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Sinai expands special needs education program

Lois GoldrichLocal
Published: 02 April 2010
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The Sinai Schools’ new afterschool program “comes out of our mission to try and bring Jewish education to as many kids as possible,” says its dean, Laurette Rothwachs. Sinai was founded in 1982 to serve students with learning and developmental disabilities, and “there are kids who, for whatever reason — whether it’s because it’s not the ‘right fit’ or for financial reasons — are not utilizing our services. Our challenge is to try to find a way to make that happen,” Rothwachs told The Jewish Standard.

The Adirim program, developed for public school students between the ages of 12 and 18, is set to open in September. Based at “a high school in Teaneck,” said Rothwachs, the school will “help forge a connection to the Jewish community” for special needs children who are not currently receiving a Jewish education. She declined to specify the location.

“We’re trying to reach out beyond our own student body and be able to offer a Jewish education to other students, helping them grow Jewishly and become part of the community while easing the burden on parents by giving these children a longer school day and a social network,” said Rothwachs.

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Laurette Rothwachs

The dean said she does not know how many students will register for the tuition-funded program, which will be held Monday to Thursday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Course work will be adapted from the curriculum already in place at Sinai, which serves students from elementary age through post-high school.

“I know there are many students out there” who can benefit from the program, said Rothwachs, though some students may not be able to participate because of afternoons already slated for therapy or transportation difficulties. The program will not provide busing.

“Our responsibility is to open up the opportunity to the community and see what the response is,” she said. “We already have the curriculum and we know how to do this.”

Material covered will include “a general knowledge segment, Shabbat, holidays,” as well as more customized work with students preparing for their b’nai mitzvah.

Over the years, she said, she has heard the parents of special-needs students in public schools say they wish their children had Jewish friends “or would come home knowing something about the seder.”

“When children are younger, it’s easier to deal with, but it’s harder, more obvious, when they’re older,” she said.

Rothwachs said she is very excited about the new program, which will be headed by Shira Greenland, director of the Sinai high school program. She noted that the Council for Special Needs, sponsored by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, has been very supportive of the idea, and she expects area rabbis to respond positively as well.

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Shira Greenland

Greenland noted that Adirim will differ from existing programs, such as those offered by Jewish Education for Special Children, because of its emphasis on academics.

“The goal is to be able to provide kids with developmental disabilities in public schools with an opportunity to learn Judaic subjects and Torah and develop friendships with other religious students,” she said. “We’re hoping to be able to offer a real combination of community experiences together with academics and focus on the most functional areas of Jewish life, including prayers, reading Hebrew, and ritual performance.”

Greeland said that over the years, “I have gotten a sense from the families we work with and from general inquiries that parents are frustrated, and day schools might not always be an option. But it’s a sacrifice [for these families] to exclusively use public schools.” She noted that some children, already stigmatized and isolated by their disabilities, may feel an additional stigma because of their religious orientation.

While she expects most registrants to come from Bergen County, she is hopeful that the program’s catchment area will reach even farther. Sinai, she said, already draws students from outside the area, including Passaic, West Orange, Edison, and New York City.

She is hoping to launch the program in September with two classes of five to six students each.

For additional information about the Adirim Afterschool Program, call Greenland at (201) 862-0032 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Learning curve

Community confronts day-school tuition crisis

Students have closed their books for summer but schools and parents alike are working to make the grade in the next stage of the day-school tuition crisis saga.

Raising one child can cost a middle-income family $19,380 to $23,180 a year, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And if that family is dedicated to a day-school education, which can cost anywhere between $8,000 and $60,000 a year, then it’s time to start getting creative. According to UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, 4,822 students attended kindergarten through 12th grade in one of Bergen County’s 13 yeshiva day schools during the 2009-10 school year.

The country’s economic downturn pushed the tuition crisis out of the shadows of griping around the Shabbat table and into a very bright spotlight. Beginning with an early 2009 educators conference at the Orthodox Union in New York, teachers, administrators, and parents heeded the call to action to ease what many described as an increasing burden on day-school families.

Throughout the past year, several key players emerged, each with ideas on how to solve the problem. Indeed, the community saw a number of initiatives put forward; some gained momentum while others fizzled.

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NNJKIDS

“The community’s voting with its feet and saying the model of day-school education is not broken,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, rabbinic adviser to Jewish Education for Generations, a non-profit group created last year to explore new funding options. “It’s the model of funding that’s broken.” (See page 16.)

JEFG’s main project has been Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, or NNJKIDS, a fund-raising initiative meant to shift the burden of tuition off of the parents and make it a communal priority. Formed in May 2009, NNJKIDS handed out $300,000 to eight area elementary schools throughout the course of the past school year. Organizers declared May NNJKIDS Month, a fund-raising push in the community that netted about a quarter of a million dollars.

“There was a tremendous increase and uptake in the amount of awareness around NNJKIDS,” said Sam Moed, chair of JEFG.

More than 60 businesses participated in the month-long program. Business-owners asked customers to contribute to NNJKIDS at checkout, and day-school children collected pledges for a learn-a-thon during Shavuot. One donor had promised a matching grant of up to $100,000 and NNJKIDS organizers reported that the full match would be collected.

