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The magic of making menschen

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

Sinai Schools leaders talk about guiding their students toward social skills — and happiness

Students at the vocational program at Sinai at TABC work at Grand and Essex in Bergenfield. (All photos courtesy Sinai Schools)

Parents want all sorts of things for their children — love, happiness, wisdom, prosperity, stability, joy. All good things.

That’s what parents hope that their children’s education — formal and experiential, religious and secular — will help them strive for and ultimately reach.

At the very center of those wishes, at the base of all those good things, is parents’ desire that their children grow up to be menschen. If you’re a mensch — if you’re a good person, with a good heart, of good will, and you act in ways that make your menschlichkeit clear — then those other things will follow.

That’s just as true for the parents of students at the Sinai Schools as for any other parents. And for many of those parents, whose children have special educational needs for which Sinai tailors a special education, that goal is no harder to reach than it is for other parents.

Sinai students have a range of special needs; some of them have no more difficulty in feeling empathy and acting on it than neurotypical students do. Those students grasp intuitively how important it is not only to take but also to give.

But that realization is harder for other Sinai students to understand and believe.

A student from Sinai at TABC in Teaneck stocks shelves at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services food pantry.

Recently, Sinai’s senior management team — its dean, Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs; Judi Karp, associate dean and director of Sinai Elementary at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston; its managing director, Sam Fishman; its associate managing director, Arielle Greenbaum Saposh; and its communications director, Abigail Hepner Gross — talked about how the school goes about making mensches.

Mr. Fishman, who is not only Sinai’s top administrator but also a Sinai parent, talked about the time at a graduation when a grandfather talked to him about his grandson, who’d been at Sinai since elementary school. The grandson was one of the graduates; the grandfather was “very emotional,” the soft-spoken Mr. Fishman, not entirely unemotional himself, said. “I just want you to know what Sinai did for my grandson is that you made him into a mensch,” the grandfather said.

“It was such a simple statement, and it was so profound,” Mr. Fishman said. “You think about 12 years of Sinai; it’s such a mind-blowing, highly individualized education, covering every aspect of a child’s social and academic development, all the painstaking work that went into it at every step of the way. And at the end, what Sinai made him into was a mensch.

“It also did many other things. Of course it did. But that’s what it comes down to.”

Sinai’s students are complicated, and so is the school. It’s got offices in Paramus, but it does not have its own school. Instead, its students go to programs that are independent of but housed inside yeshiva day schools in Bergen and Essex counties in New Jersey, and in Queens and the Bronx in New York. There, each Sinai student is given a highly personalized education that includes art, music, speech, and occupational therapy; although students’ programs are self-contained, they also get to interact with the host school’s own students at lunch, at recess, at some afterschool programs, and on the bus.

Sinai’s students’ special needs are not only educational. Some of them do not pick up on social cues and need help in imitating behavior that is modeled for them. “Our children come to us with their complicated profiles, and it takes a little more deliberateness and intensity about detail to actually make mensches,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “We have many goals for our students — academic, social, emotional, behavioral, spiritual — but making mensches permeates all of that.

A student from Sinai at Ma’ayanot in Teaneck helps bake donuts at Dunkin’.

“We want that for neurotypical children too, of course, but because it’s hard for our children to pick up on the skills that neurotypical children pick up in their environment through osmosis, we have to be very deliberate.

“That’s why we have incorporated it into our system, from first grade all the way through age 21,” when special-needs students age out of state aid and from Sinai’s school programs, although Sinai continues to offer them some services.

“At different stages of our children’s development, they are stretched to live beyond themselves, and to appreciate that not only are they recipients of so much chesed, so much goodness, in their lives, but that they have a responsibility to give back.

“That often is a hard thing for children who are so needy really to appreciate.”

As Sinai students get older, “obviously, the more maturity they have, the more they are able to accomplish, the more they can give. We are always building stepping stones to remind them that receiving is important, but we all have a responsibility, as Jews, and also as members of the world community, to give to one another as well.”

Ms. Karp talked about the ways in which many of her students, who go to school at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, are supported. “With some kids, it’s helping them be aware that their behavior impacts other people. That has so many ramifications. We teach them that the way that you speak to other people makes those people feel certain ways, and so does the way you act toward them. So many of our kids are unaware of this.

A TABC SINAI student delivers books gathered at a book drive.

“The staff has had a lot of training on how to have a problem-solving conversation with kids so that when something comes up, and a child is upset — if, say, someone did something mean to them — we don’t just validate them, but also talk about what they might have done that contributed to it, and what they can do differently going forward.

“It’s very hard for our kids.”

