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Telling SINAI's Story

Telling SINAI’s Story: Special-needs school’s videos win awards in international competition

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

Sam Fishman, the Sinai Schools’ managing director, and Abigail Hepner Gross, its communications director, were recognized by two international competitions for their latest film, “Jacob’s Footprints.

The pair won three awards of excellence — in the areas of disability issues, Jewish content, and as a commercial or infomercial — as well as a special mention as a documentary short, all from the Accolade Global Film Competition. They also won awards of excellence for disability issues, a documentary short, and Jewish content from the Best Shorts Competition.

The Accolade competition honors work from around the world that showcases both pressing social issues and the creativity, artistry, and mastery of the film media that highlight those issues and enlightens audiences.

Mr. Fishman and Ms. Gross are not professional filmmakers — they shared the awards with the production company that did the technical work — but their passion for their work and the creativity with which they approach it made both “Jacob’s Footprints” and the earlier films they’ve done together both indelible and deeply moving.

The Teaneck-based Sinai Schools takes children, from elementary schoolers through high school students, whose special needs make a more conventional education ineffective at best — and more likely painful and counterproductive — and tailor-makes a program for each one of them. It places each student in a program in a day school, provides him or her with art therapy, music therapy, occupational therapy, and classroom work; it also allows its children and the children in the schools in which they are housed to socialize, eat, play, and pray together, demystifying both sides. Sinai takes students whose disabilities range across a wide gamut and whose programs and outcomes are equally wide-ranging.

In some ways, it is a simple story. Each student is given what he or she needs, socially, academically, therapeutically, spiritually, in the most personal and thoughtful way possible. And in other ways it is an extraordinarily complicated story. Each student has a different set of needs, comes from a different family, and reacts differently.

All schools have relationships with the communities that surround them and provide them with students, but Sinai’s needs are deeper and its relationships are, if anything, even more important. For one thing, the school’s services are expensive, and it promises not to let any child who otherwise it could educate — there are a few students whose needs do not match Sinai’s offerings — have to pass up the education because it is unaffordable. The school does not rely entirely on donations, but it needs them.

Also, and perhaps even more importantly, there is a stigma — unfair, inappropriate, but there nonetheless — that often attaches itself to a family with a child who has special needs. For a very long time, Jewish families (like other families in other cultures) would hide the child, or at the very least, in the face of all evidence, deny the problem. Sinai knows how devastating that response can be, and it works hard to replace the stigma with openness, love, and pride.

The annual movies Mr. Fishman and Ms. Gross make are an important weapon in that campaign. The films are shown first at the annual dinner, usually in February, and then they’re put online, where they are easily accessible and have proven to be wildly popular.

“‘Jacob’s Footprints’ already has been seen more than 130,000 times, just on Facebook,” Mr. Fishman said. “When you consider other channels, my best guess is that it’s been seen more than 150,000 times. Our hope is that this award will draw new people to see ‘Jacob’s Footprint,’ and also to see some of Sinai’s other body of work.”

Because each Sinai student is different — in fact, every child is different, every adult is on some level unlike every other adult, but Sinai focuses on its students — each film is different. The goal of the library of Sinai films that’s been created so far, and that will continue to be created, is to show the range of students the school educates.

“Sisters” was the pair’s 2014 documentary.

Mr. Fishman began working on the films “about a decade ago,” he said; “about four years ago, I had the pleasure and privilege to partner with Abigail in creating them. And they serve an important role.”

Mr. Fishman’s role as managing director encompasses many areas that seem tangential until you think about them. Although he is not the school’s admissions director, he is responsible for the part of the admissions process that does not include educational needs. But once the school decides to accept a student, based solely on educational possibilities, he starts to work with the family. Because he has been involved with the school in various overlapping ways for 30 years, and “because I am the parent of a child who attended Sinai for eight years, working on the financial aspects of the intake goes well beyond a discussion of dollars.

“Parents, thank God, are able to connect with me, and I with them. We talk about the experience, and what to expect.