“If anyone would have predicted when we began that we would be this far along, I would not have believed it,” Goldin said. “To be able to get all the schools to sit down and cooperate to the level that they have and get the communal support from various institutions and garner the support on the grassroots level is very encouraging.”

JEFG leaders said their donations mitigated tuition by $200 per student.

“NNJKIDS was a strong contributor to our ability to moderate the increase in tuition,” said Rabbi Yehuda Rosenbaum, president of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. “The funds from NNJKIDS were considered after all other economic considerations and had a real impact on lowering tuition increases for next year.”

JEFG isn’t resting on its laurels, however.

“We’ve got to continue to work on this and not in any way take our focus off different funding models and different approaches to all models of day schools,” Moed said.

United Jewish Communities of Metrowest in northwestern New Jersey has successfully created a community mega-fund. The $50 million campaign began with $13 million in contributions from 11 families in 2007 and sparked an idea within JEFG to replicate the endowment fund here.

David Moss, assistant executive vice president for endowment at UJA-NNJ, who has been working with JEFG on the mega-fund, said the idea is still being explored. The hope, according to Moss, is that such a fund would contribute not only to North Jersey’s day schools, but to congregational Hebrew schools as well.

“A lot of details have yet to be determined,” he said. “We’ve been, as a Jewish community and a federation in particular, particularly pleased with the efforts that JEFG is undertaking. When we’re ready to move forward with the mega-fund for Jewish education, it’s going to make the project that much more manageable.”

While he is a firm believer in day schools, Goldin said expanding the mega fund to include congregational Hebrew schools is a demonstration of JEFG’s commitment to educate every Jewish child.

“None of us is on an island,” he said.

Indeed, NNJKIDS has pulled together representatives of the area’s Orthodox and Conservative day schools and earned the support of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which represents the area’s Orthodox rabbis, and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which represents the area’s Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis. Ruth Gafni, head of school at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, told The Jewish Standard during NNJKIDS Month that the organization has created a sense of community.

“The message is you’re not in it alone,” she said.

The government — navigating the separation of church and state

More than 170,000 students in New Jersey attend some 1,200 non-public schools, according to the Orthodox advocacy group Agudath Israel of New Jersey. Of those, about 80 percent attend religious schools. The government provides $137 in aid per private-school student — $72 for nursing services and $65 for textbooks. A handful of groups is exploring options to expand that funding within the confines of the separation between church and state.

Schools that will receive part of a $221,367 allocation from the UJA Federation of Northern N.J. during the 2010-11 school year:

• Bat Torah – The Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva High School

• Ben Porat Yosef

• The Frisch School

• Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey

• Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls

• The Moriah School

• Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey

• Solomon Schechter Day School
of Bergen County

• Torah Academy of Bergen County

• Yavneh Academy

• Yeshiva Ohr Yosef

• Yeshiva Noam

• Sinai Schools

In one of his final acts in office in December, Gov. Jon Corzine created the Non-Public Education Funding Commission to investigate how the state can aid non-public schools. Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) and George Corwell, director of education of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, co-chaired the commission, which turned in its report to Gov. Chris Christie last month. The 23-member commission also included the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, and the state treasurer and attorney general, charged with monitoring the church-state barrier. As of earlier this week, the commission’s findings had not yet been made public. Schaer declined comment until Christie’s office releases the report.

“Gov. Christie has received the commission’s report and we are currently reviewing its findings,” said Sean L. Conner, a Christie spokesman. “We are working to ensure every child in New Jersey has access to a quality education, no matter their zip code or family’s socioeconomic status.”

Howie Beigelman, deputy director of the OU’s Institute of Public Affairs, testified before the New Jersey Senate’s Committee on Economic Development in support of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bipartisan bill that would create scholarships to be funded by corporate donors and provide tax credits for those corporations. Similar programs have already been instituted in Pennsylvania and Florida, while the Maryland Senate recently passed a similar bill.

“That will be a great step forward for all of us,” Beigelman told the Standard. “Lower and moderate-income kids can get a scholarship to go to a better school of their choice.”

The IPA is focusing its efforts on the OSA and has all but abandoned the pursuit of school vouchers. Vouchers, according to Beigelman, are “a minefield. While we certainly think legally there are ways to draft it that are appropriate, we think tax credits are easier and in other states help public and non-public schools. We’re happy to help everyone at the same time.”

Josh Pruzansky, director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey and chair of the New Jersey State Non-Public School Advisory Committee, praised Christie’s stance toward school choice.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to have a governor like Gov. Chris Christie who understands the importance of having a child educated in a place where their parents decide is the best place to be educated,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for our community to start reaping increased funding for our students.”

Christie has drawn criticism across the state for slashing public school funding. More than half of the proposed school budgets across the state were voted down during April’s contentious school board elections. The elections were particularly contentious in Teaneck because of a slate of candidates for school board who didn’t have children in the public schools. This led to some accusations that some in the Orthodox community were willing to sacrifice the public schools to lower property taxes. This is not the case, Beigelman said.

“We are pro-public school,” Beigelman said. “We also want and need our folks — and everyone who’s in a bad school — to have options.”

The local community is beginning to enter the political arena as well. Jerry Gontownik, vice president of the Englewood-based pro-Israel NORPAC, earlier this year founded EDPAC, dedicated to promoting day-school funding in Trenton.

