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Refining A Partnership

Refining A Partnership

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

You know those big signs on Route 4, near Riverside Square in Hackensack?

The big electronic billboards, the ones that usually show images from Holy Name Medical Center, but include some pictures of kids in its regular rotations? One happy-looking kid at a time, standing next to huge letters spelling out My Challenges Don’t Define Me, pointing to a sign with a self-definition? A sign saying I Am Smart, for example. Or Beautiful. Or Hard-Working. Or Cool.

Those kids are students at the Sinai Schools, and the billboards, which feature Sinai’s name next to Holy Name’s, are just one of the manifestations of the growing relationship between the two nonprofit institutions, both dedicated, each in its own way, to helping people heal and grow.

Sinai, headquartered in Teaneck, is not as much a physical school as an organization that runs schools within schools, placing children with a wide range of special needs inside five day schools, four in Bergen County and one in Livingston. There, Sinai students spend most of their time working with their own teachers on individually tailored programs but have a chance to interact with the mainstream students in nonacademic settings, thus enlarging not only their own understanding of the world but the less challenged students’ as well.

For about 15 years, Sinai has placed some of its older students in jobs in local stores and other places, thus allowing them to develop life skills. For many years, one of those places was Holy Name Medical Center. Last February, Sinai honored the medical center and its president, Michael Maron, at its annual dinner, for providing that opportunity. “Holy Name welcomed our students, treating them, like any other employee, with dignity and respect,” Sam Fishman, Sinai’s managing director, said.

His interest piqued in a relationship about which he’d known relatively little until then, Mr. Maron looked more deeply at Sinai, and what he saw moved him deeply. “Really, something magical happened then, at the dinner and the process leading up to it,” Mr. Fishman said. “Mike visited our students and schools, and he witnessed the attention and innovation and love of our professionals in the classroom, and the community outpouring of solidarity and support — there were more than 800 people in the packed ballroom that night. Mike was clearly moved by the experience.

“As the dinner was coming to an end, Mike said that this was just the beginning of the relationship, a launching point.

“He invited me and Dean Rothwachs” — that’s Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs — “to come visit him at Holy Name. We did — and we were just floored by what he had to say.”

Mike Maron offered the Sinai admin-i-strators access to “the considerable resources of HNMC, to help us in many ways,” Mr. Fishman said.

That help is wide-ranging.

The school’s financial needs are huge. “Our student body is 80 percent larger than it was six years ago,” Mr. Fishman said. Because each student has different needs, and most of them are highly labor intensive, tuition is well out of the reach of most families, so it must come from other sources.

“At our meeting with Mike, one of the many things he said he would do was to write a check for $100,000, to establish the Holy Name Medical Center scholarship at Sinai. He said — these were his words — that he would be ‘starting small.’ He said that this was an annual gift. “The funding comes from the medical center’s community outreach budget line.

Mr. Maron is able to offer the scholarship funding because of the medical center’s mission. “We believe that we are a community nonprofit organization,” he said. “There are health-related issues associated with students, families, and faculty of Sinai Schools. But there is also public good, and that falls within the scope of our charter.

“The power of our participation in programs like the Sinai Schools, Asian Medical Program, Hispanic Medical Program, Hopital Sacre Coeur in Haiti, Villa Marie Claire and others is that we have to sacrifice to make it work.

“The passion generated stems from that sacrifice. We’ll accept all the donations we can get, however, our hope is that others will see this selfless act as an inspiration and motivation for them to respond accordingly.”

Mr. Fishman recalled another conversation with Mr. Maron. “As part of his getting-to-know-us process, he asked me what my biggest challenge at Sinai is, and I said it is financing these children’s education,” he said. “And Mike said to me that if I ever found myself stuck, that if a family were to come in with a child who needs our help and it was beyond what we could do, to call him. He said that he does not want us to turn children away.

“Already, on the basis of the gift he gave us, there are seven children who we would have been hard-pressed to take; children with complex and multiple special needs, who clearly needed us, and who clearly we could help, but whose families were so limited that it would have stretched our scholarship beyond our limit.

“That’s where we used our first $100,000.”

And then, “in late August, we received an application from a new family.

