The word is out, all over the tri-state area. There is an inestimable impact on families when their child with special needs gets the right help. Often, parents can’t resist telling others about their experience, while others merely want to shout it from the rooftops. Families who seek a Jewish day-school education for their child with special needs are hearing more and more often from other parents about SINAI Schools.
Starting 35 years ago as a single elementary-school program in the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, SINAI Schools now operates in partnership with six schools: two elementary-school programs at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, and four high schools at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, Torah Academy of Bergen County, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and at Heichal HaTorah for older teen boys. This past fall, SINAI announced it will be opening its seventh school, and its first school outside New Jersey, at SAR Academy in the Bronx, in the fall of 2018.
“We have been forced to reflect, not just on the numbers, but on the dramatic increase in requests we get outside of New Jersey,” said Rabbi Yisrael Rothwachs, dean of SINAI Schools. He explained that the SINAI team has been forced to think about growth not just in terms of the quality and service they provide to students and families on an individual basis, but also on their mission to reduce the stigma of special needs in the larger community, which is why each school operates in close partnership with a typical Jewish day school, so that mainstreaming takes place when possible, even when it’s just lunch or davening, and friendly, social interactions are not just possible, but encouraged.
In recent years it has become clear that the word has spread across the bridges to Manhattan and beyond. “There is more demand for SINAI outside of New Jersey,” said Sam Fishman, SINAI’s managing director. “People say to families: ‘You really ought to look at this school in New Jersey.’” More than 30 percent of SINAI students now come from outside northern New Jersey.
Ilana and Adam Chill, parents of four from New Rochelle, have a son, Sam, who attends the SINAI Shalem High School at TABC. This is his second year at SINAI and he is thriving—a product of a loving family who has helped make him comfortable, their New Rochelle community and a school which, in turn, have welcomed him with open arms. “This has been my job the past 16 years,” said Ilana, who noted that she left her job as a litigator with a New York firm soon after she realized how much Sam needed her. Chill said that her attention to Sam’s needs have allowed her to work toward being a more present mother to her other three children as well. “I am a vastly better parent to my other kids now. They should genuflect to him that I now take motherhood as a fulltime job,” she joked.
However, Sam sometimes wished he could go to SAR. Sam’s brother went to SAR Academy and then Frisch, and his sisters still attend SAR Academy. SAR is and was a big part of the Chill family’s life. “I very much consider SAR my home school,” Chill said, noting that while Sam went elsewhere for elementary school, he would, from time to time, ask, “Why can’t I go to SAR like my brother and sisters?”
“When I first heard about SINAI for high school, it was inconceivable to me that that was as good a possibility as it sounded like it was,” she said. “Being in a school where other kids from his neighborhood go is empowering and destigmatizing. He has blossomed because of it. I see it in his confidence and the way he talks about it. I see how happy it has made him.”
Explaining how Sam’s first real friend, up until SINAI, was a 64-year-old man who he befriended in shul (whom he still considers his “best friend”), Chill noticed how relationships have helped build him up. “Shul is very important to him. Being part of SINAI at TABC reinforces that tremendously. There are two or three or four people whom we have come across who have literally saved our lives, and SINAI is one of them. I am grateful in a way that goes beyond description,” she said.
Chill noted that she and her husband didn’t even know that SINAI existed until Sam was in eighth grade, but even if they had considered that possibility when Sam was younger, putting a seven-year-old child with special needs on a bus to New Jersey every day for school seemed unlikely.
“SINAI at SAR, in providing a quality special education in a nearby Modern Orthodox yeshiva—the very school my other children have attended—would have been a dream come true for me in my earliest days with Sam. I am hoping it will spare so many other parents so much of the uncertainty and anguish that I felt on so many fronts,” she said.
“We always say no to being honored, but we couldn’t say no to SINAI. This is our legacy and what we want to give,” Chill said.
“When we found out about this partnership between SAR and SINAI, I said to my husband, ‘It’s not parents like us that they need. They need us. We are the only family with kids in SAR and SINAI. But there could be so many more,” she said.
“I am just profoundly grateful for SINAI.”
Register for the Feb. 26 SINAI dinner at http://www.sinaidinner.org.
By Elizabeth Kratz