“We are a PAC that is limited to the state of New Jersey,” Gontownik said, “and focused on encouraging our state elected officials to support programs and funding that would assist families who want to send their children to non-public schools.”

He said one of the areas his group would push is to increase state funding for special education in parochial schools. Tuition at Sinai Schools — which is devoted to special education and has campuses at Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, Torah Academy of Bergen County, and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, both in Teaneck — charges base costs of more than $40,000 for in-state students and more than $50,000 for out-of-state pupils.

“Some people choose for religious reasons to send their children to parochial schools,” he said. “But I don’t think that choice should cut off completely the right of those parents to receive some funding toward the cost of education for their children.”

Like other advocacy groups, EDPAC is waiting for the governor to release the non-public schools report.

“I hope that if and when there is legislation that would assist the community in paying for Jewish education, that the community will appreciate the potential for such legislation and will assist financially in bringing such legislation to fruition.”

The OU

The Orthodox Union first brought the issue to the public’s attention at a conference for educators last year. OU leaders promised action to stem the increasingly prohibitive tuition, and the organization has made some progress, said Cary Friedman, associate director of day-school and educational services at the OU.

Approximately 15 schools throughout the tri-state area have signed on to a joint health insurance program the OU is coordinating. The OU, Friedman said, has created a professional employer organization, Advantec, so that all staff of the schools in the plan become employees of the new, larger organization. That organization then negotiates lower insurance rates for all the employees spread throughout the different schools.

“The whole topic of health care is just a crushing burden for the schools,” Friedman said. “Even though we’re offering good rates, their concerns are if this is going to continue into the future.”

The Internet may provide another source of relief for day schools. Some states have online charter schools, which — if used for secular components of day schools — could represent cost savings of up to 30 percent, Friedman said. This could also be a way around the church-state issue for funding of secular education.

“That online participation a kid can do in his basement, in a public library, or in a yeshiva classroom next to 19 other kids also signed up for the charter classroom,” he said.

New York and New Jersey currently do not permit online charter schools.

The Chabad factor

Chabad on the Palisades in Tenafly has run a preschool for 13 years, but each year it has faced a dilemma of continuing education, said executive director Rabbi Mordechai Shain.

In recent years, Shain has noticed a trend among parents to put their children into public school after they finish at Chabad. Their argument, he said, is the high quality of Tenafly schools and the cost: Free.

“That’s our challenge,” Shain said. “How do you balance telling parents that they can have an academic education at no charge and telling them here we’re going to charge you thousands?”

In response, Chabad opened a kindergarten last year with 11 children. In November, registration for the 2010-11 year had reached 40 students. In response to the growth, Chabad created a first-grade class, which will begin in September with a class of 10 at a cost of $9,700 per student for first grade, and $9,400 for kindergarten. Both classes require a $770 registration fee as well.

Elliot Prager, principal of The Moriah School in Englewood, the closest day school to Tenafly Chabad, said he does not expect the new school to affect Moriah.

Chabad’s school, Shain said, is not meant to detract from any of the existing day schools. He estimated that about half the enrollment of the kindergarten and 60 percent of the first-grade class comes from Tenafly or surrounding areas that don’t have large Orthodox populations or large percentages of students already in day school.

“To reach people here, in this community, there’s no other way if we don’t open our own [school],” Shain said.

The Staten Island option

One of the ideas floated around last year was to create a low-cost day-school that offered basic educational services without many of the perks — advanced computers, smartboards, extra-curricular activities — now common in day schools. This idea never took off, but it caught the attention of the Jewish Foundation School in Staten Island, which charges local students an annual tuition of $8,500.

Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools distributed more than $300,000 to area elementary schools during its first year. The following schools receive quarterly allocations from the organization:

• Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey

• The Moriah School

• Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey

• Sinai Schools

• Solomon Schechter Day School \of Bergen County

• Yavneh Academy

• Yeshivat Noam

JFS extended that tuition rate — which includes $2,000 for transportation — to Bergen County families. Uri and Devra Gutfreund of Bergenfield sent their three children — ages 6, 9, and 11 — to JFS this year and said they were very happy with the less expensive option.

“We were lucky to have found JFS,” Uri Gutfreund said. “One year after the decision, we are so glad that we made the move and we hope other parents investigate the option for their children.”

The school held two parlor meetings in the area last year and another two in recent months. One additional family has expressed interest in the school for the 2010-11 school year. JFS principal Rabbi Richard Erlich said he has been disappointed with the response so far from Bergen County, but he understands parents’ fears.

“This is a very big jump for a lot of people,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to decide to remove your children from the local institution and send them 45 minutes away to another state.”

The big stumbling blocks for parents, Gutfreund said, are the commute and social life of the child.

“The social issue is a big mental block,” he said. “It’s going back to the old days when you had shul friends and school friends and neighborhood friends.”

JFS will continue to offer the $8,500 tuition to North Jersey families, Erlich said. About half of the school’s 400-odd students from Staten Island and Brooklyn receive some form of scholarship, but none of those funds is available for New Jersey families. At a few thousand dollars less than the local schools, however, Erlich said New Jersey families are already receiving quite a bargain.