“It was just a week before school started. It was a family of nine children, they were beyond financially strapped, and they came to us with their daughter. For far too long they had avoided getting her the special education she needed. So, as a young teenager reading on a second-grade level, she had a range of other issues, some of which stemmed from her failure in school.

“Our classes already were full, but our program director at the school that was right for her said she would stretch, and was prepared to rearrange resources and hire more staff. But the child would require about $70,000 in financial aid — and that was about $50,000 more than I had left.

“I was thinking to myself — should I call Mike? Shouldn’t I call Mike? He’d already given us $100,000, and I don’t want to be a pig. But if I have learned anything about Mike, it’s that he means what he says. So I reached out to him, sent him an email, and he emailed back saying he was sorry that he had taken so long to respond. He’d been on a plane, and it was the same day.

“He said yes, of course, and that we’d have a check for $50,000 the next day. And we did.

“He sent someone to walk it over.

“It was so beautiful. And I wish I could capture the telephone call I had with the girl’s father, when I said yes to him, yes I can do it, and yes in large part because of the generosity of Holy Name and Michael Maron. The father was moved to tears. He said, ‘How can someone who never met my daughter or me be so kind to us?’

“And Mike really wants nothing in return. ‘Just keep on doing what you’re doing,’ he told me,” Mr. Fishman said. “‘Just keep on doing what you’re doing.’”

The relationship between Sinai and Holy Name is not only about money, though.

“When we first sat down with Mike, and he opened all of Holy Name’s resources to us, I sat there feeling like we were going to receive all this generosity,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “What could we give to Holy Name in this partnership? And then I thought that we are experts in special education, so maybe we could offer some kind of sensitivity training about disability awareness.

“He jumped at the idea right away, about partnering in simulation training.”

The medical center has a state-of-the-art simulation center, opened in 2013 and expanded and fueled this year by a $5 million grant from the Berrie Foundation. (The hospital honored Angelica Berrie of Englewood for this gift, among many others, last month.)

Some of the simulation techniques are jaw-droppingly high-tech, but others are absolutely no-tech; simulation is a tool, not an end. Sinai will be able to use all of it, as needed, in a program, slated, with luck, to begin in a few months, to “train medical staff on what it means to be a true provider of services in a humanistic way for people who have disabilities,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “We have interviewed adults who have developmental disabilities, and we are going to interview parents of adult children with disabilities. We want to learn about their experiences at doctors’ offices, during routine visits, during ER visits. These are people who have to go to specialists two or three times a year. They talk about their experiences — addressing their guardians, not them; not making eye contact with them, using the wrong language. There are a whole bunch of different things. It would be so much for these people to have doctors who are sensitive to their needs — not just their medical needs, but their social and emotional needs as well.”

He and Sinai’s president, Avi Vogel, have been working closely with the center’s director, Cedar Wang, “to concretize what we want,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.

Holy Name now provides CPR and AED (defibrillation) training “for our entire teaching staff, more than 100 students,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. His students are not more likely to need those services than anyone else, but “it is important for everybody.

“We were relieved,” he added. “When we make a commitment to parents that we will educate their kids, it’s not just to look after their emotional and academic growth, but also to make sure that they are safe.” And, of course, all the students and teachers in the schools in which Sinai is housed are protected by the training.

Holy Name has reinvigorated the volunteer work programs that started the relationship. It used to involve the usual maze of paperwork that any such program entails, and that often repels would-be participants. “They have cut out all the red tape,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “They have streamlined the process, made it easier for them to start and easier to continue to volunteer.” The medical center also has instituted an effective way to match participants to jobs.

“The hospital really is a little city, and we have been given the opportunity to sit around a table and discuss each student’s particular needs,” he said. “That has been a big help.”

Three of Sinai’s early graduates, who aged out of the program but needed somewhere to live, live in a house that Sinai provides to them. As these men, who are close to or in their 40s, age, they require more medical services. “We have been exploring different ways of meeting their needs through partnering with Holy Name, and it is installing a telephone line that goes straight to its paramedics, bypassing 911,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “And we plan to bring the residents into the ER for a tour, so they can get to know the staff, and the staff can get to know them. If anything happens, it will be a little more comfortable, a little less intimidating for them.”

