After several years of planning, SINAI has arrived at SAR. By opening its doors to students with special needs this September, SAR became the seventh partner school providing a special-education yeshiva day-school program inside existing day and yeshiva high schools. SAR joins Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, Torah Academy of Bergen County, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School and Heichal HaTorah in housing a SINAI school within its walls.
SINAI Schools provides special education for children with complex social, cognitive learning or developmental disabilities. The SINAI program is integrated within mainstream Jewish day schools by design, meaning that every SINAI student is a full, participating member of the partner school community. It also means that the inclusion experience for the students is individualized—just like the rest of their academic plans—to maximize the strengths of each child and to fit his or her specific needs. Inclusion benefits the students at the partner schools as well, teaching them to respect, love and include these SINAI students.
With SINAI Schools housed only in yeshivot in New Jersey, parents living in the New York area and its suburbs who were seeking a special-education program for their children with special needs had to go “over the bridge” to find an appropriate program. With the opening of SINAI at SAR, this has changed.
Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, dean of SINAI Schools, explained, “For decades, we’ve had children travel every day to our schools from all five boroughs of New York City. So when we decided to open a seventh location, we knew it was time to cross the river and create a school that was closer to so many of our families.”
Aura Lurie, the new director of SINAI at SAR, has worked at SAR as a general studies teacher, has mentored teachers and worked with students with special needs in the SAR inclusion program. Knowing the culture of the school has enabled Lurie to make an easy transition into her new role as director. She shared with The Jewish Link, “I am excited that my dream is now a reality and that SAR Academy, the school I love, where my own children attend, is part of continuing SINAI’s mission of educating our children.”
Lurie explained, “Since beginning my work in the world of special education, I had a dream to start a Modern Orthodox day school for children with more complex disabilities. It always broke my heart when parents had to leave SAR for a secular special-education setting. After working at SAR for 11 years, the culture of openness and inclusiveness is part of my core beliefs. When I heard that SINAI was partnering with SAR, I knew I needed to be a part of it. SINAI and SAR make perfect partners, and we are working together to serve those children who would otherwise fall through the cracks. SINAI and SAR both believe that every child has a unique spark, and both focus on a child’s strengths while working with teachers and families on how to best work on his or her weaknesses.”
Lurie, who lives in New Rochelle, is a member of Young Israel of New Rochelle. Last Shavuot, in recognition of the importance of SINAI Schools to the Westchester/Riverdale communities, Rabbi Reuven Fink of YINR spoke about its importance, dedicating the shul’s yizkor appeal to the school. The New Rochelle community responded with tremendous generosity and support.
Rabbi Fink commented, “The New Rochelle community benefits greatly from SINAI. Knowing that SAR, the school that so many of our children attend, has a program where all of the possible educational and learning challenges are being addressed, affords all our children the opportunity to be in the same environment and Torah atmosphere so critical to Jewish life and Torah observance; this gives us great pride.”
Rabbi Dr. Rothwachs offered, “SAR is a very open and welcoming school… From our very first meeting with Rabbi Krauss and his team, it was apparent to me that SAR is a school in which all children are welcome and truly part of the community.”
The common denominator underlying the establishment of SINAI Schools is that children with special needs were underserved in the current yeshiva system. SINAI parents repeatedly share their joy at being able to have their children enrolled in a yeshiva setting. These kids come home with stories about the chagim, Shabbat and learning Torah. Because kids with learning disabilities already feel “different,” SINAI Schools aims to level the playing field. SINAI staff as well as SAR staff members are invested in SINAI program’s success and make a conscious effort to integrate SINAI students into daily activities, creating a “one-school” environment.
Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, head of SAR Academy, commented, “We are here to serve all members of our community. SINAI has allowed us to be truer to our mission and to our mandate, and for that we are grateful. It’s important to SAR to provide the inclusion that’s an earmark of the SINAI program.”
Lurie noted, “Every child’s experience is going to be different. Some of our children may learn the skills they need quickly and be able to return to a mainstream school after a short time with us. Other children may need our support for their entire education. Many of our students have come from mainstream schools where they felt failure, so we ease them into inclusion experiences with a lot of planning and preparation. Our partnership with SAR allows us to thoughtfully mainstream children where we know they will thrive, and we can increase those opportunities as the children gain the skills they need to succeed. And, of course, all of this is done in collaboration with the parents.”
As parents of children with special needs search for ways to help their children who are not yet enrolled in a SINAI program, they are faced with many challenges—providing assorted therapies, and offering homework help and socialization modalities, while maintaining a household composed of other family members. With the individualized instruction and understanding of the SINAI staff, parents feel a tremendous weight being lifted. SINAI staff members are always communicating with SINAI parents, hearing their concerns and discussing students’ progress and accomplishments.
Discussing SINAI School’s impact on special education, Abigail Hepner Gross, director of communication, said, “Over the years, SINAI’s reputation has grown. Today we are recognized as a thought leader in special education, not only in the Jewish world of special ed. Increasingly, families come to us because they know that at SINAI their child will receive the highest level of special education, comparable to and often better than what they would find at the other top private special education schools in the region.”
The financial aid process at SINAI is different from other schools. As one parent reported, “They worked with us and they were very respectful about it and just very easy to deal with.. .I didn’t feel I had to be embarrassed about my finances.”
“Our financial aid process is individualized for each family, just as everything that we provide is tailor-made for each child,” Rabbi Dr. Rothwachs explained. “Every aspect of our children’s day—their individualized academic programs, their inclusion experiences, everything—is thoughtfully planned so that each moment of the day will be one through which each student can feel successful. When children are in an environment where they are understood and supported to grow, this has a significant impact on their emotional and social wellbeing.”
By Yvette Finkelstein