“I’m still surprised,” Erlich said. “Clearly the recession is as entrenched this year as last year. People who didn’t have jobs last year still don’t have jobs this year. I’m trying to figure out why there isn’t a much greater response to our offer.”

How the schools are coping

Funds from NNJKIDS mitigated tuition increases across the board by about $200 per child, according to JEFG and school officials. It’s a start, but many schools still had to raise their rates and find other ways to cut costs.

Bat Torah – The Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva High School in Paramus is raising its tuition for the coming year to $10,000, an increase of $1,000 from this year’s rate. The school relies on its efficiency and goodwill of its parents to keep its prices low, said principal Miriam Bak.

One of the areas in which the school saves is by not paying teacher benefits. Most of the staff of almost 30 teachers is part time, though they are well-trained specialists and the school goes out of its way to accommodate schedules, Bak said.

At Ben Porat Yosef, which shares the old Frisch building with Bat Torah, tuition for pre-K rose $400 to $13,600, while tuition for first through fifth grades rose $400 to $14,200. The nursery school lowered its tuition by $1,300 to $7,900 and the toddler class lowered its tuition by $800 to $6,900.

The school has 215 students enrolled for next year, an approximately 40 percent increase from this past year, said Yehuda Kohn, vice president of the school’s board. Next year will also mark the school’s first fifth-grade class.

“Ben Porat Yosef is in a unique position in that we are in a vigorous growth phase,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Standard. “As a result, not only have we not had to cut any staff, but our current fixed costs are now becoming more cost-effective.”

The school held a scholarship walkathon recently that raised more than $60,000. BPY is also working with Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership to create new avenues for revenue without increasing tuition. In addition, the school is “actively pursuing” all cost-cutting ideas, Kohn continued.

“No line item on our budget is immune,” he wrote.

“We’re learning to do more with less. We’re going to have to take on that mantra,” said Joel Kirschner, executive director of Yavneh Academy in Paramus, who spoke with the Standard last month.

Yavneh raised its tuition for kindergarten to fifth grade to $13,300 and tuition for sixth through eighth grade to $13,975 — representing a $200 increase on both levels. The school’s allocation from UJA-NNJ has also decreased in recent years, Kirschner said. The federation gave it $105,000 for the 2005-06 year, while the allocation for 2009-10 was under $30,000.

The non-profit world has been one of the biggest victims of the economic downturn, but UJA-NNJ has increased its 2010-11 allocation to 13 schools to a total of $221,357 — an $8,520 increase from this past year.

“In a year when we kept slack most of our allocations, the day schools got a 4 percent increase,” said Alan Sweifach, the federation’s planning and allocations director. “It’s going to take a solution beyond the allocation. The allocation and the increase to Jewish education is an important message. At least it is a recognition and step in the right direction when the dollars are so limited.”

Tuition levels at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck will remain at the 2009-10 rates, largely thanks to a 10 percent increase in the student body. Salaries were frozen during the 2009-10 year, but teachers can expect to receive “modest” salary increases during the 2010-11 school year, administrator Ceil Olivestone wrote in an e-mail to the Standard. Olivestone praised what she called “efforts to keep a tight control on programs and expenses.”

“While we have not affected any curricular or extracurricular program or expense that would compromise the quality and essence of the chinuch/education that we provide,” she wrote, “the budget was thoroughly reviewed by the administration and lay leadership.”

Fund-raising among parents of current and former students, as well as within the community, provides 10 percent of the school’s budget, Olivestone wrote.

Basic tuition at The Frisch School in Paramus for 2010-11 will increase to $21,950 from $21,250, according to the school’s president, Martin Heistein. About 27 percent of the families of the school’s approximately 660 students this year received some form of scholarship.

The school has also avoided layoffs, Heistein said.

“We’ve reviewed all the remaining aspects of the budget and tried to toe the line where possible,” he said.

Moriah has increased tuition by 1.9 percent across the board, bringing the total for kindergarten to second grade up to $13,380; $13,635 for third through fifth grade; and $14,050 for sixth through eighth grade.

Salaries stayed level this year and will remain the same into next year, he continued. The school did lay off “several” mostly part-time employees, though Prager would not comment on the exact number.

“It’s certainly something we didn’t want to do but felt in order to be financially responsible we had to tighten the staffing somewhat,” he said.

The school has cut back costs on color printing, energy, and is spending on only “necessary purchases” of educational resources, Prager said.

“In the short run, our cost-saving steps, together with whatever help we’ve gotten from NNJKIDS, has at least at the present time, we feel, enabled us to successfully meet the economic challenges we’ve faced this year and into the coming year,” Prager said. “As to what the long-range picture will be only time will tell.”

RYNJ cut 10 jobs and kept salaries flat during the 2009-10 school year. Along with a reduction of positions, responsibilities, and pay, the school avoided a tuition increase from 2008-09 by cutting $500,000 in costs, said the school’s president.

The school projects an enrollment of 970 children in preschool through eighth grade next year, an increase of 35 students, and an average increase of $150, or 1.1 percent, per student per grade, according to Rosenbaum.

The increase breaks down to $255 for grades four through eight, $125 for grades one through three, and no increase for preschool. No other increases are planned, according to Rosenbaum.

