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Sinai, stigma, polarization — and continuity

By: Joanne Palmer
The Jewish Standard/New Jersey Jewish News

Frequent readers might notice that we write about the Sinai Schools often. In fact, we write about it — the Sinai Schools is plural but singular, and there’s probably a deep meaning there — whenever we can.

That’s because Sinai offers so many hope-filled models.

At the most obvious level, it provides children who do not flourish in other settings with the kind of education, care, attention, and love that allow them to work toward lives of joy and meaning, just as the rest of us do.

Next, it shows the entire community that people who look or sound or act different are not scary and they’re not threats. They’re people with much to offer. Sinai, like Yachad, like JESPY House, like other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, has done great work in demystifying people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. And of course that’s self-perpetuating. When young neurotypical teens work with their neurodivergent peers, the demystification reaches down through generations.

Sinai also shows those of us who are parents — or have been children — what education could be. Sinai’s model — to pay close attention to each child, to tailor the education to her, to be both realistic and aspirational, and to fit both the realism and the aspirations to a real child, not some abstract vision of childhood — is what every child would have had we but world enough, and time. And money. Most of all, money. Of course, we don’t. But those of us who are parents of neurotypical children, even the ones who went to good schools and did well there, find ourselves a bit envious when we think about that kind of education.

And even beyond that, this Sinai story, like others when leadership has changed there, is a story of seamless transition. Too often, rabbis, principals, directors, administrators — anyone with the ability to create and nurture an internal culture — are revered until they leave. Then the new person comes in with a new vision, and the old one is gone. There might be a person with an emeritus title, and an office. In the basement.

But at Sinai — and certainly, to be fair, in other places too — the accomplishments of the outgoing director, Judi Karp, and the incoming one, Aliza Strassman, are being braided together. Strands of individual accomplishment are visible, but the plait is one unit.

And even one more thing. Like other organizations — but unlike many others — Sinai is not just for one segment of the community. It’s an Orthodox institution, but more than that, it’s a Jewish institution. Any family who needs it, from any part of the community, is welcome to apply, and if it makes sense, to join.

It brings everyone together.

Right now, there’s not much that brings all of us together. But we’re starting a new season, a new school year, a new year on the Jewish calendar. This is a transitional time. A liminal time. Nothing’s quite certain — things could go well, or they could go very, very badly. But at this time of year, they’re bathed in a very specific golden light at dusk, and it does help us believe that things can go well. It helps us believe in magic.

—JP