children grow into adults and for working with developmentally disabled students, the patience that a teacher needs and at which the rest of us can but marvel, and the intuition that helps him know what specific students and classes need — all those things, those habits of mind, come naturally to him.

His bone-deep knowledge comes from growing up in his parents’ house and watching his mother at work.


Rabbi Rothwachs listens as high school boys practice Torah reading in the late 1990s.

Her own passion for her work seems to have been inherent to who she is. Ms. Rothwachs is from Brooklyn. She majored in psychology at Adelphi. Her entry into special education was “a fluke,” she said. “I was in college, and I needed a job, so I went to the Young Israel employment agency. All they had was an opening for an assistant teacher in a school for severely handicapped kids. I walked in there knowing nothing — but I had wonderful mentors, and I really learned a lot.

“I don’t know that I had any definite plans for a career at that time. I just knew that I was really enjoying what I was doing, and that I seemed to have an affinity for what I was doing, and that the feedback I was getting was good.” So she stayed, became a teacher there, and earned a masters in education at Adelphi. She also got married — her husband, Bernard, is retired from a career at Merrill Lynch — and had three children; she took 10 or so years off to be with her children.

Or so she says. When she talks about that part of her life in a bit more detail, Ms. Rothwachs says that “some people approached me. They said that they were starting a Ptach school for special education in Brooklyn, and they wanted me to head that.” How did those people know how perfectly suited Ms. Rothwachs would be at that job? “We went to a bungalow colony during the summers, and I was the camp director there,” she said, because born teachers just gotta teach. (She didn’t say that part. She implied it.) “There were a lot of special needs children there, and I got to talk a lot to their parents. There were no special education schools then. There was no field of special education. It was just emerging around then, and people were just starting to figure it out.

“I was there at the beginning,” she said. “It was exciting. When we started to develop the field, I could get access to people. I was struggling to figure out what was best to do, and I was able to get moral support from the psychological perspective, but it was not connected to academic methodology.”

That’s changed, she said. “If you compared that with what exists now, 40 years later, it is incredible,” Ms. Rothwachs said. “First, the number of special ed schools in general, and Jewish special ed schools in particular. So many more kids are getting the help they need.

“Even just within Sinai, think of the amount of expertise we have, where one professional can learn from another professional and they can work together.”

When Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene recruited Ms. Rothwachs for Sinai, she was unsure about the move. It demanded not only that she take her family to the wilds of New Jersey — she settled near Rabbi Greene, in Fair Lawn — but also give up what then was a better job for a new, challenging, exciting but uncertain one.

She and her husband both were hesitant, but Rabbi Greene convinced them. The lure of the challenge, the bet that she might be able to do more, help more, grow more, was hard to turn down.

“My close friend Wally Greene called me up one day and said, ‘I have a job for you,’” Ms. Rothwachs recalled. “I said but I have a job, and he said I have a better job. He brought me out, and I just saw an opportunity to take what I had learned in Brooklyn and bring it out here and to possibly be able to do even more because it was just starting. There were no determined parameters. I was hopeful that there would be more financial backing, which would allow us to expand programming. It was a very exciting prospect for me. For my husband and children — not so much.

“But now that my baby is running Sinai, my family has pretty much forgiven me.”


Sinai’s 1985 class picture. The program was so well integrated into NYA, in West Caldwell, that the class ID didn’t even say Sinai. Those kids, the sign says, are HYA kids.

She remembers meeting the Hebrew Youth Academy board; many of its members were skeptical, but they decided to help Sinai grow. “That board was full of visionaries,” Ms. Rothwachs said.

Because Sinai is both a special education school and a Jewish one, its educators have not one but two worlds to navigate for their kids. “In the late ’80s, or maybe it was the early ’90s, Harvard began to offer a learning-and-the-brain conference — it still does — and every year I would pick up and leave my family and immerse myself within that experience, with very capable people who were beginning to develop programs. How do you teach children to read? To communicate? To write? From there, I had to take what I had learned, bring it back, and teach it to the teachers.

“There weren’t so many special education programs then, but they were beginning to be resource room programs.” Ms. Rothwachs learned a lot from them, much of it particularly applicable to the secular skills Sinai taught.

