Twenty-two months ago, Teaneck’s Micah Kaufman lay in the hospital as the assembled participants at the SINAI Schools dinner said Tehillim on behalf of their board member. Kaufman has been involved with SINAI as a 20-year volunteer for the members of the SINAI Schools’ Nathan Miller SHELI Residence for Men (known colloquially as the SHELI House). He has served on SINAI’s board for the past 15 years.
Kaufman had been hit by a car in December 2019 and initially no one knew if he would even survive, then they wondered if he would ever walk or talk again. His friend and colleague on the chevra kadisha, Shelly Mermelstein, z”l, was also hit and sadly did not survive the accident. His loss is felt throughout the community.
Kaufman, both before and after his accident, has been known as a true baal chesed. Before his accident, he was a kidney donor through Renewal, a volunteer bookkeeper for Tomchei Shabbos, and the treasurer for Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Aaron. He was active in the leadership of the Teaneck Baseball Organization (TBO), serving as a volunteer umpire and coach. In addition to SINAI, he also served on the board of Project Ezrah.
“The emotion was so powerful at our 2020 dinner when [SINAI’s Dean] Rabbi [Yisrael] Rothwachs led the crowd of 1,000 people in reciting Tehillim for Micah, with his picture projected on the big screens in the room. At that point, we didn’t know for sure if Micah would survive. I remember feeling that this was not the way I wanted the community to remember Micah at a SINAI dinner,” said SINAI’s Managing Director Sam Fishman. “In that moment, I felt that if he survived, we needed to bring him back to our dinner in the future with joy—to celebrate his accomplishments, his bravery, his chesed and all that he has done for SINAI and for others for so many years. Baruch Hashem, now, two years later, that is exactly what we are doing.”
Rabbi Rothwachs added that the recitation of Tehillim was important to him too. “That moment sticks out in my mind as our community coming together to bang on the doors of heaven for someone who is so dear to our organization and to our families,” he said. “And now, I am not a doctor or prophet, but I would not have been able to imagine his amazing recovery and to be able to celebrate him. It’s an honor and a celebration to have him with us.”
“Consistently throughout the past 20 years, his questions and comments and projects that he gets involved with have always been about helping our students and their families. We are incredibly grateful to Micah for his years working with SINAI,” said Arielle Greenbaum Saposh, SINAI’s associate managing director.
For Kaufman, volunteering for SINAI came naturally. He grew up in Teaneck with Yaakov and Avi Karasick, two brothers who are children of Rabbi Mark and Linda Karasick, the former of whom is the current chairman of SINAI Schools. When Yaakov first moved to the SHELI House two blocks away from Kaufman’s’s home, Kaufman took him and the other group home members bowling every week, and visited his friends there frequently on Shabbat. SINAI found his volunteering so helpful that they initially tried to pay him for his time. But Kaufman said no.
“This is what I do,” he told them. “I like to help and I grew up with these guys. This is my chesed. I don’t want payment.”
“Micah Kaufman is a role model for individuals of all ages of our community, and for klal Yisroel,” said Rabbi Karasick. “As long as I have known him, he has always felt compelled to seek out ways to do chesed and to help others. It has become second nature—more accurately, first nature for him. As a SINAI board member for the past 15 years, Micah has consistently been a passionate advocate for our children, and he is deeply deserving of being honored by us this year.”
What is perhaps most interesting and deeply compelling about Kaufman, however, is his life in chesed since his accident. He worked hard to rehabilitate, and now—no small feat—walks and talks on his own, even after the traumatic head injury he endured left him in a coma for months. He still reads, but more slowly, and the print has to be bigger. He now has to ask for rides when he used to be the person who gave rides to others.
“So what?” he asked. “I used to do the books for Tomchei Shabbos, but now I pack for them. Everyone can volunteer and do chesed in their own way.”
Similarly, while Kaufman used to drive his friends at the SHELI House to go bowling, that’s no longer a simple option. Instead, he volunteers at the home spending time with the residents, who have had to adjust to many changes since COVID-restrictions suspended work placements, said Saposh.
