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Soaring with SINAI

Soaring with SINAI

By: Elizabeth Kratz
for The Jewish Link

SINAI Schools is a success story of collaboration, one that partners the students of its schools with the community that supports it. It is a healthy, vibrant partnership and it is changing lives for our community’s children with special needs for the better. But it’s not only success that SINAI aims for. SINAI’s goal is to enable each and every student to spread their metaphorical wings and fly toward their fullest potential, knowing that the support they enjoy today will always be there for them.

At its 37th annual dinner on Feb. 24, SINAI seeks to honor those with a diverse variety of connections to SINAI, only sharing in common, perhaps, that they have all helped SINAI soar, whose support has been essential to its very existence. In addition to a memorial tribute to master teacher and SINAI Associate Director Rachel Schulman, z”l, the honorees will be Dr. Robert and Shari Alter, Dr. Bin and Penina Goldman, and Rabbi Michael and Ayelet Hoenig. Cross River will receive SINAI’s community partnership award.

“We are blessed that SINAI’s children have captured the love of the community and have been taken up as a cause, a vital cause,” said Sam Fishman, SINAI’s managing director. “For SINAI to exist depends on the support of the entire community. The parents who have children with the complex needs that make them need SINAI, they alone can’t begin to cover the cost of what SINAI provides for them.”

Fishman explained that the annual dinner is typically attended by about a thousand people, and several thousand more individuals, foundations and corporations donate to the annual dinner appeal. “Most are not SINAI parents. On the contrary, most parents who can afford to support us beyond tuition do, and some of the most emotionally meaningful dollars we get are from parents who piece together a small amount just to show their gratitude. But overwhelmingly, our support comes from donors who do not need SINAI themselves but believe in and want to support our cause.”

SINAI’s dean, Rabbi Yisrael Rothwachs, said that despite, or even perhaps because of, the extraordinarily high cost of SINAI’s programs, herein lies the foundation of its success. “We are extremely fortunate to be a part of a community that recognizes the value of each child. This is a value we all share, and in recent years over 1,000 have come to the dinner to attest to this. This is a responsibility that our community members feel they have.”

SINAI’s tuition is high but the school is committed to making SINAI affordable to parents. Thoughtful, contemplative professionals, led by Fishman, guide that process toward making SINAI possible. Rabbi Rothwachs said that just as its education is individualized, so is their approach to helping parents. There is an assumption that practically every parent will need financial aid, and that’s where the community comes in.

“When we’re ready to accept a child, we do everything in our power to make it work financially for the parents of that child,” said Fishman.

“The truth of the matter,” Rabbi Rothwachs added, “is that if we weren’t in a community like that there wouldn’t be a SINAI.”

Abigail Hepner Gross, SINAI’s director of communications, shared that it’s her goal to show, at each dinner, the incredible power of how community members’ generosity helps the students. Often, she hears that this is the only dinner people go to aside from their own children’s school or their shul. She is gratified that it has become important to donors that SINAI exists, because the community needs for every child to have a place and an education. “It’s our goal to make our community members understand they are a part of something important. I want to have them leave the dinner feeling uplifted,” she explained.

Now seven schools strong, SINAI’s 165 students are housed within yeshiva day schools and high schools so that they can interact with yeshiva students their own age as much as their needs allow, and influence their fellow students toward a greater understanding and love for those with special needs.

The 2019 Honorees

SINAI’s Associate Director Rachel Schulman, z”l, who passed away last year, left a huge void in the hearts of SINAI’s students and faculty. She was a teacher’s teacher, a specialist in administrating special education programs, and she was known for her ability to inspire teachers to more fully reach students where they are in creative and different ways. “We are a different school because of her. She truly taught us what it means to reach each child,” said Rabbi Rothwachs.

He explained that students with complex needs can sometimes overwhelm teachers, and every situation, as well as every child, is different. “It’s not always prescriptive, what we do,” he said.

“Rachel had a profound impact on teachers and students alike here at SINAI,” said Marcy Glicksman, director of SINAI at RYNJ. “Her breadth of knowledge was vast; we had only to mention an area of study and she would jump in with her words of wisdom. And we always had something to learn. She inspired us all, and will continue to do so for many years to come. Her absence is felt each and every day at SINAI,” she added.

Fishman shared that as part of preparing a prior dinner’s documentary, he had interview footage of Schulman from four or five years ago. “She gave such beautiful, wise and sweet answers. We culled from this earlier footage to create a short video. We feel very privileged to ‘bring her back into the room,’ in a way, and to help people understand what a special person she was, and how much influence she had,” he said.

To be dedicated at this year’s dinner, the Rachel Schulman Memorial Fund will support the expansion of professional development for SINAI’s educators and therapists and will also raise funds for scholarships.

Englewood’s Dr. Robert and Shari Alter have supported SINAI for years and years. They are generous donors to organizations both at home and in Israel. A beloved, highly respected couple, Robert is an oncologist and cancer researcher, and Shari runs an event-planning company in Israel called Protexsia Plus. “She plans numerous bar/bat mitzvahs in Israel for children with special needs,” said Fishman. “It’s hard to get that type of event right; she understands what an important, momentous occasion it is for the parents, and how difficult it can be,” he added. “And, like the vast majority of our donors, the Alters have never had a personal connection with sending a child to SINAI; they just know that SINAI needs to exist.”

Dr. Bin and Penina Goldman, on the other hand, are SINAI parents; Dr. Bin also is director of guidance at RYNJ, one of SINAI’s partner schools. They live in the Clifton-Passaic community. Their son Yehuda attended SINAI at RYNJ and he is now in 10th grade at SINAI at TABC.

Penina is a daughter of Rabbi Benjamin and Rebbetzin Shevi Yudin, in whose Fair Lawn living room, almost literally, the first seeds of SINAI were sown. “She grew up in Fair Lawn with SINAI as a part of their lives,” said Fishman, who added that he has personally known Penina since she was a child. He shared that it would have been devastating for her and her parents if her oldest child had not been able to have a Jewish education. “Over the years, what I heard from Rabbi Yudin, ‘My grandson is a mensch,’ meant that the education was working, and it was not just about being able to go to shul on Shabbat. It was about learning to be a good person. Yehuda is a mensch,” said Fishman.

“It takes a fair amount of courage for a SINAI parent to be willing to be honored, to share their story and their feelings,” said Hepner Gross. “But Penina agreed to do it, feeling that perhaps their story would encourage others to seek our help. And she just told me she was talking to someone who had been on the fence about calling SINAI. After reading Penina’s letter asking friends and community members to support the SINAI dinner, she decided to call. It made it all worth it, Penina told me,” she said.

Also being honored are Rabbi Michael and Ayelet Hoenig, from Fair Lawn. Rabbi Hoenig is mashgiach ruchani at TABC, where he is tasked with caring for the emotional well-being of his students. “He sees, on a daily basis, the inclusion and the benefit of inclusion to the TABC SINAI students and the typical TABC students. He has expressed to us what a positive impact inclusion has on the TABC students,” said Fishman.

“That is the power of inclusion. It doesn’t just benefit the child. It benefits the entire community. Our world is filled with a lot of different types of people. People who behave differently, who look different, who have different needs. Our dinner platform is not only to fundraise but also to educate,” said Fishman. “We try to use the dinner as an opportunity to move the community forward in terms of attitudes toward people with disabilities. Things are so much better but there is still so much to do. Rabbi Hoenig helps TABC students have a better and more enlightened approach.”

This article was originally published in The Jewish Link together with a related article about our Community Partnership recipients, Cross River Bank, which you can read here