She also learned a great deal from Rabbi Dr. Hersh Fried.” The Dr. in Rabbi Fried’s title was earned, in psychology, at the New School. The Rabbi in Dr. Fried’s title came from his ordination; he was a Munkach chasid. “He opened a school in Williamsburg, called Chush, for special needs kids. He created a special siddur for them, and it was like gold for us. All it really had was larger print and a little bit of explanation.

“Eventually, at Sinai we learned to take some more sophisticated methods from secular settings and apply them to Judaic studies. But in the beginning it was a real struggle.

“Sometimes we had to create our own programs, and that took a lot of resources, but I always had a very supportive group of people behind me. The board always backed whatever I needed, even if it took even more resources.

“For instance, we created the first — maybe the only — sex education curriculum that was halachically acceptable. We were working with parents from Conservative to ultra-Orthodox backgrounds, and you have to be able to be very sensitive to all their needs. We said that the curriculum was something that was needed, so we made it.”

In 2004, the Sinai Schools was accredited by the Middle Schools Association; it is the only Jewish special needs day school to have earned that prestigious certification, which it was able to renew in 2011 and 2018.

“I had a wonderful time from Day One at Sinai,” Ms. Rothwachs said. She thinks the school has continued to get better and better. “We are blessed with such incredible teachers, and an incredible board.

“A good number of the people on the board and the executive board were parents at the beginning, and they shared a vision.”


Sinai’s present, Avi Vogel, has his arm around his predecessor, immediate past president Moshe Weinberger.

Rabbi Rothwachs grew up with that vision. “One of my earliest memories is lying in bed at night as a kid and hearing a meeting going on downstairs at the dining room table. I certainly didn’t understand some of their terminology, but I understood what they were doing. The passion, the soul of what was going on in the dining room below me traveled up through the floorboards into my dreams, and in retrospect it did impact me, as a human being. As a Jew. And as a professional, although I didn’t realize that then.”

Rabbi Rothwachs didn’t think he’d follow his mother into special education when he was a student at Yeshiva University. “I did not picture myself as a teacher at all,” he said. “I was a nice Jewish boy. I thought I’d be an accountant.

“But I got married when I was 20, and still at college, and we had to put food on the table. My mother said that she needed an assistant teacher, so I took what was then a part-time job at TABC in 1998.

“And I fell in love with it.”

He was re-enacting his mother’s story, from his own unique position. “I could align myself with all the magic that I saw my mother do over all those years,” he recalled. “I said ‘This is really something that I can do, that speaks to me.’” So as he worked toward both his academic degree and the rabbinic ordination that many young men at YU earn along with their bachelors degrees, he took classes in education as well.

“I wouldn’t trade my job for any other in the world,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “I am a really lucky guy. I have friends who have jobs in business, law, medicine, a lot of different fields, and I wouldn’t say that they’re not happy, but they look for other places in their lives for fulfillment. They see their jobs as just that. Jobs. I see myself as the luckiest guy in the world, to find such fulfillment in my job.”

Ms. Rothwachs talked about the passion she felt for her work, a passion that ran so deeply in her that when she’d talk about her kids her own children would ask her which kids, her Sinai kids or them. “Sinai is a community school, and my kids watched it grow,” she said. “They saw the difference that each one of us could make.

“I know that it made an impression on Sruly. I remember taking courses and having to practice different testing techniques. Sruly was the best. He would stick close to me for hours, and I would test. Him.

“I’m glad she didn’t go to medical school,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. And that’s another wonderful thing about the Rothwachs; they love each other so clearly that gentle teasing comes naturally to them.

“Sruly came to Sinai clued into it,” Ms. Rothwachs said. “He was totally immersed in it.”

According to Rabbi Rothwachs, one of the reasons that Sinai is so successful is because its founders, educations, lay leaders, and staff “have no ego. Even as Sinai grew to be more sophisticated, with larger budgets, with the dinner drawing 1,000 people, with the world knowing us, Sinai is still run in a way that is never about us as individuals. It always is about what is in the best interests of our kids.”


Rabbi Rothwachs smiles with a student on graduation day.

“This is an organization that truly is led by the heart,” Rabbi Rothwachs added. Although he, and his mother before him, are and were employees, “the board gave my mother the leeway to make decisions, and that ultimately helped structure Sinai as it is. She was the heart and the soul of Sinai.

“There are a lot of organizations where people bring their hearts and souls, but they aren’t given the platform to be able to lead that way. Ultimately, they are just employees, and the board tells them what to do. But when the lead employee, the head of school, the dean, is given the trust and the power to be able to impact change, that’s different.