This understanding of other people’s feelings comes more slowly to many Sinai students than to neurotypical kids. “Neurotypical kids, even when they’re very young, over the age of 2, they’ll see that mommy doesn’t feel well. That child will pat mommy’s tummy. When they’re older, they’ll say, ‘I’ll get you tea.’ That happens without any instruction. Many Sinai students do that too — but many of them really do need the instruction.

“It’s part a lack of empathy,” Ms. Karp said, but that’s not all of it. “There’s more than that,” she said. “They don’t understand, on a basic level, that what they do has an impact on other people.

“They will hear someone screaming and say, ‘Stop screaming. It gives me a headache.’” But their instinct is not to say “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” And it doesn’t stop them from screaming themselves, whether or not it disturbs anyone else. “That is not an unusual thing to happen in one of our classrooms,” Ms. Karp said. “But the beauty is when you teach these things, you start to see some of those behaviors change.”

Sinai students (like so many other people we all know!) tend to repeat their favorite stories often, long past the time when they’re either novel or interesting. “Last week, in a staff meeting, a teacher said that a student started repeating something and then said, ‘Oh! I told you that already!’

This Sinai at Ma’ayanot student is learning life skills in a one-on-one cooking tutorial.

“That was after two and a half years of work. It’s so exciting when something like that happens. Then you build on it and take the next step.”

It’s important to remember, she added, that “it’s always so different for every child.”

“These skills aren’t being taught just in one way,” Rabbi Rothwachs added. “We have social skills classes, but they’re also being woven through every aspect of the day, in every type of environment, whether on the playground at recess, in shul, in the classroom, or on the bus.”

“Some of what we do is comparable to what neurotypical kids learn in social studies,” Ms. Karp said. “We teach about how communities work. What does a community need to work? We have jobs in classrooms, so kids feel that they have a responsibility to help make them work.

“And we’ve had kids set up a carnival or other fun activities for the other kids at school. Our kids are put in leadership positions, and they’re able to contribute to the community.

“We have something we call a student committee in our middle school, which is comparable to a student council. Our students want to be able to have an impact on what is happening in middle school, and the kids grow from the experiences. We have grade-wide representation, and we have meetings every week, where kids bring in issues like whether they can have a longer recess, or can they make a carnival. They have to earn it, and we work with them. We say yes, you can make a carnival. Who will you invite? What will be in the carnival? How will it contribute to the community?

Students at Sinai at Heichal HaTorah help clean up their school building in Teaneck after the flooding left by Hurricane Ida.

“This is the second year that the kids created a Chanukah carnival, and it was really nice,”

Ms. Karp said. Bar and bat mitzvah parties are staples of the middle-school years. “There is such a strong social skill set that is necessary for kids to be good guests, and to participate in a simcha or a party, or to go to shul. “They need to know the rules. Mainstream schools teach some of that, but our kids need it broken down more, with more repetition and more role-playing.”

They have to learn “what to do when you walk into a party on a Sunday afternoon,” she continued. “You find the bar or bat mitzvah kid, and you find the parents. You put your phone away. You don’t go into the lobby to text. You stay there in the party.” Often, when there is a bar or bat mitzvah service at school, “our kids are there, and the administration speaks about the kids, and then the parents do, and then we offer the kids the opportunity to do it. It’s extemporaneous.

“Some of our kids, who have such challenging behavior, will get up and say, ‘Shloime, you have been such a good friend to me, and you’re nice to everyone. Mazal tov on your bar mitzvah!’

“This is important. We set the stage, and they have the opportunity to step up.”

Like the students, the administrators learn and grow. The chance to speak at a bar mitzvah, along with some of the other social skills Sinai now teaches, is new. “It has grown over time, because we see different needs as they appear,” Ms. Karp said. “This focus on bar and bat mitzvah has become greater in the last few years.” In part, it’s because times have changed, and in part it’s because of the specific mix of students, each with his or her own specific set of needs, interests, and abilities.

A student leads the morning tefillot at Sinai at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston.

Part of it also has been influenced by the pandemic. “Our kids lost so many natural learning opportunities,” Ms. Karp said; of course, they are not alone in that loss, but it hits them even more deeply. “Even if they had some of those skills two years ago, nobody’s gone to a bar or bat mitzvah party for all that time, so it all has to be discussed and reviewed and practiced. We’ve done a lot of role playing.”

“Our students have a range of abilities, but life skills are taught through the school, no matter how old the child is,” Ms. Saposh said. “But which life skills are taught, and how much time has to be spent on teaching those skills, varies.”

At bottom, Sinai wants its children to learn about the importance of reciprocity in relationships. It’s based on what educators call theory of mind, which is the understanding that your own thoughts and feelings are confined to your own mind, and every other person has his or her own. It’s the ability to understand that other people have their own thoughts and feelings, which exist independently of yours. It’s the ability to imagine being someone else. “It’s the ability to take another point of view,” Ms. Karp said.

