Search
Close this search box.

‘The woman on the white horse’: Master educator Judi Karp talks about the Sinai Schools

By: Joanne Palmer
for The Jewish Standard/New Jersey Jewish News

 

Judi Karp with elementary school students at SINAI at JKHA.

“We must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”

That’s what Elie Wiesel told us.

That’s the truth that all good teachers understand instinctively, as they look at masses of undifferentiated students at the beginning of each school year, all those backpacks and all those knees and elbows and so very many teeth and so very much hair. They realize that every single one of those kids is an entire hidden world.

That’s absolutely the truth that teachers at the Sinai Schools know.

And it is the truth that Judi Karp, director of the Sinai elementary school at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston and the Paramus-based Sinai Schools’ associate dean, embodies.

Ms. Karp will be honored with Sinai’s lifetime achievement award at its annual dinner in February.

When Ms. Karp talks to a student, her complete absorption in the conversation is visible; when she talks about Sinai, her complete commitment to it is unmissable.

The Sinai Schools are for special needs students. That somewhat patronizing term includes a range of conditions and diagnoses.

 

Judi Karp will be honored with the Sinai Schools’ lifetime achievement award.

“The kids who come to our school fall under three umbrellas,” Ms. Karp said. “Some have language-based disabilities, which includes reading and expressive language disabilities. Some are on the autism spectrum; some of them are gifted but need to work on social skills. Some of them have developmental disabilities; their academic skills can be on the first- or second-grade level. And we also have kids with developmental disabilities, with Down Syndrome or Fragile X.

“There are comorbidities in each group; anxiety and attitudinal issues.

“Our classes are put together to create a balance, so that academically and socially they have peers to be grouped with. Those aren’t necessarily the same kids. We have many students who are very strong academically but rigid and inflexible; they are very distressed if they don’t get the yellow piece. And we have other kids who are more likely not to worry if they don’t get the yellow piece. They’ll get it the next time.

“Everyone has a time to shine, and everyone has something to give.”

As she plans to step back from her more hands-on work at Sinai at Kushner, while remaining associate dean, Ms. Karp talked about her career at Sinai.

She interviewed for her job at Sinai with its founding dean, Laurette Rothwachs, in 1996, when the program still was housed at Kushner’s old building in West Caldwell; she began her work at the school that fall, on Kushner’s brand-new Livingston campus. For years, she said, as soon as the school year ended, work on expanding the building would begin; it would finish soon before the next year started. So the school grew, according to plan, until it got to where it is today — huge, orderly, logical, and full of life.

Sinai’s programs at Kushner — both elementary and high school — grew along with it.

Sinai’s method always is to work with every child individually; to see what each child needs and provide it. That work demands patience and insight; it yields great joy with each hard-earned breakthrough.

 

Ms. Karp, right, and teacher Jess Shore talk to students.

That’s one of Sinai’s unique attributes. Another is that its schools are housed in larger yeshiva day schools. Its students are not cordoned off from the neurotypical students in those schools; instead, Sinai’s insight is that exposing the groups to each other leads to an important demystification, as well as an understanding of how nebulous and how porous the boundaries between so-called normal and special-needs people can be.

Much in special education has changed over the years she’s been in it, but “what’s changed is kind of superficial, although not unimportant,” Ms. Karp said. Those things mainly involve technology, which certainly does matter a great deal. “But what has stayed the same is the attention to detail, the attention we give to each child,” she continued. “It’s figuring out and understanding who the child is, what they need, what their parents’ goals are for them, and what they have experienced before they got here.”

Reality also matters, Ms. Karp said. “We work with parents. They know their child better than we do. We are partners; the kids who are most successful here are the ones whose parents advocate for them.

“We look at the trajectory for each child. Sometimes, a parent’s view of the child’s trajectory is not realistic. Our job is to help parents while supporting their dreams and their wishes. It is to help them see what the goals for the next few years will be, and where that will take us.

“At the same time, we are respectful of their dreams.

“Each child is treated as an individual,” she said. “It is our job to figure out who that child is. What do they need? There are so many levels — academic, social, spiritual — because kids come from such very different communities, and we have to recognize what each of them are.”

There are four Sinai elementary schools and four high schools; most of them are in Bergen and Essex counties, but one elementary school is at SAR in Riverdale and another one is in Queens. Students come from nearby towns, and also from “a range of places, from Lakewood to Washington Heights, Brooklyn, and Staten Island,” Ms. Karp said. That represents a wide range of communities, and the students have a wide range of abilities and behaviors, so that’s a lot of assumptions to which teachers and staff have to adjust.

Over time, “technology has changed,” she continued. “Years ago, we had a computer room. Now, there is no computer room. Technology is part of what children use in their classrooms every day. We use Google classroom, like other schools; our children are having a normative experience. All kids love screens. We use them for skill reinforcement, and sometimes for rewards.

