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Inclusion by Design

Inclusion by Design: SINAI Schools Honors Holy Name Medical Center for Community Partnership

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

Imagine that you see a small group of students working with an art teacher, concentrating, creating, learning.

Add the understanding that these children have developmental disabilities, and that the art teacher is in fact an art therapist. Be sure, though, that when you add this knowledge, you do not — because you should not — let it detract from the clear truth that there is joy in this learning, and learning in this joy.

And then pull your gaze back to see that these children are in a larger school, where they have their own individualized learning programs but also sometimes mix with more standard-issue students. You realize that each group can learn from each other without being overwhelmed by the other’s very different needs, abilities, or interests.

And then pull back yet again, to see that all this is in a Jewish environment, where students of every ability are surrounded by the sounds, sights, calendar, and passions of their people. Of our people.

Pull back just once more, and you see love.

That’s the Sinai schools at work.

Sinai, which does not have its own facility, instead places students in two elementary and three high schools. Those three high schools include two in Teaneck — the Torah Academy of Bergen County and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls — as well as the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston.

Students are placed in the high school that meets their needs, and although they may enter when they are 14, they can stay until they are 21. Kushner’s Sinai students are more academically oriented, and the focus is on preparing them for college or other post-high school studies. But the two schools in Teaneck — the Rabbi Mark and Linda Karasick Shalem High School at Torah Academy of Bergen County and the Rabbi Mark and Linda Karasick Shalem High School at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School — offer boys and girls “more of a practical education in life skills,” Sam Fishman, Sinai’s managing director, said.

“All of our educational methods are research-based, and we are moving more and more toward cutting edge,” Mr. Fishman said. “What makes us unique is our inclusive model. There aren’t other schools that I know of that serve the population that we serve within the context of a regular school.”

Although the schools in which Sinai is set are Orthodox, not all Sinai students are. “We have children from families that are barely or not at all affiliated; we have families that are Conservative or Orthodox; we have Ashkenazim and Sephardim; we have a segment from the Syrian community that comes from Brooklyn. We are inclusive. The question for us is just who can we help,” Mr. Fishman said.

Students at the Sinai schools come from across the tristate area and throughout New Jersey, he added. Some commute from New York City’s five boroughs and Rockland and Westchester counties. “Every year, families relocate from across the country to be able to send their children to one of our schools. In the last few years, they’ve come from Florida, California, and the Midwest. One family came back from Israel in order to be able to send a child to Sinai next year.”

Right now, Sinai has 130 students in its five schools.

This year, at its annual dinner (see box on page 27), Sinai is focusing particularly on its vocational program. Among its honorees is Michael Maron, the president and CEO of Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. Representing the medical center, Mr. Maron is to receive the Community Partnership award in recognition of the jobs, support, and care it has provided Sinai’s students over the course of many years.

“We thought that there could be no better time than now to celebrate brotherhood, the universal value of helping others, tikkun olam, helping to make the world a better place,” Mr. Fishman said. “This is a community partnership, rooted in faith.” (That faith, in Holy Name’s case, is Roman Catholic.)

In fact, Holy Name has a huge electronic billboard on Route 4. One of the photographs in the rotating display includes the logos of both Sinai and Holy Name. and “you can see that when you drive, larger than life,” Mr. Fishman continued. “We are recognizing Holy Name as a good neighbor, and as a partner in recognizing the needs of our community.

“We call it a partnership because our relationship with Holy Name goes back more than 15 years.” Sinai is 33 years old. It began with an elementary school program, but grew with its students. The need for a program for preteens and teenagers soon became clear. “It was shortly after we established a high school that we had a need for work/study and vocational placements,” Mr. Fishman said.

“Holy Name was one of our earliest vocational settings,” he continued. “Over the years, Holy Name has made students welcome at a variety of jobs, things like transporting supplies and mail from one area to another within the hospital, transporting patients for discharge, stocking the bikkur cholim room, and so on.