Although most neurotypical children develop that understanding when they are quite young, most middle schoolers, neurotypical or not, have a hard time with it in middle school. Middle schoolers in general “are notorious for not taking other people’s perspectives into consideration,” she said. “But when you sit down and have a conversation with them and point it out, they say, ‘I know. I know! I know you’re right. You’re right!’

“But some of the students at Sinai don’t understand that until you actually teach them.”

“Some of our students think they are being good and doing the right thing by being honest, and telling another student, for example, that their sweater is ugly,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.

These students at Sinai at the Kushner Academy in Livingston are candidates for their school’s student committee.

Part of teaching Sinai students to becomes menschen is helping them to develop long-term reciprocal relationships. Rabbi Rothwachs talked about what Sima Kelner, who directs Sinai’s high school program at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck has done over the last few years. (Ms. Kelner is an educator whose passion for her students and not only their academic educations but also their ability to flourish in the outside world sparks from her as palpable electricity.)

“They deliver Chanukah packages to seniors in the community,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “They keep going back to the same people over and over again, not because we can’t find other people to give packages to but because there are real relationships being built there. And the girls define themselves as givers. As ba’alat chesed. As someone who has worth.

“We have people who come into our schools at all levels, in elementary, middle, and high school, to speak to our students about particular topics. A dentist, for example, talks about dental health. We encourage our kids not only to express their gratitude by sending thank- you notes or email, but by continuing the discussion, asking questions, keeping the relationship alive.”

“Some members of the business office joined some of the Ma’ayanot Sinai students for a mitzvah day project, as part of the federation’s mitzvah day,” Ms. Saposh said. “We spoke about homelessness; about what that means and how it might feel, and what you might see. And then we and the students worked together to pack care kits, toiletry kits, for people in short-term housing.

“That was a chesed experience that you could see done by students anywhere, but it also was an educational moment for our students. What do you do if you see someone on the street? Why do you think they’re there? Is it a choice, or is it not a choice?

“We also talked about how grateful we should be that we have a home, and that we have toiletries in our homes.

Sinai alumni are off to their gap year programs in Israel.

“We talked about what toiletries are, what are necessities and what aren’t. Perfume might not be a necessity, but deodorant is.”

This might not sound unusual until you remember that these are high school students. “Things are done at different ages for different students. Typically developing children know these things. They may do the project, and their parents will model it.” Sinai students’ parents model the same behavior, but their children can’t pick it up in the same seamless way as neurotypical children do. “We have to have the intentionality to teach it,” Ms. Saposh said.

There is a wide range of diagnoses and behavior in Sinai students, and also different expectations. By high school, most of the students are grouped by ability. The students at Kushner are expected to go on to college, where many of them are able to find comfortable homes for themselves in the mainstream. Girls at Ma’ayanot and boys at the Torah Academy of Bergen County and Heichal HaTorah — all single-sex institutions — are unlikely to go to a standard four-year college, and their teachers focus on helping them ease into the lives they’ll lead after school. There’s a focus on vocational skills and many work programs that prepare them for jobs in the community, where they are welcomed.

“Some of our boys at TABC and Heichal pack boxes every week for Tomchei Shabbes or Kosher Meals on Wheels,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “They might not have the chance to meet the recipients, because those services are anonymous, but it helps instill a new sense of themselves in our students. They feel ‘I am part of this community. I have rights.’ We work on self-advocacy, and also on responsibilities.

“We have seen that when our students graduate, this definition of themselves continues.”

He talked about Pink Day, when the students supported Sharsheret, the Teaneck-based organization for Jewish women and families fighting cancer. “It stood out in a cute way, wearing pink in a boys’ high school. But woven into that was the idea that this is how we participate in this, with fundraising — we sold donuts — and other skills woven into it. Social skills, language skills — we are focusing on both the chesed opportunity and the social skills aspect of it. We are trying to get the biggest bang for our buck, reinforcing all these skills.”

A Sinai student from Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck uses skills he’s learning at vocational training to fix the tire pressure on a Sinai van.

It’s not only the students who have changed — it’s the community as well. “We see a change in the response to people with disabilities,” Ms. Saposh said. “We see it when our students participate in the community with chesed projects, or food shopping, or in their vocational placements.

“Years ago, people looked at differently-abled people differently, or thought about them differently.”

When Sinai students give to other people, when they assimilate the idea that like everyone else, special needs or neurotypical alike, they can give as well as take, they become menschen. Each student does it in his or her own way.

“We strive to make sure that our students have an appreciation for where they are right now and where they are striving to be,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. For example, he said, “if we have a student who is a poor reader but wants to read novels, we say, ‘Okay, where are you now? How do you get to where you want to be? What’s a realistic timeline?