“And now the board has given that to me.”

“But we couldn’t have accomplished what we did just with heart,” his mother added. “We had to have the excellence. We had to be the best that we could be.”

Although most of their conversations are not about school at all, but about family and children and other shared interests, when Rabbi Rothwachs wants to talk through a problem at Sinai, he has the perfect partner for that discussion. “When Sinai comes up in our conversations, it’s because I have brought it up,” he said. “I am so lucky to be able to have a mentor in this way. When I am looking for sage advice, I can go to her like any son would go to his mother, but she has experience as the leader of the school.

“My mother is very sensitive. She would never impose. But she created this beautiful organization called Sinai, and I think that she was happy to entrust it to me.”

Both Rothwachses are optimistic. “There are really bright days ahead for Jewish special education in general and Sinai in particular,” Ms. Rothwachs said. “Sinai was almost alone in the world of Jewish special ed 40 years ago, but now there is so much out there.

“This is not a business, and I never want to be the only game in town. There are variety of options, and there should be. Parents have choices.” As the stigma becomes less oppressive, and as the understanding that children with a range of different learning styles flourish in a range of schools, specialized expertise has developed. “And more and more kids are coming to us at earlier ages, and the sooner you can get them help, the sooner you can teach them new strategies, the sooner they will be able to gain all that they can gain. In some cases, the sooner they come to us the sooner they can matriculate into community schools.”

As she looks back over the four decades she’s spent at Sinai, “it’s a different school now,” she said. But both mother and son agree that at the base of their work at Sinai, the solid core on which their academic and practical training and experience can build, is their skill at talking to people, listening to them, hiring good people, with good hearts and minds, and allowing those people to grow and take risks. To hire people whose specific skills and training might be better than theirs, and not to be threatened by that. To keep the love of their mission alive and burning.

“The humility of understanding this is the reason for our success,” Ms. Rothwachs said.


Laurette Rothwachs beams at her son, Yisrael, as he celebrates becoming bar mitzvah.

Avi Vogel, who grew up in Teaneck and lives there now, is the fifth president of Sinai’s board. Like the school’s first two presidents but unlike the next two, he is the father of a daughter who went to Sinai, and then later went on to the Frisch School as a mainstream student.

“When my daughter was in first grade, she was struggling, and we looked for a local option,” he said. I didn’t even know that Sinai was an option for her; when I thought about Sinai I envisioned a different kind of child.”

That speaks to one of Sinai’s truths — that it works with children with a range of disabilities. Some of them seem, to the casual onlooker, to belong in a special needs school. Others do not. It is a fallacy to think that all disabilities are either permanent or visible, although certainly many are.

As he saw how good Sinai was for his daughter, Mr. Vogel became increasingly involved.

During his presidency, Sinai has expanded, and Mr. Vogel is proud of that. He understands the need for institutions like Sinai, and he also understands both the potential and the wide range of challenges — financial and otherwise — posed by its educational model, which tailors an education, uniquely, for every one of its children.

Like all of Sinai’s other leaders — to be clear, like just about every sentient person on earth — Mr. Vogel worried about the affect the pandemic might have on the annual fundraising campaign that is so vital to Sinai.

“We really didn’t know what to expect when we launched our annual campaign,” he said. “I am so grateful to many donors — more that 1,500 to date! — who have stepped forward to help Sinai despite the difficult times we all are living through. The response we have received so far makes me immensely proud to be part of a community that recognizes the need for the vital services Sinai provides, and that takes ownership and responsibility to make sure that Sinai will always be there to serve those who need it.

“I also want to recognize everyone who keeps Sinai running day in and day out: our extraordinary board members, who are there for our organization through thick and thin; the incredibly devoted staff in Sinai’s business office, who have worked so hard and have had the courage to innovate in order to enable our organization to thrive, even in difficult times; and especially our superb educational and therapeutic staff, who have demonstrated an unbelievable level of dedication and love for our children during this pandemic.”

This year, instead of the annual dinner, Sinai has provided stories about its students and graduates. It culminates in a film that follows the lives of four of its graduates, from three families. Each of those four students is different, showcasing the range of Sinai students. All of them, and their families, are happy. The film gives hope.

To learn more about Sinai, to watch the film, which is directed by Sinai’s communications director, Abigail Hepner Gross, and to read the other stories, go to Sinai’s website,

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