“We have a very strong element of direct instruction. Teachers are hands-on with manipulatives. Our kids are multisensory learners. They need to touch things. That’s true of all kids, but many kids who are neurotypical can learn more easily without manipulatives. Our students need that concrete level for a longer time.

“Technology is in service of education,” she said.

Because Sinai is in a larger school, sometimes its students — particularly those in Sinai Ma’or at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, also at Kushner’s Livingston building — who often will join the mainstream by the time they graduate — join Kushner classes. “We have something called reverse mainstreaming,” Ms. Karp said. “That’s when a Kushner student may need a different class level or size. We can be very flexible. That’s a win/win for all of us. Our goal is to help kids, and you do whatever it takes. Sometimes it involves out-of-the-box thinking.”

To walk around Kushner, to look into Sinai classes, to see Sinai students and teachers at work, is to see love, dedication, humor, and patience. It is to see hard work. How do teachers do it? “Patience comes from understanding who these children are, and why they are acting or struggling in the way that they are,” Ms. Karp said. “It’s from understanding their challenges, their disabilities, their experiences. It’s from knowing about failures in the past” — it’s always better for children to start at Sinai earlier rather than later, both she and all the other Sinai teachers and administrators stress — “and once you have that perspective, patience is the outgrowth.”

What about intuition? Does a good teacher need that? Yes, but, Ms. Karp said. “Yes, every professional needs intuition, you need to trust your gut — but trusting your gut comes from training and experience. When you have that, then your gut can tell you what to do, and you can listen to it, and afterward you can intellectualize it.” It looks like intuition, but it’s got a firm base in knowledge and experience.

Sinai teachers “need a degree in special ed, and they need to be passionate about reaching each child,” Ms. Karp said. “All kids need that, but our kids in particular need it. We can’t waste their time. They have to be on task every day.

When it comes to teachers, “either your heart leads you there — or this is not the school for you.”

If part of the Sinai recipe is passion and commitment, another part is collaboration. “Teachers collaborate with each other, with therapists, and with the administration,” Ms. Karp said. “Any good school has that. None of us can do it alone.”

 

Ms. Karp works with a student.

That includes a need to be transparent. “We cannot sweep any problem under the rug,” she said. “If there is a problem, I need to know it. I tell my teachers I have to know everything. Which, granted, may drive them a little crazy, and I apologize to them for that, but if anything happens, we have to know about it.”

Before any child starts at Sinai, Ms. Karp said, his or her teachers are given a binder with information about that child. That binder is updated. “I believe that knowledge is power,” she said. “If a teacher knows about the issues, she is empowered. She already knows where a kid needs help.

“You make sure that the curriculum you provide each child is sequential and transitional from year to year. Someone in my position has to have a long view. I look at a first grader, and I think about fifth grade and middle school and high school.”

Ms. Karp didn’t know that she wanted to be an educator, much less an educator who focused on special-needs students, as she was growing up on the Lower East Side and going to school uptown at Ramaz, but it’s a field that she came to logically. Her father was an assistant principal, and her mother was a teacher who worked in special education. By the time she was partway through college, she figured it out; she graduated from Hunter College with a degree in special education.

“I love figuring out the pieces of the puzzle,” she said. “I love looking at a child and learning what drives them, what holds them back, what motivates them. What is their neshama,” their soul. “What does their neshama need for them to be happy and successful?

“To do special education, you get to think strategically all the time. And I am a puzzle person.”

The work she does with inclusion “has gotten easier,” she continued. “Kushner already was committed to inclusion; technology has made that easier, and now it’s more mainstream as an idea. Kushner was at the forefront. They are visionaries at Kushner. The commitment was there, from Rabbi Rubin” — that’s Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, Kushner’s head of school — “on down. That’s been true of all the principals and associate principals where I’ve worked.

“They all understand that every child deserves a Jewish education.”

 

Judi Karp and Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, who is Sinai Schools’ dean.

She looked back at what she learned from Ms. Rothwachs. “Making sure that a child’s needs were met — that’s what drove us,” she said. “She figured out how to do it, and she taught it to me.

“One of the things that I got from Laurette, and that makes Sinai so special, is the idea that good is never good enough,” she said. “We are always thinking about the next step. How do I push this child along? How do I help this child self-actualize? Laurette taught me to take the long view. I was trained not to say just ‘This is okay. This is fine.’ From her, I learned to say, ‘This is fine, but what else can we do?’

“It’s always good to be the woman on the white horse who comes in to save kids. We get to say ‘No. This isn’t right. We are going to make it right.’

“That is a blessing.

“Years ago, my son said to me, ‘You know, Ma, not everyone loves going to work every day, the way you do. And it’s true. And they pay me to do it!