The school is also looking to restructure teacher compensation and benefits, including giving tuition breaks for children of employees.

“These efforts are having a one-time impact on our economics but once we get over the initial bump, will position us well in the coming years to manage our costs,” Rosenbaum said.

Sinai also moved one of its elementary programs into RYNJ last year, which has helped defray the costs of the school’s expansion, Rosenbaum said.

“Sinai has been a great addition to our school, and we look forward to finding additional ways to collaborate to reduce costs and run fund-raising programs together,” he said.

RYNJ is one of four schools that saved a combined $24,000 through an electrical group-purchasing plan under UJA-NNJ. The nine-month-old program also includes Yavneh Academy in Paramus, Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, and Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland.

Frisch, Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, and Moriah School also recently signed up.

“In these turbulent economic times, we recognize the value of working together as a community to reduce costs wherever possible,” said Matt Holland, UJA-NNJ’s community purchasing manager.

To make the program work, the schools turn their electric bills over to UJA-NNJ, which then arranges for a single supplier, such as Con Edison or Suez, through Public Service Electricity & Gas. Supply costs can account for 78 percent of an electric bill.

“We get multiple bids from potential suppliers. We select the supplier that offers the best product, service, and price,” Holland said. “We’re looking at annual savings up to $45,000 per school on electricity costs alone.”

The program began as part of the Kehillah Partnership, a group of community organizations that works to save on expenses and resources. The Kehillah Cooperative is the cost-sharing arm of the Partnership and it has netted savings for numerous community organizations.

“We started with electricity, saving $350,000 to date, and look forward to working cooperatively with all Jewish non-profits in northern New Jersey,” Holland said. “Our success so far demonstrates the opportunity the Kehillah Cooperative offers schools, as well as agencies and synagogues.”

Looking forward

“Do I think we’re living through tough times? Absolutely,” said Frisch’s Heistein. “It’s a constant challenge.”

One vocal day-school critic has taken to the Internet to vent his views with a blog called The $200k Chump, which takes its name from the high salary required to afford tuition. The anonymous blogger, who declined a telephone or face-to-face interview, claims to be a parent paying full tuition at one of the county’s schools and frequently writes about the “legacy schools” — Frisch, Moriah, and other established day schools — and why efforts to lower tuition there will not succeed.

“Like many here in town, I am struggling to pay the high cost of yeshiva tuition and want to use this blog to explore some REAL solutions to the crisis,” the “Chump” wrote in the blog’s bio. “Some of my proposals may not be popular with many of the administrators, teachers, board members, and scholarship recipients at our local day schools but that is life and I don’t really care much. The system is broken and we need real change before it is too late.”

The blogger has lashed out against school officials, as well as NNJKIDS for raising money the writer claims is used to hire more administrators. The Chump has also written about other alternatives, including charter schools, JFS, and “the nuclear option” — enrolling students in public schools.

Ideas for charter schools — an Englewood man has been trying to create a Hebrew language charter for two years — and after-school Talmud Torah programs — the Jewish Center of Teaneck has flirted with the idea and is ready to go if enough families show interest, according to Rabbi Lawrence Zierler — are not new but have yet to gain steam. The community has a responsibility to continue exploring all options, said JEFG’s Goldin.

The OU’s Friedman warned against complacency, even if the national economic picture looks brighter.

“The economy seems to be in a little bit of a respite, but nothing has changed,” he said. “If we delude ourselves and pretend it’s going away, it’s not going to go away.”

 
 

Area educator to be honored in Israel

Wallace Greene helped found SINAI schools

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Rabbi and educator Wallace Greene will receive a lifetime achievement award in a ceremony in Jerusalem next week for his role in founding the SINAI schools for students with special needs. Courtesy Wallace Greene

As Wallace (Wally) Greene tells it, he got the idea for an integrated Jewish day school special needs program from a Sisterhood meeting at Fair Lawn’s Cong. Shomrei Torah in 1980.

Jewish special education pioneer Dr. Aharon Fried addressed the meeting, which was called on behalf of two local children with no options for formal Jewish education. Greene, a rabbi then in the midst of a 10-year position as principal of Hebrew Youth Academy in Essex County, was the sole area principal who showed up.

On Aug. 16, Greene is to receive the 2010 Lifetime Achievement for Jewish Education in the diaspora award at a Jerusalem ceremony for his role in founding the SINAI schools for Jewish special needs students. Winners are chosen by Lifshitz Teachers College and the World Council for Torah Education.

The 65-year-old Greene was responsible for the creation of SINAI as well as of many other local Jewish educational initiatives. A Fair Lawn resident since 1971, he is executive director of the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

SINAI Dean Laurette Rothwachs was among five people who nominated Greene for the award. Rothwachs, also of Fair Lawn, has headed SINAI since Greene instituted it in September 1982 at what was then the Hebrew Youth Academy (now Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy).

Rothwachs said that Greene “took an opportunity he really believed in and worked very hard to lobby and do the necessary work to make it happen, where many others did not. SINAI has touched close to 1,000 students over nearly 30 years, and other programs that were able to model themselves after ours grew from the seed Wally planted.”