“That’s also a good analogy to what we’re doing with chesed.”

As makes sense for a program that individualizes its teaching, fitting it to each student, the school also figures out what form of chesed makes most sense. “Some of the work we do is to identify what skills each one has. ‘Look at the amazing great gifts you have!’ we say. ‘Look at what HaShem has blessed you with! Let’s look at what you can do that I can’t do. Let’s figure out how we can take those gifts and share them with others.’

A middle-schooler from Sinai at the Kushner Academy helps run the Chanukah carnival for younger students there.

“Let’s say that we have a student who is extremely shy and socially anxious,” he continued. “Let’s say that knocking on someone’s door and handing them a care package might not be right for them. But that student might be an amazing graphic artist.” That’s not a random example but a real one, he said. “We have enlisted him to help us. He gives some of his time to nonprofit organizations. He’s put together some online videos for PR. He feels like a million bucks.”

Okay, but not everyone is a brilliant graphic designer. (Of course, that is true for the neurotypical as well as for people with special needs.) “Everyone has a role and a place within our Jewish community,” Ms. Saposh said. There are less obvious places where people can help.

“It is not always clear to students with special needs that they have not only rights but responsibilities,” she continued. Sinai students have noticed that after a minyan, siddurim have to be gathered and put away, so that the room won’t be a mess and the siddurim will be available for the next minyan. “Some of our students took it on themselves to collect them. The first lesson is realizing that if I don’t put it away, it won’t be put away. So maybe I should put my own away. And maybe I should collect others. And if maybe I don’t feel comfortable asking people for their siddurim, I can pick them up from the seats where they’ve been left.

“This is a responsibility that a good member of the community can do, even if you have special needs. It might seem small, but you still can have an impact on the community.”

“The impacts can be from actions even smaller than that,” Ms. Karp said. “I meet kids at the bus every day, and one of the things I am working on is getting them to say ‘Good morning’ when they get off the busy.

“Some of them need to be prompted but learning to say ‘Good morning’ is part of acceptable discourse. It is step one in becoming a mensch.

These two students from Sinai at SAR in Riverdale give a d’var Torah to the entire school.

“You smile at people and say, ‘Good morning.’ It makes them happy, and they will smile and say ‘Good morning’ back.

“This builds self-esteem,” Ms. Saposh said. “So many of our students come to us with low self-esteem. If Judy says, ‘Your smile makes my day,’ that does something for that child. We are building up that child’s self-esteem.”

Some of the high-school students, particularly at Kushner, have very strong political beliefs, and they tend to be rigidly held. That’s not unusual, particularly now, when the world is so divided, but some Sinai students find it impossible to imagine that anyone would disagree with their beliefs. “Those children tend to think that it’s my way or the highway,” Ms. Karp said. “That’s why election times are so fraught.” She told the story of a Kushner student with right-wing, socially conservative views. A libertarian spoke at a political committee meeting at Kushner, for the whole school, not just Sinai, “and for this student to interact with someone running for Congress with those views, diametrically opposed to his — that made no sense.” How could someone think that way? “He hasn’t learned to take in someone else’s perspective, but at that meeting he had to engage respectfully with someone.

“We all know grown-ups who can’t do that,” she added.

Among covid’s many challenges, apart from the need to relearn the hard-won social skills that seemed entirely irrelevant during the worst of the pandemic, was the need to do things that the social consensus thought were good but some students’ families might not want. “Our kids don’t necessarily come from communities and families that see eye to eye with each other or with the teachers about distancing and masking,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “But we are a community, and we care for each other, and we want everyone to be safe and feel safe.”

Mr. Fishman went back to the story he told at the start of the discussion. “That wasn’t the only time that a parent or a grandparent said to me that their child now is a whole mensch,” he said. “And I felt myself remembering, as a Sinai parent, the first time that I felt empathy coming from my kid with Asperger’s. It was like, wow, he is a real person. A mensch.

“That came from I don’t know how many years of trying to build social skills. Sinai encompasses so much. In the early years, it means learning the basics of how to navigate the world, how to become a student, how to be in a classroom and not be lost.

“We talk about our girls at Ma’ayanot, our boys at Heichal and TABC, our kids at Ma’or,” at Kushner. “Each student is different, and each school is different; what it means to be college-bound rather than not, is different. But being a mensch means being able to participate in the community — and in the world.

“It means that you are blessed to be giving as well as receiving, at whatever level and whatever station of life you’re in.”

“None of it would be possible without community support,” Ms. Saposh said. “We can’t do it without the community.

“It is truly a blessing to be part of a community that understands the need for Sinai, and the magic that we can do, year after year, and that continues to support us.

“We are so grateful for that support.”

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