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The chesed just flowed: Sinai Schools founders look back 40 years to the start of special-ed inclusion program

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

Probably the most important thing that the Sinai Schools has done during the 40 years since it first was an idea in its founders’ hearts and heads was educating its special-needs students, helping them make the most of their skills and abilities, allowing some of them to live entirely mainstream lives, others of them to be independent, and all of them to engage in the pursuit of happiness.

But it’s also worked magic on the other kids, the neurotypical ones, who shared school halls and lunchrooms and bus seats with the Sinai students, and on their parents, and on the rest of their communities; it’s demystified and destigmatized people with special needs, somehow making it not only acceptable but actively cool to be friends with them. And it’s even led educators to think about the model Sinai uses — the education actively tailored to each student, who has not only special but specific needs, as in fact everyone does — as a model for themselves as well.

Every year, the Sinai Schools has a huge gala dinner, hundreds of people packed into a massive room at the Glenpointe in Teaneck for an unrivaled display of community support. Every year, people from across the region gather to watch professionally crafted videos that tell the stories of some of its students; those profoundly moving videos are posted on Sinai’s website the next day. That’s because there’s nothing at all divisive about Sinai; its goal of inclusion can be aimed not only at special-needs students but at all parts of the Jewish world.

The dinner also is the school’s biggest fundraiser.

That’s a problem this year, for Sinai as it is for everyone else. No one is getting together in packed rooms to eat and drink and shout in acquaintances’ ears, or even to sit quietly in that packed room — except for the occasional muffled sob or cheer — to watch short documentary films.

This year, the Sinai Schools has decided to tell its story over the course of about three months; it will post videos about some of its graduates, describing where they started, how they progressed, and where they are now. It also will post written statements by students, graduates, parents, grandparents, teachers, and other supporters, detailing what they’ve seen the school accomplish. All those videos and narratives will be updated every week and available on the school’s website,

A teacher reads to a student, years ago.

Sinai’s story begins in 1980, with three Fair Lawn couples. Each had a young son who had been diagnosed as having special needs. Each belonged to Congregation Shomrei Torah, the thriving shul at the center of the local Orthodox community. And each wanted something more for their son than the local public school system could provide.

Leo and Dossy Brandstatter were one of those couples.

“We knew our son, Eitan, was disabled before; by the time he was 5, we identified the need for a program for him,” Mr. Brandstatter said. “Before then, there always was the hope that he would catch up, but as he caught up at his own pace, there kept being more and more catch up for him to do.

“We have an older daughter, and we knew that children from our cultural background attended yeshiva,” he continued. “We knew that Eitan wasn’t ready for a yeshiva program, and we knew of no yeshiva program that would be equipped for him.”

“We knew we could never give up on him,” Ms. Brandstatter said. “So we knew that we’d have to create a program that would be appropriate for him.”

In what seems to have been an odd coincidence — “but I don’t believe in coincidences,” Mr. Brandstatter said — Ray and Risha Saperstein and Marty and Beverly Fuchsman also needed a program for their children. “They’d all been in playgroups and birthday parties together,” Ms. Brandstatter said. “We all felt that we needed to give them something.”

That started a “round of phone calls and meetings with yeshiva principals, and finally we organized a meeting in our shul. We invited all the local Jewish day school principals.” That was in 1979, Ms. Brandstatter said.

Some showed up. Some were sympathetic. But most said they were unable to help. “Their attitude was that they were afraid that it would have a negative effect on the other kids and on the school’s reputation, and that they just didn’t have kids like that in the school. That there really weren’t any other kids like ours. That the Jewish community really doesn’t have this kind of issue.

“There was only one who called us up and said, ‘I am going to speak to my board. I am going to see what I can do.’”

In 1981, Bernard Sobel, chair of the United Jewish Appeal of Metropolitan New Jersey,is honored by the Hebrew Youth Academy. From the left, flanking him, stand David Hersh, Bruce Shoulson, Martin Jelin, and Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene. Mr. Shoulson and Rabbi Greene were instrumental in creating Sinai.

That was Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene, who also lived in Fair Lawn and belonged to Shomrei Torah. (As Mr. Brandstatter said, “I don’t believe in coincidences.”) Rabbi Greene was the head of the Hebrew Youth Academy, a yeshiva that had moved from Newark to South Orange, then to West Caldwell, and now has been transformed into the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston.

The program started in 1982 at HYA in West Caldwell with the three boys from Fair Lawn and two others, from Morris County. (The school started with boys only, partly because the parents who first felt the need for the program had boys who needed it, partly because more boys than girls tend to be diagnosed with special needs, and partly because it was easier, at the beginning, to work only with boys. That changed long ago, however; Sinai Schools is coed.) One of Rabbi Greene’s first actions was to hire Laurette Rothwachs to head it; at first her official job was as its teacher, but the plan was to grow it and have her become its director.

