As I mark my second anniversary as SINAI’s director of development, I find myself reflecting on the professional journey that has unexpectedly led me to this special place and to this job that I love.
Before coming to SINAI Schools, I was blessed to work at Ma’ayanot for 19 years. Throughout that time, I enjoyed an almost daily view of [email protected]’ayanot, one of SINAI’s eight schools, and I was consistently impressed with what I saw. In fact, when meeting with prospective Ma’ayanot parents or donors, I often talked about the Ma’ayanot/SINAI partnership as a wonderful opportunity for Ma’ayanot students to experience the joy of developing true and lasting friendships with those possessing different weaknesses—and strengths—than their usual peer group.
From that vantage, I thought I knew SINAI well. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my outsider’s view had only scratched the surface; that I hadn’t appreciated the full scope of what SINAI does and of its profound impact on its students, their families and the community at large.
My orientation at SINAI began with tours of the different SINAI schools. I vividly remember being shocked to learn that every SINAI student has a unique educational schedule tailored to address his/her specific disabilities, all prominently on display in every classroom I entered. I was particularly charmed by one adorable second grader who proudly told me that, by checking his schedule throughout the day, he always knows where he is supposed to be. I remember thinking: “Wow, what a beautiful way to foster confidence and independence.”
As I visited school after school, I began to understand just how vast the range of students SINAI serves is. I met students who had visible developmental disabilities, and others who I couldn’t differentiate from their partner school peers until I sat in on a class and realized how complex their learning disabilities are.
In the early days of the pandemic, soon after I joined Team SINAI, I came to appreciate the degree to which SINAI sees its mission as serving families, not just students. I was speaking with Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, SINAI’s Dean, about the challenges of suddenly shifting to distance learning. He told me how proud he was of our teachers and therapists, who were quickly and creatively mastering techniques for distance learning. His greatest concern, he confided, lay with the well-being of the parents. As such, SINAI’s administrators and therapists were in daily contact with parents and were spending much of their time strategizing how to alleviate some of the stressors the SINAI families were experiencing as the world shut down around them. While COVID is a unique event, constant and ongoing contact with parents has always been the norm at SINAI. I recently spoke to a parent who aptly summed this up, telling me, “SINAI understands that it takes a village!”
I’ve also come to appreciate two of the most valuable lessons that SINAI students are taught and encouraged to believe, no matter what their challenges: that their disabilities do not define them and that they are valued members of the community. I have been brought to tears listening to parents describe how, for the first time ever, their child with special needs was able to daven in a minyan or give a dvar Torah at the Shabbat table, just like their siblings. The parent of a recent graduate beautifully summed up what success in conveying these lessons looks like: “SINAI has taught [my daughter] that success is achievable with hard work. You’ve taught her what it means to advocate for herself and to be independent. Most importantly, you’ve helped to restore her sense of belonging, self-esteem and self-worth.”
Perhaps the thing that has most surprised me, however, is the incredible support afforded to SINAI by community members who have never benefited from its services. As SINAI’s director of development, I’m privileged to interact with hundreds of families that have been supporting SINAI for decades, and I mean that literally. Better yet, when I reach out to thank donors, almost all turn the table and express, in one form or another, gratitude for what SINAI does for the community. We should all be proud to live within a community that so deeply understands its collective responsibility to ensure that all of our children are able to receive a Jewish education that meets their needs, including those who cannot thrive in a mainstream yeshiva.
I’m often asked if it’s hard to be a fundraiser, and even more frequently told, “I could never be a fundraiser.” But I don’t see myself as a professional fundraiser. Instead, I am a professional who is blessed to be part of the team that enables SINAI, a beloved and respected community organization, to do its holy work. Without SINAI, our children with special needs would be forced out of our yeshiva day school system; they’d be separated from their friends and siblings; and perhaps worst of all, they’d be made to feel as if they do not belong within our Jewish community. I absolutely do not find it difficult to fundraise for the cause.
And that brings me to the topic of SINAI’s Annual Campaign and Benefit Dinner. I want to express my admiration and gratitude to the many community families that have already donated toward our annual campaign. Our annual dinner is an uplifting experience which offers a great opportunity to learn more about SINAI, and we are thrilled to be back in person on February 27 this year. Whether or not you attend, I encourage anyone who has not yet done so to join the community in solidarity and support of our children.
By Pam Ennis