Fundamental to the mission of SINAI Schools is that every Jewish child deserves access to a top-notch yeshivah where they are celebrated, appreciated, and nurtured to the very best of their abilities.
In some cases, due to differences that may be physical, developmental, learning-based, or otherwise—overt or even invisible—the idea that every child in every situation should be able to attend yeshivah
can seem impossible for some families, or at least an uphill climb.
But this is not the case for the students of SINAI Schools.
SINAI is the only Jewish special-education school to be accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. For close to 40 years, SINAI Schools, which now operates eight “schools within a school” in the metropolitan area, has made it its mission to use every single resource at its disposal to help children with complex learning disabilities get the yeshivah day-school education they need and deserve.
Students at each of SINAI’s elementary schools have a wide range of developmental, intellectual, and complex learning disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, social/emotional disorders, and cognitive disabilities. For each child, a highly individualized, comprehensive student plan is developed, carefully monitored, and regularly recalibrated.
The results speak for themselves.
Through SINAI’s hundreds of alumni moving on to college or vocational programs, careers, and beyond, the effects have been astounding. A testament to SINAI’s success has been evident since the 1980s, when up to and over 1,000 people—most of them not SINAI parents or direct beneficiaries of any of SINAI’s services at all—have attended an annual gala dinner to support the school, to fund scholarships, and celebrate its inspirational students and leaders. While the gala will not go on this coming February due to the pandemic, SINAI will instead offer a “season of stories,” a series of Queens Jewish Link articles from multiple perspectives, intended to illustrate the importance and value of SINAI.
Welcome to SINAI at YCQ
This fall, the Queens community has begun benefiting from its own SINAI School. Launched as a result of a direct request by YESS Yeshivah’s lay leadership, SINAI at YCQ serves students in grades one through eight who have a wide range of developmental, cognitive, and/or complex learning disabilities.
“YCQ is thrilled to partner with SINAI Schools, and confident that SINAI will enrich and expand on what YESS has built at YCQ for so many years,” said Rabbi Mark Landsman, YCQ’s principal. “Bringing SINAI to YCQ has enabled YCQ to keep siblings together, and creates a resource for the entire community to ensure a stellar Jewish and general special education for those children who require a higher level of individualized attention.”
“We are honored that YESS invited us to carry forward their mission, entrusting us with their students,” said Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, dean of SINAI Schools. “We felt from the beginning that we were kindred spirits, with the same mission and goals for our children. And our collaboration with YCQ has been outstanding from the beginning. YCQ enthusiastically welcomed us and has been working hand in hand with us since we began our transition.”
Herman Hertzberg, who served as chairman of YESS, shared his perspective. “YESS is proud to have provided excellent Jewish special education services within the Queens community for 28 years. In recent years, however, YESS leadership envisioned the future and understood that their school could benefit from the greater depth of capabilities and resources that SINAI could provide. YESS’s leadership is extraordinarily proud of its educational accomplishments over almost three decades and equally glad that their proactive outreach to SINAI Schools has resulted in continuity of service in providing the very best in Jewish special education to the Queens community.”
SINAI is a larger, more established institution than YESS was, has a greater depth of capabilities, professional support, state-of-the-art resources and expertise, and is more uniquely positioned to navigate the high costs and complexities of special education.
“SINAI has given the YESS program a significant enhancement that gives the professionals at SINAI at YCQ more bandwidth to give kids what they need,” said Gittie Rothschild, SINAI at YCQ’s director, who also served as YESS Yeshivah’s educational director.
“The leaders of YESS were involved since its inception and wanted to ensure that the population they had been dedicated to educating for so long would continue to be served,” said Rabbi Rothwachs. “They recognized that being smaller comes with its challenges, and with a larger system infrastructure like SINAI, the leadership was hoping the entire school could benefit.
“When we first met with the professional leadership at YESS, we walked away feeling that there was so much already that we believed in common, and, with our resources, we felt we could enhance what was already there. It was a very natural conversation and we walked away feeling like this was something we could really do. It was like we were family already,” recalled Rabbi Rothwachs.
