Imagine if every student enrolled in a SINAI partner high school—like Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, Kushner or Heichal HaTorah—had Tzvi Solomon’s experience. SINAI operates eight full-service “inclusion by design” schools for children and teens with special needs inside yeshiva day and high schools in New Jersey and New York, enabling SINAI students to interact as members of the larger school’s population as fully as they can.
Solomon was a member of TABC’s “larger student population,” but even before his graduation in 2009, his impact was noticed and appreciated by those around him. “I remember about 15 years ago, when Rabbi Yosef Adler, then-rosh yeshiva of TABC, told me about one of his students, Tzvi Solomon, who was especially empathetic toward the SINAI students,” said Sam Fishman, SINAI’s managing director.
At TABC, Solomon played on the basketball team with members of the SINAI Karasick Shalem High School; he also davened with and interacted in other contexts with SINAI classmates in multiple capacities until his graduation. Through the course of his high school career, he shared that he was so deeply affected by the inclusion-by-design model that it no longer mattered what classes one was in. SINAI students were his friends and classmates, just like those with a larger array of shared academic classes. Solomon celebrated all his classmates’ victories, not just on the basketball court, but at SINAI’s play and SINAI’s annual art show. He showed up and gave vigorous support to his classmates, sponsoring the cast parties after the play for multiple years; he even bought paintings to display at home and elsewhere from the art show.
“I couldn’t necessarily explain to you why the inclusion-by-design model was important at the time; I thought maybe ‘Oh, what a nice opportunity to do chesed, or to be kind,’ but over the course of my time there, I realized that the SINAI students are just people like everyone else, and that SINAI gives them the opportunities to succeed, like everyone else in our schools,” he told The Jewish Link. “We all have our goals and challenges; things that typically developing teens might find easy is something difficult for others, and vice-versa. SINAI at my high school created an overall sensitivity that everyone has different strengths and challenges and we should embrace everyone and celebrate everyone.”
Notably, the young man’s SINAI story did not end when he graduated from high school. It now appears that his story at SINAI was then only beginning.
“Tzvi shows how inclusion affects the community and how deeply it affects not just those who are included, but the people around them,” said SINAI’s dean, Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs. “When he was a student, the role the students played in his life and at school made a very big impact on him. Today, he lives very intentionally, and it’s not just that Tzvi internalized SINAI, but he also used his experience to catalyze others into action.”
Now 31, Solomon brought his enthusiasm and activism to Lev HaTorah in Israel, to Yeshiva University, to his first jobs at Goldman Sachs and now at Henries, and he’s brought his particular enthusiasm for SINAI’s inclusion-by-design to his wife Erica, to his parents and siblings, and to his neighbors in New Milford and shul-mates at Congregation Keter Torah.
The youngest board member by far, Solomon has served on SINAI’s board since 2017 and on its executive board for the past three years. He sits on multiple committees within the board, giving both larger and planned gifts—like joining SINAI’s legacy circle, for those who name SINAI as beneficiaries in their wills and estate plans—and also smaller gifts that he finds are appropriate at specific moments, like thank-you presents and gift cards for teachers, therapists and administrators. (“The staff are absolute heroes. We try to highlight them as much as possible and make sure people know about what they do and how much they are appreciated.”) He has also inspired his whole family to team up and sponsor school supplies for SINAI students for the past several years.
“The sensitive way in which Tzvi and Erica give to SINAI is inspiring. It’s so motivating to the other board members—and to the management team at SINAI—to have a board member who is so invested, caring and creative,” said Arielle Greenbaum Saposh, SINAI’s associate managing director.
Tzvi and Erica Solomon also give generously of their personal and family time to SINAI, by bringing their children to the annual art show, by attending and inviting others to SINAI’s annual dinner, and by hosting parlor meetings so that members of their social circles can learn, in smaller groups, about SINAI. “One goal of the parlor meetings is pure education; We want people in our age group to know about SINAI in case they or a friend or family member should need it. Erica and I have had people who have come to us and have told us they know, because of us, that SINAI is here to help. The second goal is action, and it can take many forms. Now that you know it’s here, you can get involved to help provide support,” said Solomon.