There was no problem finding students.

“Once what we were doing became known, people came out of the woodwork,” Mr. Brandstatter said. Those people, to be clear, were parents, with children they knew could benefit from Rabbi Greene’s new program.

“Two people made it happen for us,” Ms. Brandstatter said. “We launched it — we were the spark — but that spark would have died a very quick and lonely death had it not been for Wally Greene, who stepped in so quickly and decisively, and for Laurette Rothwachs, who saw such enormous promise for our kids. She was so giving and so open and so capable. We said all we have to do is keep asking for this; the answers are there. There was just the matter of putting it together.”

“I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t think of it” — the program that later became the Sinai Schools — “by myself,” Rabbi Greene said. “I knew the kids who had these particular difficulties from our shul, Shomrei Torah. The families had children who needed special educations. They were enrolled in public schools, and it was too difficult for them to function. They were 5 or 6 years old, with very clear and severe communications problems and all kinds of other issues. It was very hard for them, coming from Orthodox homes, going to school wearing yarmulkes and tzitzit. The parents were very frustrated, and the kids were too.”

Rabbi Greene remembers the program that Dossy Brandstatter arranged — he remembers it as a sisterhood meeting. “The guest speaker was Rabbi Dr. Hersh Fried,” a Munkash chasid who earned a doctorate in psychology from the New School. “He was there in full regalia,” Rabbi Greene said. “He started a program called Chush in Brooklyn for chasidic children with learning disabilities in Williamsburg, in an old Kedem wine factory. He is a pioneer. He is brilliant. He’s a professor when he talks, but on Shabbat his shtreimel comes out.”

Rabbi Fried’s argument for the need for special education was straightforward, Rabbi Greene said. “It’s based on Jewish law. He said that every child is entitled to a Jewish education. The Torah says that it is an inheritance for all Israel. It didn’t exclude anyone. Nobody should be disenfranchised because of learning differences.”

In pictures from years ago, Sinai students learn with a rabbi.

Rabbi Greene was convinced not only that the need for a yeshiva program for special-needs students was real, but also that he could create one.

“Once I became convinced that this was something that needed to be done, and after I had done some serious research, I began formatting a plan to introduce the program into our school,” Rabbi Greene said.

He worked with another Brooklyn program, Ptach; he admired it, but “it had totally self-contained classrooms, and I didn’t want that. I wanted to integrate these kids into HYA as much as possible, to be with their friends on the bus and in the lunchroom. I wanted them to be part of the school.

“That integration was a core principle of the program.”

He had to overcome some opposition. “In the beginning, people were afraid that it would stigmatize the school, that it would become a school ‘for those kids.’

“I had to convince the board of trustees that we could have this program,” Rabbi Greene said. “It involved the reallocation of resources and space. I was very fortunate to have a very real relationship with Bruce Shoulson,” the president of HYA’s board. “He was very kind. He allowed me to rant at every board meeting. He gave me enough rope to hang myself.

“I did it at every meeting. I went around the room, and I said to everyone, ‘You have a disability of some sort. You have glasses. You have a hearing aid. You use a cane.’

“Glasses are socially acceptable. Why shouldn’t learning disabilities be too?

“When you are passionate about something and you have the need to affect others, you become relentless. I was annoyingly relentless.”

The Brandstatters, the Sapersteins, and the Fuchsmans were relentless as well, Rabbi Greene said. “We starting lobbying for it. It took two years of very heavy lobbying, and finally they agreed. They would give me one classroom, and I would have to raise the opening budget one year in advance.”

He understood why some of the board members were hesitant.

“They were very apprehensive,” Rabbi Greene said. “Most people, unless you have a member of your own family or community, you don’t know anything about it.” And fear often springs from ignorance.

“The school was very small then,” he continued. He started his work there in 1976, and “in four years I grew the school from 97 students to 400. They were afraid of anything that might jeopardize its growth. We were now in a new building, in West Caldwell, a Dutch Boy paint laboratory that I redesigned into a school. The board didn’t want to do anything that might spoil the growth.

“They were afraid that it might stigmatize the school — but eventually it became a feather in their cap.”

He began to raise money, and donors were generous. For example, “I approached someone for a donation, I gave him the whole song and dance, and he gave me a very generous check,” Rabbi Greene said. “His wife heard about it and said, ‘Why are you doing this? That’s a lot of money, and we don’t have a child like that.’ And he said, ‘That is why we are doing it.’”

He and the founding families raised enough money to begin the program. He recruited Ms. Rothwachs; he lured her and her family — her husband, Bernard, and their three children, Sruly (now Rabbi Yisrael), Larry (also now a rabbi, heading Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck), and Malkie — from Far Rockaway to what Ms. Rothwachs’s mother thought of as the wilds of New Jersey; her mother asked “Can you get kosher food there?” — and “we started, with five kids,” he said.