And then, of course, there are the billboards. “Our message is simple, but the deeper meaning of Sinai students on those billboards is profound,” Mr. Fishman said. “For too many years, the Jewish community hid away their children with special needs. Swept them under the rug. And so many children and families have suffered because of the stigma.

“The billboards on Route 4 take these children, who at one time might have been hidden away, and holds them up, larger than life, and celebrates them as jewel in our community.

“We see these children as children, and for all the good and all the potential within them.”

Mr. Fishman is awed by Mike Maron. “I don’t know whether the right word to use about him is saint or tzadik, but he is such a giving man,” he said. “Every time I meet with him, I see the sincerity and purity of his heart. He is in it to give, and to help, and to make the world a better place.”

Rabbi Rothwachs agrees. “He is such a sincere, spiritual person, who cares deeply for everybody,” he said.

Why does Mr. Maron do what he does? “Because someone has to,” he said.

It’s not all talk for Mr. Maron, who is a devout Catholic and at the helm of a Catholic institution. He does not just write checks. He works.

Everyone who talks about Mr. Maron mentions his frequent trips to Haiti. That began, he said, well after the hospital’s connection to that impoverished country.

“Dr. David Butler, one of our obstetricians, who is on the board here, has been going to Haiti for 25 years,” Mr. Maron said. “The hospital always was involved — every year he’d come and say ‘Can I get some supplies,’ and we’d give him a few duffle bags of supplies, pat him on the back, send him off, and thank him when he got back.

“And then, after the earthquake, in 2010, he came back visibly shaken, and asked us to get more involved, and we did.

“February and March of 2010 was my first trip to Haiti, and it was a wake-up call for me. I saw that us giving him duffle bags all those years was kind of embarrassing. There was a lot more that could have been done, should have been done, and we all were too busy to notice.

“I go to Haiti every six to eight weeks now — because American Airlines put in this great new flight, that allows me to do it. I stay for three or four days in the hospital. We are now the largest sponsor of the largest hospital in northern Haiti, the Hopital Sacre Coeur.” When he is there, Mr. Maron uses his experience and skills as a top hospital administrator to organize and run the hospital.

“When medical staff members here challenge us, and ask why we took it on, when they say ‘What made you choose Haiti?’ my response it that we didn’t choose Haiti. Haiti chose us. We just chose to listen.

“In many ways, it’s the same thing with the Sinai school.”

He did not know much about the students in the volunteer work program, he said. “I always knew that we had developmentally challenged individuals, but I never really knew about Sinai. I just figured that they were somehow connected with us. So we supported it, but never focused on it.”

When Sinai proposed to honor him and the medical center for what he felt, queasily, was not a good enough reason, and “then they invited me to come visit them, it was kind of like my first trip to Haiti. I was blown away by the professionalism, the compassion, the sense of service, the way the put others ahead of themselves.

“I thought that it was a brilliant model, and I was embarrassed that we hadn’t paid more attention to it, or done more, sooner, of our own volition. And I vowed then and there that we can help them in many ways, not just financially but in helping train their staff and provide medical services.”

Despite Sinai’s being Jewish and Holy Name Catholic, the bedrock faith upon which both are based provided common ground.

“For us, our faith tells us that every life matters,” Mr. Maron said. “Every life is important. And all of us are here for a reason. There is a purpose, and that purpose actually can unite us.

“I said to Sam, ‘You know what? We follow different religious traditions, but the foundational principles of our faith are the same. Those of us who have been blessed are responsible to those less fortunate. A life of service, spent helping others, is a much more rewarding life.

“You can change the world, one life at a time. Here at Holy Name, everything we do is meant to touch someone, and hopefully they will pay it forward.

“That’s what we do in Haiti, and with Sinai, and with end-of-life care. There is no profit for it, but we do it for a bigger purpose. That message gets drowned out every day, but we have a responsibility to remind people that there is a greater purpose. If we could all think of that, just once in a while, just think of how much better the world would be.”

Rabbi Rothwachs agrees. “It’s not about our being two religions together. It’s not about religion. It’s about people who are big enough to see beyond differences, and to do what we were placed on this earth to do — to help other people.”

Originally posted at