“We have found that our students have always been so comfortably and so warmly welcomed.”

Now, perhaps at least in part as a result of Holy Name’s example, places across Teaneck have welcomed Sinai’s students. “So many businesses and organizations and schools and shuls have embraced our students, and provided settings for them for the work/study and vocational training,” Mr. Fishman said.

“And beyond the specifics, we wanted to take the opportunity at the dinner to recognize the role that Holy Name plays in our local Jewish community. Even though it is a Catholic institution, Holy Name makes a point of reaching out to members of the entire Bergen County community at large, making sure that people of all faiths feel welcome. And Holy Name is a strong supporter of Israel, has a Shabbat room available, does so much for the community.

“Just in terms of anecdotal proof, we hear about how our supporters feel about Holy Name. The outpouring of warm responses we’ve received in response to the dinner has been beautiful.

“With all the horrors in the world right now, the timing seems right,” Mr. Fishman said. “‘Shevat achim gam yachad’” — that’s the second line of Hinei Mah Tov, the beginning of Psalm 133. In English, it’s “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

“Je suis gam yachad,” Mr. Fishman said, evoking the catchphrase “Je suis Charlie Hebdol” that resulted from the massacre at the magazine’s office in Paris and giving it a Jewish twist.

Rabbi Mark and Linda Karasick of Teaneck were among the four couples who founded Sinai, and their passion for it and its mission is as strong as ever. “Rabbi Mark Karasick is our chairman today,” Mr. Fishman said. “Mark and Linda really are the heart and soul and face and builders of Sinai.”

They are the parents of four sons, two of whom were Sinai students.

Their connection to Holy Name is strong as well. It is physical — they are neighbors. It is emotional — the hospital has provided medical care to the extended family. And it dates back to the beginning of the hospital’s vocational program with Sinai. “The first student we placed at Holy Name was Avi Karasick,” Mr. Fishman said.

“We have found that Holy Name always has been respectful of us, and our respect for them has grown considerably over time,” Rabbi Karasick said. “We have accepted them as a neighbor, and we have respected their growth. And they have respected us. They don’t tell us what to do.

“For maybe close to three decades, a group of people from our shul, Beth Aaron, goes there every Shabbes for bikkur cholim,” to visit Jewish patients there, Rabbi Karasick said. They were always greeted warmly by the staff and by the pastor who acts as chaplain there.

Sinai placed the Karasicks’ sons in different environments. “Avi and Yacov are two sons of the same parents, but they are as different as any kids are different from their siblings,” Ms. Karasick said. “Avi needs more structure, but you can’t put him down at a desk, putting pieces of things together.

“He worked at Holy Name delivering mail. He is very gregarious, and it gave him the opportunity to talk to people.

“I remember Avi coming home with his Holy Name nametag. It said ‘Avi Karasick. Staff.’ I think he even had a blue jacket that had his name on it. He was so proud.”

Yacov Karasick “worked in a number of different places,” Rabbi Karasick said. “The longest was in Ma’adan. That was maybe six years ago, and to this day, every time I walk in there I’m Yacov’s father. The friendships and the relationships that started there are maintained.

“Teaneck — really all of Bergen County — is an unbelievable community,” Ms. Karasick said. “The fact that we are able to go into businesses and establish relationships in places that are not Jewish… I always marvel about Holy Name. It has crosses!

“We don’t expect that such places will embrace our kids — but they do.”

Why? Well, it’s not all pure goodness, although it’s also goodness, she said. “The benefits go in both directions. It’s win-win. They are high-functioning kids. They are extremely reliable, honest, and dependable. They can be tremendous workers, and they enjoy their work. They can do the most menial jobs — stocking shelves, putting together pieces of something — and they will do it very conscientiously.

“They show up on time, they don’t steal, and they are cheap to employ.

“But still the fit has to be right.”

For example, she continued, “Down’s kids are comforting, warm, cheerful, nonjudgmental. They can deliver mail working with supervisors, where there is not much chance for error.” On the other hand, other Sinai students “are capable of doing computer work. They are at all different levels.