“Of course we want people to give, and attend the dinner, but at parlor meetings, we have been able to highlight the fact that SINAI addresses a wide variety of needs,” people with both visible and invisible developmental or learning disabilities, and this “means that the more people know about SINAI, the more they might be able to refer others facing challenges with their children,” he added.
“Tzvi and Erica are focused on building SINAI toward the future, working toward building out our donor base and cultivating new leaders,” said Pam Ennis, SINAI’s director of development. “By using their own social circle and educating younger families, primarily people in their 30s, they are doing us a service. These are not only families that could potentially need SINAI; they are also families in our community we will need to support SINAI going forward to keep it vibrant. If you don’t realize the wide range of disabilities SINAI students have, and you think SINAI only helps people with developmental disabilities, then knowing more about it might contribute to their awareness of all that SINAI is.”
Solomon feels strongly that the extraordinary wide array of services that SINAI provides to its students, who present with a wide array of learning disabilities and social or developmental challenges, is not as well-known as it should be: “Rabbi Yosef Adler used to say, and I now say it too: If you’ve met one SINAI student, you’ve met one SINAI student,” he said.
What he does and has done, as an ambassador for SINAI and to spur others to learn about it has not gone unnoticed by SINAI’s staff. “I have experienced tremendous nachas and joy watching Tzvi grow into the incredibly sensitive community leader he is today. Seeing how he turns that sensitivity into action has really made a difference to our students, our parents, our staff, and to me, personally,” said Fishman, SINAI’s managing director.
Erica Solomon shared that she first became a supporter of SINAI by watching the films produced by SINAI annually, which premiere at the annual dinner; these are high-level, award-winning productions that tell a story about a family who has been positively affected by SINAI. “The first one that really affected me was about my elementary school rebbe at ASHAR, Rabbi Yehuda Minchenberg. [Rabbi Minchenberg is now a rebbe at Yeshivat Noam.] He was always so happy; so cheerful and positive in school, and to have six children, with three in SINAI? I couldn’t imagine how his family could even begin to afford the tuition, on top of three regular day school tuitions. I knew I wanted to give everything I could. How could I not?” she asked.
The Solomons began attending SINAI dinners together before they had children, and now with three children—Matthew who attends Yavneh Academy and Caleb and Moriah, who attend Gan Yavneh—they use the lessons they have learned through SINAI in their own parenting. “We have three kids and it’s already overwhelming. We all have so much to manage,” said Erica Solomon. “How emotionally overwhelming must it be for other families who have just as many, or even more kids, and then, to have a child with any kind of special need? How can we not support a school that sets up these students for success, that supports the parents in this way?”
Her husband added on to this idea, saying that everyone in this community who lives here is already involved in SINAI on some level. “If you went to a partner school, if you have a child in a partner school, if you go to a restaurant where you have an opportunity to interact with a SINAI student out with his or her family, you are already involved in supporting the students. You should also know you have the opportunity to give more.”
“The best way I could describe Tzvi is invested. He is everything you could wish for in a board member. He gives 100%—he’s all in. He has great ideas, asks probing questions, and is the first to step up and go the extra mile when something needs to be done. Most importantly, he cares—for the SINAI students, for the parents, for the staff and for SINAI as an institution,” said Avi Vogel, SINAI’s president.
“As we approach Chanukah, I believe it is appropriate to compare Tzvi and Erica to the shamash of the chanukiah. As we know, the job of the shamash is to light and ignite the other candles. First, Tzvi ignited a passion for SINAI within Erica. Together, they’ve spread their light by sensitively assessing and addressing the needs of SINAI students, parents and teachers; they further spread their light by inspiring their families, and even SINAI board members, to do all they can in support of SINAI’s children; and finally, with an eye toward securing SINAI’s future, they’ve lit the way and led by inviting their friends to join the SINAI family,” said Rabbi Mark Karasick, SINAI’s chairman of the board.
Tzvi and Erica Solomon will be honored at SINAI’s annual dinner on February 26, 2023. For more information and reservations: Go to www.sinaidinner.org or call (201) 833-1134, ext. 106.
To read this article as it originally appeared in The Jewish Link, click here.