In 1980, special education was not at the top of any day school’s agenda. Greene had to persuade his board to implement a program. “It was a tough sell, because it hadn’t been done before,” he said. The board finally agreed, on condition that Greene raise the first year’s operating budget in advance. He did so, and brought in childhood acquaintance Rothwachs to head the program.

Today, SINAI serves about 100 students at independently funded and administered “schools-within-schools” at JKHA in Livingston, Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, Torah Academy of Bergen County and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, in addition to providing a supportive residence for men in Teaneck.

“There is still a need for more,” said Greene. “Every day school, everywhere, should have a SINAI. The host schools have gained a feather in their cap, and the children in regular classes get a lesson in chesed [kindness] every day, and become very protective of the special children in their midst.”

Greene looks forward to the August award ceremony at Jerusalem City Hall, where Minister of Education Gideon Saar and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat are to give presentations. He hopes to give his wife, Teaneck native Ronni Rosenberg, a guided tour on what will be only her second trip to Israel.

Three years before his 1969 ordination at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Greene began teaching at Temple Emanuel in Westwood (now in Woodcliff Lake). When the Frisch School opened in Paramus in 1972, he was among its first faculty members. “I taught Talmud and Jewish history there for four years. I had a wonderful girls class in Talmud, which was unusual in those days.”

In 1976, he took over at Hebrew Youth Academy, which had been founded in 1948 as the Yeshiva of Newark. The school was housed in a Victorian mansion in South Orange. When the school bought a former paint factory in West Caldwell, Greene designed the renovation. “I took some butcher paper and a crayon and drew my vision for the building. Federation took that drawing to their architect and said, ‘Make it happen.’ I wanted to build a high school, too, but they weren’t ready for it yet.”

In 1999, he was hired to direct the Jewish Educational Services division of the UJA Federation of Bergen County & North Hudson (now UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey).

“When I came to UJA, there was a staff of four, and by the time of the massive budget cuts [in 2009] we had a staff of 11 and provided a tremendous range of services,” said Greene. His main innovations were extending services to day schools and developing a Teachers Center under the direction of Minna Heilpern. In addition, the JES Principals’ Council and Day School Network provided ways for school leaders from different streams to get acquainted and share ideas.

A grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation funded a professional development program for congregational-school teachers, who often lack formal training and certification. “We ran three annual conferences, reaching about 700 teachers, and I brought teachers to Israel twice a year,” said Greene. The program was marketed and sold to 13 communities across the country before the local grant ran out.

Funding woes were also behind the demise of Hebrew in America, a JES initiative that ran from 2004 to 2008. It trained teachers to introduce Hebrew to pre-schoolers with the goal of fluency by first grade.

“This was a magnificent dream that could have transformed day school education. Our methodology was adopted by the Jewish Agency in one of its textbooks and we were in 15 schools including some afternoon schools,” said Greene. “It included a Hebrew language summer day camp, which I am still running at the Jewish Center.”

Though Greene left UJA-NNJ in February, he remains a strong proponent of broad-based federation involvement. “Getting money is a game, and a game has rules: you have to show up around the table,” he said. “You don’t have to give big bucks; you just have to work for the organization.”

More than anything else, he remains passionate about prioritizing Jewish education. “Without it, the next generation of leaders is not going to be there,” he said.

 
 

Autism: the pain and the progress

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On Yom Kippur of 1996, Albert Enayati saw fellow congregant Sara Lee Kessler walking to Cong. Ahavath Torah with her husband, Robert Miller. He had never met her — he belonged to the Englewood synagogue’s Sephardic minyan — but he recognized her face. Kessler, an award-winning broadcast journalist, was then the new health and medical correspondent for New Jersey Network.

Mustering his courage, Enayati approached Kessler and asked her to consider doing a segment on his autistic 7-year-old son, Payam. “Maybe because of the Jewish holiday she couldn’t say no to me,” he recalls thinking.

Enayati was then president of the state chapter of an autism advocacy organization seeking government funds to establish a gene bank for autism research. “I was hoping she could help us get publicity. I explained that autism is pretty devastating and consumes your life. It affects everyone in the family.”

Payam, on the severe end of the autism spectrum, was difficult to control. He would dart out of the house, into traffic, start fires, and have great difficulty sitting still in school.

“I promised Albert that I would do a ‘Healthwatch’ story about Payam and I became so interested in autism that I’ve been reporting on it ever since,” says Kessler.

Her work over the past 14 years has culminated in an hour-long documentary, “Decoding Autism,” to air on NJN1 Sept. 27 at 9 p.m., Oct. 3 at 4 p.m., and online at http://www.njn.net. Kessler reported, wrote, and produced the piece.

“Autism spectrum disorder” describes a range of neurodevelopmental conditions that affect a child’s language development, social skills, and often IQ. Children with autism commonly have heightened sensitivity to touch and noise and display a range of behavioral abnormalities. (See sidebar.)

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Jake Weinstein, SINAI’s associate director, stands with a student, on the autistic spectrum, being called up to the Torah at school upon the occasion of his bar mitzvah. Courtesy Sinai

With one out of 110 American children now being diagnosed with some form of autism, and one out of 94 in New Jersey, it is widely considered “the No. 1 childhood health issue in America today,” in the words of Mark Roithmayr, president of Autism Speaks. Kessler set out to find what is driving this alarming trend.