“It comes at a real cost. There is such pain. Children and families come in with such pain. But hopefully we can help alleviate the pain. We are blessed with having a whole community of people who work to help alleviate the pain. That’s the Sinai community. Sinai is there for the community, because the community is there for Sinai.”

The day after Ms. Karp talked about Sinai, some of its administrators met over Zoom to talk about Ms. Karp.

“Judi has made the world a better place,” Sinai’s managing director, Sam Fishman, said. “She’s done it one neshama,” one soul, “at a time.

 

In the photo here and below, Ms. Karp and students look at the work Sinai Schools students have created for the school’s annual art fair.

“I hear from parents on almost a daily basis, and parents tell me that one by one, Judi has gotten to know each student, inside and out, and she has made their lives better. That’s why we feel it is appropriate to give her the lifetime achievement award. It’s for the impact she has had on so many lives.”

“What cannot be overstated is that when Judi came onboard, special education was just emerging as a field,” Ms. Rothwachs said. And as true as that was for special education in general, it was even more true for Jewish special education.

“We had to go and learn and create it,” Ms. Rothwachs said. “We had to bring it back and teach it and inspire the teachers.

“But nothing fazed Judi, as long as she felt that she was doing right by the children.”

Ms. Rothwachs told a story that she feels encapsulates who Ms. Karp is. “When she came to interview, she came from Flatbush,” she said; it’s a long trip from Brooklyn to West Caldwell. “It was a very stormy, very windy day, and Judi walked into my office drenched. I felt bad for her — she was coming in for her big interview.” No one wants to show up for an interview dripping all over someone else’s office floor. “So I said I felt terrible for her, that she had to experience this commute like this, and she said, ‘It’s only rain!’

“That said something to me about her. That she was resilient and that she could cope.

“And that proved to be true.”

“Just take a look at American history in the field of special education,” Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs said. Rabbi Rothwachs is both Sinai’s dean and Ms. Rothwachs’ son, and so he grew up with Sinai. “The inclusion of the disabilities community, and the sensitivity to the fact that kids with special needs have to be taught differently, was parallel to the civil rights movement. When you think about what happened in the 1970s, with Willowbrook.” Willowbrook was a special needs school on Staten Island, where children were treated so disgracefully that once the abuses there were made public, an entire rethinking of special education followed. “We’re talking about the mid-’90s, only 15, 17 years after significant changes happened in our culture. I was just a kid then, but as a community we were figuring it all out.”

“There were no programs for teaching special-needs children how to read,” Ms. Rothwachs said. “Everyone was just trying to figure that out, in both secular and Judaic studies. One of the things I am so proud of is that Sinai learned how to take things from general studies and adapt them, so before you knew it kids were learning to read Hebrew. Kids whose parents never imagined they ever could do that.” Ms. Karp was integral to that successful effort, Ms. Rothwachs said. She is unique in her modesty, and her desire to collaborate.

She also is part of the chain of mentors that goes from Laurette Rothwachs and through her to Rabbi Rothwachs, both Rothwachses agreed. “Their approaches are deeply ingrained in the way we do things, Rabbi Rothwachs said.

“Her approach is with humility, of never taking ourselves too seriously,” he said. “We try to figure something out, how to help kids read or be more calm or whatever it is. And if that approach doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean that we should give up. God forbid! It means that we have to take a step back from what we thought the way should be, and collaborate and try to figure out another way.

“Judi models that. We have regular administrators’ meetings, where all of our directors from our eight schools get together and we have regular meetings of the four elementary school directors. Judi leads those meetings. The most powerful part of it is watching her lead, and her reactions and interactions with the others.

“One of the most challenging things we faced as we grew was developing relationships with our host schools,” Ms. Rothwachs said. “Judi certainly was the face of that at Kushner. How she did what she did — she allowed the administrators there the chance to appreciate who she was and what she had to give, and to trust her. There was a lot of trust involved, because they weren’t so knowledgeable at the time. They had to look to us to lead. Where could our kids be mainstreamed? Where could we be involved? How could we support their teachers in making school a better experience, not only for our kids but sometimes for their kids? This is a huge part of what she brought to Sinai.”

“One of the greatest impacts she has had on individuals is her great ability to listen,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “To quote Simon and Garfunkel, people talk without speaking, and hear without listening. The world around us is so superficial in so many ways, and in a beautiful way she is fighting that. She models what it means to be listening. She has conversations with students or parent or staff members, and people walk away from them feeling that she really cares, that she will try to think about what they were talking about. They feel that even if it doesn’t work out, it wasn’t because she didn’t take it seriously.

“That comes across in my conversations with her,” he continued. “When I am struggling and brainstorming with her, she is an amazing listener. It is amazing the way she connects with people.

“Like many of us, she has to have difficult conversations with parents. Each of them is on their own journey to understand and appreciate who their kids are. The school has a different perspective than the parents do. Sometimes we have to push the parents to think about things differently. It’s not so simple. Judi manages to have these conversations, and to get parents to accept what she’s saying. It doesn’t take one conversation, but through the relationship building that she does, she is able to effect change.”