Kaufman said that he has also spent the last year speaking at various schools in the community, sharing his story and his chesed mindset. He has a special connection with the children of SINAI. Kaufman explained that even when a student is able to accomplish something independently, they are doing a chesed because they are helping “their helper” make time for other important activities. “They all can do chesed right now, wherever they are and in whatever way they can, by accomplishing things on their own.” Kaufman proves that anyone can do chesed, regardless of limitations.
“This is an easy chesed. [Children] like to be able to do stuff on their own. It makes them proud to be independent,” Kaufman explained.
“Micah also shared with the students that he knows first-hand that it’s so hard to ask for help, but it’s OK to ask for it,” added Abigail Hepner Gross, SINAI’s communications director. “He explained how sometimes you need help, but then it makes you feel even better when you don’t need it—when you can do it on your own.”
Inspired by Kaufman’s words, the middle school girls at SINAI at RYNJ started a chesed group called “Micah’s Mindset,” where they keep an inspiration board and keep up with their chesed goals and projects. A few months after his first visit, they invited him back and presented him with artwork based on his ideas.
“He’s both a realistic and positive person, and he shared with them that their accomplishments in life are very much connected to their mindset,” said Fishman. “They kept a log and did artwork on the theme of what one’s mindset can inspire to propel oneself forward. Their goal in inviting him back to present him with their logs and their artwork was to give him back something, to show him how much he inspired them.”
“They explained to him that when they felt they didn’t want to do something on their own or faced a challenge, they asked themselves, ‘What would Micah do?’ They learned how they could reflect on what he had taught them and take something from this experience,” said Rothwachs. “Micah walked away feeling understandably very inspired and proud to be a part of the girls’ lives—and proud to be associated with SINAI.”
“Micah’s mission has always been to help others, to do chesed,” added Saposh. “Micah has also been able to show that everyone has something to offer society. His determination to get better, his working so hard, his understanding of his current limitations and his resolve to be able to, in the future, do things that he is unable to do now is a lesson for all of us,” she said. “This lesson is something that SINAI teachers consistently teach their kids: It’s not ‘I can’t.’ Rather, it’s ‘I can’t right now.’”
Kaufman said it was Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, his personal rav (the brother of SINAI’s Rabbi Yisrael Rothwachs), who inspired this idea and encouraged him to clarify his “can’ts,” with “can’t right now.”
“This idea also inspires the community to change their mindset toward those facing challenges. That everyone has something to offer and someone they can help,” said (Rabbi Yisrael) Rothwachs. “As the recipient of other people’s help which Micah is so cognizant of now, he works harder to make sure he’s not defined by being in that position.
“In some ways there is a parallel between SINAI and Micah,” mused Rothwachs. “We are grateful for the support and help from the community but also see it as our role to pay it forward,” he said, adding, “How can we maximize our impact? How do we make sure the support we get from the community is being used optimally? Micah, too, is a recipient of chesed but is very much looking to pay it forward.”
“It took the chesed of the community to create SINAI, and we are so appreciative of this support. We know that parents of children with special needs can’t do this alone. Parents and students really rely on this support,” said Saposh. “So we are so grateful to Micah, and to all of this year’s other honorees—to Tova and Shai Gerson, Dr. Lisa Kotler, and Ed Ruzinsky—all of whom have done so much for SINAI and who now are stepping up to become our ambassadors.”
SINAI’s dinner, back in person this year for vaccinated guests, is being held on February 27, 2022 at the Marriott Glenpointe. Please sign up at www.sinaidinner.org. Safety constraints have been put in place, including a plated dinner rather than a buffet. In addition to Micah Kaufman, the honorees include Tova and Shai Gerson, Dr. Lisa Kotler and Edwin H. Ruzinsky, and SINAI will recognize the establishment of the Norbert & Liesel Schloss z”l Scholarship Fund by Marsha & Tom Friedman and family.
By Elizabeth Kratz