“We are very blessed,” Ms. Karasick said. “You know the saying that it takes a village? It has taken a village — and we have a village.

“You can’t do it yourself.” She and her family didn’t have to, and now they are making sure that others can have the support that they had.

Esther Klavan is the director of the Sinai school at TABC.

“The vocational component of our high school is fundamentally important to many of the families, to the point where, when I interview prospective kids and their families, they say they think it’s the most important,” Ms. Klavan said.

“Families are intrigued; they know that their children will be excited about starting a job when they start high school, and they are excited to know that they will have multiple and varied experiences in the workplace.”

Because a student’s stay in high school can be as long as seven years, “that means seven different work experiences, with gradually increasingly independence,” she said.

“When they start at 14, their work time is limited to an hour and a half a week. Generally there is one job coach to two students. Gradually, over the course of their time with us, we increase the duration and decrease the support, as we see that the student is capable and the location encourages it.

“The program is tailored personally to each child. When we get new students, we don’t always know their strengths and interests,” although extensive interviews with new students and their families are designed to draw out as much as is possible in that fairly abstract setting. “We do our best, based on what we know. The more we learn, the more it changes.

“What we really strive to do here, because of the nature of the students, is to provide a functional academic curriculum, combining the life skills and academic skills they need for their lives. We work on ‘What does this individual student need to know to be able to have a budget, open a bank account, travel to and from his job, be as independent as he can be in this world?’

“We teach them life skills, shopping, food preparation. And it is all within a Jewish environment that allows them to embrace their Judaism and foster their social skills and opportunities among Jewish high schools boys and girls.

“That’s the balance. We could do any of that in a box — but we do it in someone else’s box.” In other words, instead of trying to keep the students cocooned in a world where everyone else is just like them, they are provided with a balance of that safety and a chance to interact with others, who are less like them, in a larger but still safe world.

“I have learned over the years that what my students contribute to that box is as significant as what they gain from it,” Ms. Klavan said parenthetically.

Back to Holy Name, “it was a trendsetter,” she said. “A decade and a half ago, they welcomed our young men with disabilities, at a time when it was not popular to do so. Now you can walk up and down Cedar Lane or West Englewood Avenue, or even go to Party City or Modell’s or Staples, and see people with disabilities as workers.

“Nowadays it’s very typical and expected for individuals of all abilities to be working, either as volunteers or as employees, but then it was much less popular. But Holy Name welcomed us.”

She talked about a student of hers who worked there a few years ago. “They welcomed him, and he was independent there,” she said. “I would just drop him off, and he would go to the volunteer service lounge, where the volunteers — often retired people — would wait to be called. He would sit with the other volunteers, and accept any task.

“I visited him there, and saw that he was warmly welcomed by the other volunteers as an equal. We worked hard to get him there, because we felt that once we did, it would pay off. And it did!”

Michael Maron said that Holy Name does not work with developmentally disabled people just out of charity, but because it is mutually beneficial. The volunteers and employees do good work. Beyond that, “It is a good reminder to us all of who we are and why we are here,” he said. “It keeps everybody a little more tuned in and little more on their toes as to the purpose of being.”

Mr. Maron believes that the Sinai schools and Holy Name Medical Center are profoundly similar. “For me personally, and for us as a whole, we applaud Sinai for being a beacon of light for everyone else to see,” he said. “We, too, are a faith-based organization providing services. Their services are to the misfortunate and educationally needy. Ours are to the sick and infirm. And so we are in parallel.

“The passion we both bring to what we do, and the deep reason for why we do it, are both based in our faith, so partnering will show the community what unites us rather than what divides us.”

He is touched by the way the school integrates its students with those in the larger school. “That is incredible,” he said. “If we could incorporate that spirit more into our daily lives, that would make this a far better world.”

This story originally published on January 30, 2015 by The Jewish Standard at