 

In a staff meeting from around 2008, from left, Jake Weinstein, Miriam Nekritz, Laurette Rothwachs, and Judi Karp talk about the school’s plans.

“It really takes a unique set of qualities to be successful in that role,” Mr. Fishman said, reflecting not only on his longtime role as the school’s managing director but also on his even earlier position as a Sinai parent. “Parents have dreams for their child, and maybe they’re not getting there as quickly or in as linear a way as they want. I saw Laurette do it when I was a Sinai parent, and I see Judi do it. It’s a blend of professional expertise and heart, so parents feel that they are being heard, and also guided. That they’re not being talked over, but respected. It’s sometimes hard to get a parent to accept where their child is and move forward. It’s a special skill.”

Listening to students and parents and intuiting a child’s needs — based, of course, on experience and knowledge — is an art. Rabbi Rothwachs recalled a story about Ms. Karp.

“We had a student who was a bright kid, but had a hard time communicating. The act of speech and articulation was very hard for him.

“It was very difficult. You can imagine what this was like for a student who had much to offer but couldn’t get it out. It was almost like being in jail.

“Judi encouraged him to text his teachers.

“No one was texting then,” Ms. Rothwachs said. “We gave him a flip phone,” Rabbi Rothwachs added. “Judi wanted him to know that we knew he had so much to offer, and she wanted him to have this tool to help him, even though it wasn’t conventional, and at the time it wasn’t even allowed in the classroom.

“She gave him a tool so he could communicate. Today, he’s in his late 20s, and he’s an independent working professional. It’s still a little hard for him to communicate, but it’s much easier now. And he still uses the tools he got at Sinai.”

“Judi gave him the okay,” Ms. Rothwachs continued. “She told him that the phone was a gadget to get him where he needs to be. She told him, ‘You don’t have to be embarrassed, or feel that you’re different. You’re just going out there, doing your thing.’”

 

In 2022, Judi Karp talks to Sinai staffers Mimi Krantz and Ellen Borsuk.

“I watched his personality change in front of me over time, as he was able to express himself and see that he was accepted for who he was,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.Mr. Fishman, Ms. Rothwachs, and Rabbi Rothwachs had a few qualms about telling stories about students. There are so many of them, they agreed. “None of them are exceptions,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “They are happening every day at Sinai.”

Rabbi Rubin, the head of school at Kushner, said that it is easy to talk about Sinai, and to work with Sinai’s administration and its students, because “our missions overlap.

“We are both tasked with supporting and educating children, and providing them with opportunities to develop their talents, to acquire independence and agency, and to assume their place within the Jewish community.

“We should not have a different mission for children with different learning profiles. We both” — that’s Kushner and Sinai — “believe that we need to meet children where they are, and to help them grow and develop beyond their horizons. We should help them develop their skill sets and become valuable contributing members of the Jewish and world communities.

“Sinai is here because we have the same mission.”

It’s not that all the children are the same — but of course, all children are never the same. “Some of them have a different trajectory,” Rabbi Rubin said. “There is a mainstreaming here.” But beyond that, having Sinai at Kushner “is invaluable in that it subtly and effectively demonstrates to students that all people are different, and all deserve the same degree of engagement, attention, and support. And it also helps mainstream students develop a sensitivity to the others.

“It develops naturally. There is no need in our school for direct exhortations to care or to be considerate. That is modeled through the integrative approach of Sinai and Kushner.”

Ms. Karp is responsible for much of that, Rabbi Rubin said. “The Sinai leadership, led by Judi, have contributed significantly to the educational process of the entire school by raising the bar on teaching students with individual needs and differentiated instruction and helping us support students who are struggling. We are all better today, and our school is a better school, because we benefit from Sinai’s model of differentiating and individualizing instruction.”

He values Ms. Karp greatly. “Judi is the consummate school leader,” he said. “No task is too small for her. Every need has her full attention. She is solution-oriented; she responds to all to who turn to her with alacrity and celerity. She is honest with every family, and she is able to take on difficult conversations with compassion and sensitivity, and always to give parents the knowledge that she has the best interest of each child in mind.”

Throughout both schools, the idea that each person is an individual, to be valued as entirely unique, is a guiding philosophy, Rabbi Rubin said. Earlier that day, in fact, “we took a sophomore class picture. There is a student in the class in a wheelchair, obviously struggling with disabilities. They wheeled the wheelchair into the picture, with everyone else.” Nobody thought anything of it, he said; nobody reacted as if it was anything out of the ordinary, because it was not. “He’s just one of the class,” Rabbi Rubin said.

To read the original story as it appeared in The Jewish Standard/New Jersey Jewish News, click here.