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Seeing SINAI: Contest for students highlights the unity designed into school’s diversity

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

The Kushner students “were always nice to him, but it was very difficult to engage him,” Rabbi Rubin said. There were no specific problems, more a kind of failure to thrive.

The student enrolled in the drama club, the rabbi continued. And then, yes, it happened, just like in the movies. “When he was comfortable performing and reading a scripted part, his performance was just exceptional. It was a moment of complete communal crying. The students at the school stood up and gave him a standing ovation.”

It is important to realize that this was not sympathy clapping — Oh look! That poor kid didn’t fall down onstage! — No. Not at all. “He gave was an exceptional performance, and the ovation was admiration for his hidden talent.”

Sinai is like that. Its mission goes in both directions. Created as a way to educate Jewish children with special needs in a way that exposes them to more typical students, it also works to expose those typical students to diversity.

This year, to underscore the truth that the benefits of Sinai go in both directions, the school’s leaders created an art contest. Third- through 12th-graders in all of the five Sinai partner schools — the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge; the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and the Torah Academy of Bergen County, both in Teaneck; and the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, on the same Livingston campus as the fifth partner, Kushner High School — as well as Sinai students in all of those schools were invited to enter essays and artwork that focused on diversity.

The contest, called “Together We Are a Symphony — Embracing Diversity and Inclusion,” was structured so that entries were categorized by age as well as by art form. Prizes were given to third- through fifth-graders, sixth- through eighth-graders, and high schoolers; in each age division there were four winners, with first- and second-place awards given for both essays and art.

The grand prize winner was chosen by lottery from among the six first-prize winners. Rivki Hook of Bergenfield, an eighth-grader at RYNJ, who won first place in her division for her essay, will be going to Israel with her family, courtesy of a $5,000 prize from philanthropist Joe Sprung and his Bear Givers.

Students at both Sinai and the partner schools were encouraged to enter the contest; the entries carried no names so that the three judges could make their decisions based only on the work before them.

“It’s really our hope that the contest will have accomplished something that we’ve been doing since the beginning — our important intangible objective is to leave an indelible lifetime impression on the non-special-needs children who participated, as they invested their own creativity in conveying the importance of diversity and inclusion,” Sam Fishman, Sinai’s managing director, said.

The winners were from the partner schools, not Sinai, but that is neither surprising nor relevant, he added. “We have 122 students, compared to their 1,100.” And the point of the contest was “to get the non-Sinai kids and their families thinking about inclusion.”

Mr. Fishman was not a judge, but he was able to see the entries. “There were a few that knocked me over,” he said. “We got a beautiful one from a Sinai student — she’s the subject of our feature video at our dinner this year. She came to us in eighth grade — she’s now in ninth — in the middle of the school year. Her former school just was not working out.

“She came to us angry and depressed. In addition to her learning issues, she is deaf in one ear and she had a lot of anger when she came to us.

“It was magical, how we were able to make it work for her, and how happy she became. She wrote an essay about what it means to her not only to be at Sinai but to be in the context of the inclusive environment, first at RYNJ and now at Kushner.”

Mr. Fishman now works for Sinai, but he came to it as a parent; he understands firsthand the gaping hole in the community that it fills. “My wife, Esther, and I are both from Fair Lawn, products of Jewish day school education in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said. “We grew up totally unexposed to the reality of special needs, because they were very much swept under the rug.

“When our first child was born, in 1979, and he didn’t develop typically, we were in our 20s, clueless young parents. When he was turned away from a local yeshiva, here in North Jersey, at age 5, we were at a loss.

“We didn’t know what to do.

“We had just moved back to Fair Lawn when we heard about this fledgling program.”

Sinai, which had begun in 1984, in West Caldwell, was only three years old when the Fishmans sent their son there. “He is now 34 years old, went on to graduate school, got his masters in special ed, and is now a special ed teacher in Brooklyn,” Mr. Fishman said.

The statistics are impressive. “Go back 29 years, and Sinai was just a little ripple in a pond,” Mr. Fishman said. “Now it’s a whole sea change in the way the Jewish community — and in particular the Jewish education community — thinks about kids with special needs.

“In the last three decades, Sinai has served about 1,000 students.” (The program has grown about 10 percent a year in recent years; when it began, it did not have anywhere near the numbers it has today.) “We can point to those 1,000 lives we have transformed.