“The most common question that I get from parents, with varying degrees of emotion and desperation, is, ‘What will his future be?’ ‘Is he going to be happy?’ ‘Will he ever be able to go to a mainstream school?’ ‘Will he be able to go to college?’ ‘To get married?’ ‘To have friends?’

“My answer is always that I am not a prophet, that each child is unique, that each child’s trajectory will be different.

“Having this body of work, these films, allows me, when I hear parents describe their child, when I get to know the parent personally, allows me to send them a link to a particular film about a particular child and a particular family that they can connect to. I can never say to parents that your child will be exactly like this one, but there is a possibility that he might turn out like this.”

Many parents of prospective students say that they’ve seen one of the films, Ms. Gross added. “They say, ‘I saw how you prepared that child for his bar mitzvah. I want that for my son,’” she said. “‘My son is just like the boy in that film, and that’s what I want for him.’”

“I want to use the films as a tool to show parents what is possible,” Mr. Fishman said. “And I want to do it in a way that tells a story and is emotionally powerful, and also shows that there can be real help, and even a happy outcome.”

The films are optimistic, but they are honest. “There is always a bittersweet element,” Mr. Fishman said.

Mr. Fishman and Ms. Gross do not write a script, and they do not use voiceovers to explain what the people in the film do not say. Instead, they film many more hours than they possibly could use, and then piece that footage together to tell a story. They include not only the students and his or her parents, siblings, and classmates, but also teachers and program directors. “We don’t hold a camera or run the computer program,” Mr. Fishman said. “We select the subject, consider the areas we want to cover.

“Sweet Boy,” last year’s entry, looks at another Sinai student’s challenges and triumphs.

“We rotate to be sure to use different types of children and issues,” he added.

“We serve a lot of different types of children, with a lot of different kinds of needs,” Ms. Gross said. “There is a tendency for a person to say, ‘I know so-and-so, who goes to Sinai,’ and think that that’s all that Sinai does. So we make a very deliberate effort to show all different types of students, with all different types of challenges and issues.

“We have ‘Jacob’s Footprints,’” about a young man with many deep-seated challenges, both developmental and physical, “and we also have ‘Saving Freddy,’ and Freddy is now in college. They are clearly very different young men, and they both have been served by Sinai in very many different ways.

“We are not just serving kids with this or that specific diagnosis,” Ms. Gross continued. “That is not how we work. The educational team looks at each child very much as an individual, and thinks about how we can put together a program that will make this child reach his or her potential.”

Because they are so efficient and effective at telling the school’s story, the films have come to be an important part of its public face.

As they start thinking about each film — often years before it is made — Mr. Fishman and Ms. Gross consider which family to approach. Not only do they want to show the range of the school’s students, they also want families who will be willing to put up with seeing both their family’s stories and also their own more-than-life-size faces up on the screen at a huge dinner before it goes online. “We have had parents say that it feels like being naked in front of the whole community,” Ms. Gross said. “It takes very special parents.” And of course, it also takes the child’s agreement as well.

“We never pressure a family if they are not comfortable,” Mr. Fishman said. “But the ones who agree often say afterward that they were really grateful. And they say, ‘If my making the film will help another family, then I am really glad that I did it.’”

“When you really believe in something, you put your heart and soul in it,” Ms. Gross, who also is a Sinai parent, said. “These films are a labor of love. Sam and I, both independently and together, really believe in the story that we are telling. We believe that we can help parents and children, and by telling the story the way we have been telling it, we can help more children.”

Telling their students’ stories in the way that they do — in a way that is sophisticated and powerful enough to win them awards — is unusual, but it is not unusual for Sinai. “No one who works at Sinai works or thinks inside a box,” Ms. Gross said. “It goes without saying that none of our kids fits inside a box, but neither does anyone who works here.

“In order to continue to create and grow the success of the school, we have to think outside the box.”

The Sinai Schools’ short documentaries are available on the school’s website, Click on the tab at the top of the homepage that says “Videos.”

Click Here to see this article as it originally appeared in The Jewish Standard.