She visited the labs of top autism researchers, interviewed families, and talked with educators using early intervention techniques such as applied behavior analysis (ABA). Progress is being made as various theories are tested, but for now there is no clear cause or cure.

What is clear is that autism — or “the autisms,” as one of the experts puts it — knows no racial, cultural, or economic bounds. It is not a Jewish disease. Yet Jewish families affected by the disorder face unique challenges. How can they integrate a child into the Jewish community who cannot be educated in a Jewish setting and cannot attend synagogue services? How can they make a bar or bat mitzvah?

“Part of what gets people involved in the practice of Judaism is the rituals, and that’s a huge problem for an autistic child,” says Lisa Fedder, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, which runs a weekly program for young working adults with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder affecting social skills but rarely intelligence.

“Someone on the high end of the spectrum can learn to read Torah and may even be skilled at it, but part of how we celebrate [b’nei mitzvah] is being part of a community: Hebrew school, prayer service, and celebration. Without those markers, the community has no way to engage you.”

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Bassie Taubes says that “kids at TABC are great” to her son, Yosef Dov, who attends the SINAI branch there.

Bassie and Rabbi Michael Taubes of Teaneck prepared carefully for the bar mitzvah of their autistic son, Yosef Dov, two years ago. “We worked with a behaviorist and wrote a social story with a brief narrative to describe what the day would be about,” says Bassie Taubes.

(A social story is a tool for teaching social skills to children with autism and related disabilities. It provides detailed information about situations that a child may find difficult or confusing.) The story explained to him, his mother said, “that there would be a lot of people and noise, and people may want to touch him, and how he could stay calm.”

In Cong. Tzemach Dovid, his father’s synagogue, Yosef Dov was called to the Torah and was honored after services at a kiddush. That Saturday night, his family threw a party whose guests included client families and volunteers from the Paramus Friendship Circle — a Lubavitch program that recruits teens to interact with special-needs children in their homes.

“That day was a highlight of his existence,” says his mother. “It’s rare for kids with autism to be celebrated. He talks about his bar mitzvah all the time.”

Yosef Dov’s aunt, Esther East, is executive director of Jewish Family Service of Greater Clifton-Passaic. “I know many Jewish families with autistic children, who can be anywhere on the spectrum from pervasive developmental disorder to Asperger’s syndrome,” she says. “Like any child with special needs, [a child with autism] has an enormous impact on the family — stress on the parents, confusion until a diagnosis is established, uncertainty about prognosis, lack of adequate educational resources within the Jewish community, extraordinary financial demands for education and treatment, long-term care issues.”

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Reporter Sara Lee Kessler with teens at The Children’s Institute, a school in Verona, for children on the autism spectrum. From left are James S., Natalie C., Emily V., and Philip C.

Last year, her JFS hosted a day of presentations for parents and professionals by Dr. Ami Klin of the Yale Child Study Center, an international expert on autism who appears in Kessler’s documentary. “Everything he said was memorable,” recalls East, “but I think the most poignant and significant message he had for parents was the necessity of creating opportunities in life within the reality of their children’s capacity — opportunities to live life to the fullest and most independent quality.”

One of the parents who came to hear Klin was “Vivian,” a Passaic County mother of a 9-year-old severely autistic boy. When “Baruch” was officially diagnosed as autistic at 2 1/2 at the Institute for Child Development at Hackensack University Medical Center, his parents assumed he would eventually be able to go from public school to a yeshiva, “even if not the same yeshiva our other kids attend. But he’s still not in a yeshiva and I don’t know that he ever will be.”

Vivian has not found a Jewish school that could offer Baruch the one-on-one intensive services he receives at a private school in Maplewood whose director, Dr. David Sidener, was interviewed for “Decoding Autism.” Another Orthodox family has two sons in the school.

Baruch cannot go to shul with his siblings and peers. “I can’t see taking him into services because there’s no guarantee he’ll be quiet, and if he went to the children’ groups he would need one-on-one attention,” his mother said. His only formal Jewish setting is a Sunday morning program, Jewish Education for Special Children, housed at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge.

Rabbi Yisroel Schwab, director of JESC, said a fair percentage of the program’s 50 participants from ages 3 to 22 are on the autism spectrum. Some do not speak. All of them receive some form of prayer education, Hebrew reading, holiday projects, Bible stories, and music, as well as Jewish dance for the older kids. This skill helps them feel more comfortable at bar mitzvahs and weddings.

“We use a multi-sensory approach,” says Schwab, who has ABA training. “For instance, for a non-verbal child we teach ‘Torah’ as a sight word and later you might see him hugging a play Torah in music class. We do see results, but in small steps.”

Vivian recites the Sh’ma to her son every night with the hope that perhaps he’ll be able to say it himself by the time he’s a bar mitzvah. She believes Baruch strongly perceives the special atmosphere of the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

“His favorite foods are cholent and kugel, though he’s not a great eater. I make them every week for him. He’s always drawn to watch the Shabbos candles and his favorite songs are Jewish songs. You just get the feeling he relates to things Jewish.”