“But there is a bigger picture. For each one of those 1,000 students, there are 2,000, 3,000, maybe more students who have grown up side by side with them.

“Because of the inclusion of our students, we have seen non-Sinai students learn so much about life from them. They learn sensitivity, they learn chesed, they learn that special needs are a natural part of life, and they learn that it’s natural to include people with special needs in their schools, social circles, and communities.

“It really is a generational change in attitude. What I see in my children’s generation is that they are much better prepared than my generation was to deal with a curveball like the one that was thrown at my wife and me.”

Sinai does not pay lip service to the idea that each child is different, with his or her own set of strengths, problems, and learning styles — and that is true of all children, with or without special needs. Sinai’s students include children with a range of complex and sometime profound developmental disabilities, as well as many other issues, Mr. Fishman said, and each has his or her own learning plan. The school does not serve all the children who could benefit from it. “The limitation is the cost. It is prohibitively expensive. It is a miracle, frankly, given what it costs, that we can do what we do.

“The need is greater than we can serve, and there are three limitations. One is that we can grow only one child at a time. We have to put so much into each child.

“The second is the stigma. As inclusive as we are, still there is some stigma.

“The third is the cost. We work with our families, and we fund raise to try to meet it, but there still are families that are scared away by it.”

Dr. Zvi Marans of Teaneck is a pediatric cardiologist and the president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Both of those credentials make him a logical judge for the art competition, and he agreed to undertake that responsibility. “Sinai perceives itself as a broad community institution, and it obviously is grateful for support from the community, including federation,” he said. “That’s why I was approached.”

Then there is also the fact that “I have an affinity for children. I hang out with kids all day long; some of them have physical and mental disabilities, and I love all of them.

“I also love the purity of thought and expression that all children have, unadulterated by adulthood. Especially in artwork, their expression is so pure. There is no manipulation. The lens they see through is their innocence. I always enjoy that.”

From that vantage point — his own lens — Dr. Marans sees the great benefits of inclusion.

“I saw that the kids in the schools where there are Sinai students are deeply affected by living in an environment with other kids who are different from them. I believe that it is wonderful for the community. It creates diversity and inclusion — otherwise, there’s not a lot of it in their lives.

“It is a strong feeling of mind that diversity is good. I have raised my children that way. It expands the mind, and they take that with them for the rest of their lives.”

Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs of Teaneck is Sinai’s dean, and he tells this anecdote: “About 8 years or so ago, we opened at the Kushner high school.” Some of the Sinai students came to the high school program from the Kushner elementary school, but many were new to the Livingston campus. “A few weeks into the school year, one of the administrators came to me and asked if there was anything she could do to help.

“I said no, everything was fine, and then I shared with her how impressed I was that our kids were so welcome there, because for so many of them that feeling of being welcome was so new to them.

“Without skipping a beat, she pointed out that the vast majority of students in the Kushner Yeshiva High School had grown up with Sinai students at their side.” Inclusion and diversity were nothing new to them.

“That how we all knew that the impact of the students in our school is not just positive for them but to the larger community, for their acceptance, their understanding, their comfort. We are not the only organization promoting inclusion in the community — there is also Yachad and the Friendship Circle, nonacademic venues — so at the very youngest ages, our kids are being exposed to diversity. And all these groups affect each other.”

There is a possible risk in all the talk about inclusivity, Rabbi Rothwax acknowledged; it is something that he and the rest of the community take seriously. They do not want to objectify the Sinai students, making them into objects of pity, on display for other students’ edification. “We are always sensitive to that,” he said. “We have to be so careful in how we portray our students.”

Kushner High School’s Rabbi Rubin agreed. “Integrating students who learn differently into the school creates an atmosphere of respect and appreciation for all the differences we have as people,” he said. “As a result of Sinai, our students behave sensitively toward each other, and they realize that differences have to be respected and appreciated.

“Students also learn that by giving to those in need, oftentimes they are receiving through their acts of generosity. These are qualities of character that we want to develop in emerging adolescents.

“We also benefit a great deal from the Sinai staff, who bring a particular expertise,” Dr. Rubin concluded. “They help us become more competent in reaching students who are different, even if they are in the mainstream.”

Originally published at