“For us, an exciting development was being able to hire an art therapist and have more professionals working more hours, so there’s more investment overall in each child. Enhancement is a great word, because that is what has happened,” Rothschild said. “From our perspective we are also excited to offer more networking for our teachers, for them to collaborate with colleagues in a whole host of locations and with higher levels of expertise,” she added.
“It’s a natural fit because the mission is the same. A huge piece of what we offer is inclusion in the YCQ atmosphere. While corona has complicated things for now, in addition to the individualized education, everyone has their own schedule for the times of school where they are included in YCQ classes and programs. We are already seeing the benefits and there’s a real excitement to this,” Rothschild said.
“YESS was a wonderful program that served a very important role in Queens for 28 years,” said Sam Fishman, SINAI’s managing director. “Now, we can add to that. There is a great benefit that a child has when his teacher or administrator has all that staff on the ground to help him.
“When all of our educational leadership comes together to brainstorm, we are, literally, able to have 250 [combined] years of special education expertise in a room. It’s wonderful and unique for children to be able to have their challenges addressed with a full team,” said Rabbi Rothwachs.
Currently, 28 students are enrolled in the school, a rise of about 40% from last year’s YESS program. The cap of students has been self-imposed at this point to ensure measured growth, but there is already interest in more students joining the program, and the application process for next year has already begun. “We were at full capacity within a month but we are working to grow our capacity every year,” said Rabbi Rothwachs.
This may all sound amazing for parents whose children might need SINAI, but the most common first question is: How can I possibly afford this? “Prospective parents should not hesitate to call us because they are worried about costs. Our mission is to help the children we are here to help. If we are the right school for your child, we will make it happen,” said Fishman.
Like the collaborative teaching and therapy approach, SINAI also has a collaborative team to make tuition affordable for parents. The full team works together to make it possible for students to attend SINAI, just as there is also a team that works within communities to fund financial aid.
“A crucial element of SINAI Schools is the backing of the community,” said Pam Ennis, SINAI’s director of development. “As we come into Queens, we will work with individuals and groups to explain that our success has evolved as a direct result of the communal responsibility to educate all the children inside each community.
“That is how SINAI operates in the regions we have been in, and in Queens, too, this concept has already been well received. A group of women have already signed up to serve as ambassadors for us, to help introduce us into the community and share what we do,” said Ennis.
“Like in our other communities, those who have donated to SINAI over the past 40 years are, by and large, not SINAI parents or those who are connected to students in any way at all,” said Abigail Hepner-Gross, SINAI’s director of communications.
“We are invited into communities to provide a vital service,” said Fishman, “and we
thrive because of the embrace of the communities we serve—because of the support of people
who understand that children with disabilities must be given every opportunity to have a yeshivah education,” said Fishman. “We look forward to replicating this model in Queens, and we are looking for partners to help us do so,” he said.
In fact, the community advocacy in Queens has already begun. Alyson Walfish, a morah at Bnos Malka, is the head of the new SINAI Ambassador’s Circle, a group of dedicated members of the Queens community (so far, all women), who are working toward engaging and educating the community about SINAI. “When I learned that SINAI was opening here in Queens, I felt I had to help spread the word. As a reading specialist, I recognize how critical the need is for a school within our community that can serve our children with special needs and complex learning disabilities—children who can’t succeed in our regular education yeshivahs, even with extra support. I invite everyone to join me and learn more about SINAI, and the valuable resource we now have in our midst. Kol Yisrael Areyvim ze ba’zeh—we as a community are responsible for our children---especially those who have nowhere else to turn.
SINAI operates special-education elementary and high schools across the region. Each of SINAI’s schools partners with and is integrated within a mainstream yeshivah, with inclusion being a key part of SINAI’s core mission. YCQ joins SINAI’s existing partner schools located in Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, SAR Academy, Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, Torah Academy of Bergen County, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School, and Heichal HaTorah. Learn more about SINAI at YCQ at www.sinaischools.org/schools-programs-elementary-schools/ycq.
By Elizabeth Kratz