Laurette Rochwachs is in the middle in this 1985 Sinai class photo.

The next question was how the students in the program would be treated. Would they be accepted? Would they be shunned? It was possible.

“But the opposite happened,” Rabbi Greene said. “The concept of chesed blossomed. Kids took an avuncular concern for” the students in the program. If they saw a special-needs student “wandering the hall, they’d say ‘Can I help you?’ And if they ever saw anyone making fun of one of those kids, they’d step in.”

That didn’t happen accidentally. “I had an orientation for the faculty, and whatever I presented to them they in turn presented to their students. They explained that there will be kids in the schools who might not look and act like everyone else. They explained the need to be kind and to help.

“And it worked! The chesed just flowed.

“I was hoping that it would work out like that, but none of it was certain. We were breaking new ground.”

He remembers the first fundraising dinner. “It was a melave malke,” a Saturday night post-Shabbat meal. “It was on a freezing night, in a freezing gym; the school, remember, was a converted warehouse. There were hot air blowers to keep the room comfortable, but when they were on you couldn’t heard the speakers talk, so they had to be turned off.”

The program has grown immensely since Rabbi Greene started it. In the late 80s, it became a separate entity.

He has strong memories of some of his students and their parents and grandparents. “There was a young man who really needed the program,” he said. “His father was a very macho type of guy, and he felt, as some parents do, that it was a reflection on him that his child needed this kind of education. He was a big guy, and he broke down in tears in my office when I told him that his kid needed the program. ‘How can I face my friends?’ he said. ‘How can I tell my wife?’”

But “his son went into the program, and he thrived.”

Another memory is of a grandfather “who was very frustrated that his grandchild could not read Hebrew. That he would never make it, so to speak. After his kid was in the program for a year, he came over to me, with tears in his eyes and of course a big check in his hand, and he said, ‘I never thought my grandson would ever be able to daven or sing zmiros. What you have done is simply amazing.’”

His grandson had “‘said Di Fir Kashes’” — the Four Questions — “at the seder. He is the light of my life.’”

That led Rabbi Greene to music, which he said is “one of the most effective ways to reach these kids. You can’t imagine the joy on their faces as they were learning zmiros for Shabbes. It was a joy to look at these kids, who a few months ago didn’t know an alef from a beis, now singing zmiros.

Sinai “has succeeded beyond my wildest imagining, and the people who took over do a fantastic job,” Rabbi Greene said. “I am very proud of it.”

Bruce Shoulson of West Orange was the president of the Hebrew Youth Academy; his children had graduated by the time the precursor to the Sinai program began, “but I was a longtime activist for HYA,” he said.

When he and the HYA board first were approached about the Sinai program, they were not at all sure that they’d do it, he said. “It was a wonderful program, but it was presented to us at a very difficult time,” he said. “The program is very faculty intensive. It requires resources. It was very difficult for us to take on that obligation. It was a major decision that the board reached; Rabbi Greene, as principal, deserves a great deal of credit. So do the Fair Lawn parents.”

The board did decide to take the plunge, and “it worked,” Mr. Shoulson said. “There was nothing else like it.

“Without a doubt it became a source of pride for us. Over the years, Sinai became an integral part of what was then the Hebrew Youth Academy.”

Mr. Shoulson’s wife, Robyn, also is proud of the partnership between HYA, and then the Kushner schools, and Sinai. “I know that there also is a cultural change in the country in terms of recognizing differences between people, intellectually and physically, and encouraging everyone to do the best they can do. Providing the best kind of education for everyone. I am very proud of that.”

As a devoted advocate for the Kushner school, Mr. Shoulson said, he has written it into his will. He’s done the same for the Sinai Schools; he’s joined its new legacy program. “I’m a believer in Jewish education and day school education,” he said. “My wife and I both are products of that education.” So are their children, and now so are their grandchildren, both Shoulsons added. “If you really believe in it as a value, you have to make it as attractive as possible for people to send their kids.”

And just as that’s true for day schools in general, it’s true for Sinai in particular.

A teacher holds a globe as students marvel at it.

Laurette Rothwachs remembers her recruitment to Sinai as “surreal,” she said. “My close friend Wally Greene called me up one day and said, ‘I have a job for you!’ I said, ‘But I have a job!’ And he said, ‘I have a better job!’”

Eventually he convinced her — the challenge of creating and running her own program was hard to resist — so she moved her family out from Long Island to Fair Lawn. She’d been running the Brooklyn branch of Ptach; “it was a small school, of maybe 25 girls with complex learning challenges,” she said. “I had teachers and therapists working under me, and I gave them whatever support they needed.

“I loved my job there. I didn’t want to leave — but whatever. God has his ways.”

Ms. Rothwachs traces her passion for special education to when she was in college; she went to Adelphi, on Long Island, where eventually she earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master’s in special ed. “Back then, people who were in college also had to work a bit,” she said. “I needed a job. But I had no skills. So I went to a Young Israel employment agency. They asked me what I could do. It was pretty apparent that I had no experience in anything, and they said that they had an assistant teaching job available in Brooklyn, in a school for severely handicapped children.”

She in fact did have some experience teaching neurotypical children, but absolutely none with these more challenging kids. But “I had wonderful mentors there,” she said. And her lack of experience wasn’t unusual for someone in her position then, as it would be today. “There were no schools in special ed then,” she said. “And I loved it.”

Sinai stresses both inclusion and the individually tailored education that allows that inclusion, she said. At the beginning, “the primary goal was to address the individual needs of each individual child,” she said. “Different children were ready for mainstreaming experiences at different times.

“Parents were bringing their children to school for precisely that reason. They might have been able to hire a tutor, but they wanted the school experience and the inclusion for their children.”

Ms. Rothwachs, like Rabbi Greene, worked to foster the attitudes that made it logical and natural for the neurotypical students to accept the less typically abled children who joined them at the bus and at lunch, and sometimes in class as well. She started with the school’s faculty.

“I worked very hard on that,” she said. “I believe that change comes about through relationships. I formed a close relationship with every one of the teachers, to the extent that they got regular written updates and thank yous for what specifically they did for this child today. I had to get them to believe that they were making a difference in children’s lives.

“They had to want for our children what we wanted for them,” she continued. “That took a lot of time and work, but it became contagious. And Rabbi Greene also was very enthusiastic and very supportive. So when your team leader is sending that message…

“And it became easier over time. By the third year, teachers were coming to me, asking ‘Who do you have for me this year? Who can I have in my class? Who can I help?’

“That is a process that worked very well and hasn’t changed much in all of these years. What has changed is that there is as broader knowledge base about the work that we do.”

Most of the time, most Sinai students are in their own classes, working with their own teachers and specialists. “But when you have a principal who is welcoming the class in the lunchroom, who knows everybody’s name,” that makes all the children — naturally including the Sinai students — feel seen and known and valued. It’s the same with teachers.

“And you pair children. You say, ‘Why don’t you be a lunch buddy, and have lunch with this other child?’ Or a recess buddy. You build on that.

“We were small at the time, but even now, it works through individual connections.

“We have a young man on our board now who is very dedicated and devoted. He’s there because he grew up side by side with the boys in the Sinai program at TABC. He was their lunch buddy. He said to himself, ‘I am going to make a difference.’

“And he did.

From left, Leo Brandstatter, Rabbi Mark Karasick, and his son Yakov are at a sefer Torah dedication ceremony at JKHA in June 2000.

“It took a while, but we — not only Sinai, but Ptach and some smaller programs as well — changed the world. There was no inclusion then. The word didn’t exist back then. And now we are trying to do away with the word inclusion, because it connotes a hierarchy, and we don’t need that. We are all just here.”

By the late 1980s, the program at HYA became a separate entity, with its own finances and board. The new Sinai Schools stayed at HYA when it became first the Kushner elementary school, and then expanded into the Kushner high school. It also moved to Bergen County, home to more yeshiva day schools and many of its students; it’s now in eight schools, including SAR in Riverdale and the just-opened Sinai at YCQ in Queens.

“At the time, though, we parents saw ourselves not as a separate organization but rather as a small division of an existing school,” Ms. Brandstatter said. “We weren’t partners with HYA. Our program simply was a part of the school.

“That changed in the late 80s, when our first group of young boys graduated from elementary school,” she continued. They couldn’t continue at HYA. If they were to continue at Sinai, they needed to be part of a high school, so we starting examining which high schools could do something similar. We found one in TABC.” (That’s the Torah Academy of Bergen County, in Teaneck.) “That very second program in fact caused Sinai to come into being as Sinai, because once you are in more than one school, then you are a partner with both of them.”

Sinai has continued to thrive, to change, and to change the face of Jewish special education. There’s far too much in its story to cram into this story. There’s too much to tell about how its dedicated educational leaders and administrators have worked to help generations of children. There’s the story about how the school became the first of its kind to gain accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. There are so many stories about graduates — as many stories, really, as there are graduates. And there’s another story of generations — the school’s dean now, Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, is Laurette Rothwachs’ son. This is not a story about dynastic entitlement, though. Very much to the contrary, it’s a story about how passion and commitment and bone-deep understanding can continue to propel an institution forward.

So, there’s much more to come. Stay tuned for it!

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