Yosef Dov Taubes was the sole Orthodox child in his special-needs public school class when he was younger. His mother recalls the October day he came home from school with a pumpkin and begged his older sister to carve a face into it for him. “We were the only rabbinic family with a jack-o-lantern on Halloween,” she says with a wry laugh.

Since the age of 9, he has been one of the autistic children who make up about a quarter of the students at the SINAI Schools, a network of Jewish programs for special-needs children housed within day schools. He attends the branch at the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck.

“Kids at TABC are just great to him,” says Bassie Taubes. “They take him out to lunch and come over on Shabbos,” along with volunteers from the Friendship Circle. “He’s our youngest child — our other kids out of the house — and he doesn’t have the social network that other teenagers have.”

Dean Laurette Rothwachs says some of SINAI’s autistic students are mainstreamed for half the day. “But they need a lot of support because even if they are fine academically they can’t get through the rigors of communication and socialization. We have behaviorists on staff and where appropriate we use ABA methods.”

Several years ago, SINAI tried offering a self-contained program specifically for children with autism. But it could not meet New Jersey’s enrollment requirements for state funding qualification. “The costs were exorbitant and we couldn’t sustain it over time,” says Rothwachs.

Because SINAI works within mainstream schools, it is not appropriate for all autistic children, she adds. “If a student would be overwhelmed by that setting we cannot take them. They must be ready for that situation. We did take one child who needed a one-on-one behavioral therapist and is now completely integrated into our classes. We have started offering that to many more kids who we feel could benefit.”

There was no such alternative when Payam Enayati was young. “He is severely disabled, so there was no way to have him get a Jewish education,” says his father, “but he knows about going to shul.”

Enayati credits Ahavath Torah’s Rabbi Shmuel Goldin and former Sephardic minyan president Albert Allen for welcoming Payam, who now lives in a group home. “It was difficult to control him, but nobody got angry if he disturbed the services. He’d play with the curtain in front of the Torah ark and Mr. Allen was very understanding. Everyone made us feel welcome.”

After that Yom Kippur meeting in 1996, Kessler interviewed the Enayati family and other parents at Payam’s school. She also attended a hearing in the New Jersey legislature about funding for the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange at Rutgers, the nation’s first collaborative gene bank for the study of autism spectrum disorders.

“I imagine that was the first time a reporter talked about autism in the state of New Jersey, and we were so grateful because the legislation passed,” said Enayati. “And she didn’t stop there. When Gov. [Christie] Whitman was to sign the law, Sara Lee did another NJN piece that day, and she interviewed me.”

He believes Kessler’s reporting helped secure a later piece of legislation that established Rutgers as a “center of excellence” for autism research. In 2006, the New Jersey General Assembly passed a resolution lauding Kessler for her humanitarian efforts.

“The more I reported on autism and saw what a devastating disorder it was, and the struggle of people like Albert Enayati to create a gene bank, I could not turn my back on the issue,” she says. “He knew it was important to get past the emotions and look at the science. I wanted to do a documentary on it for years, but it took a long while to get the funding together.”

Kessler says she hopes “Decoding Autism” will raise awareness about autism spectrum disorders “and give real hope to families impacted by the disorder.”

The main advance she discovered is that scientists are now convinced autism is a brain connectivity disorder. “Everywhere I went, the brain was front and center. And gene research seems to support that theory.”

Autism experts now know that people who are autistic have larger brains, but they do not know how this contributes to the disorder. Others have found that brain signaling delays may be the cause of autism’s signature communication difficulties. Researchers are studying younger siblings of autistic children, believed to be at greater risk, to see whether the development of the disorder can be halted with proper intervention.

All of this may be academic for the families of older autistic kids like Payam and Yosef Dov. Autism generally does not disappear in adulthood. “We don’t know what the future will hold,” says Bassie Taubes. “That is the big question.”

 
 

Reflections on a ‘special’ school

Sinai to honor founding director Laurette Rothwachs

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Sinai Schools Dean Laurette Rothwachs walks in a hallway at the Rosenbum Yeshiva of North Jersey with her son, Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, who will succeed her in September. Courtesy Sinai Schools

In the early 1980s, three Orthodox Jewish families in Fair Lawn faced a stark choice: to send their special-needs children to public school, where they would not receive the same religious education as their siblings, or to send them to a yeshiva, where they would likely struggle both socially and academically.

Today, thanks to the efforts of these and other families — and to the passion of Sinai Schools Dean Laurette Rothwachs — families of special-needs children can have the best of both worlds.

Rothwachs remembers the efforts of the Fair Lawn families, “who were approaching schools and asking for their children with developmental disabilities to be accepted into a yeshiva and be offered special educational services in that environment.”

Sympathizing with their plight, educator Wallace Greene, then principal of the Hebrew Youth Academy in Livingston (now the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy), called Rothwachs, an old friend, and asked for her help.

“He knew I was doing this in Brooklyn at the time, running programs for kids with special needs,” she said. “I don’t know how he did it, but he convinced me to relocate, move to Fair Lawn, and start this program [at his school] for the three children.”

Sinai has since touched some 1,000 children and their families, “educating them and transforming their lives,” said Rabbi Mark Karasick, a Teaneck resident and chair of the Sinai board.

Rothwachs — who will become dean emeritus in September — will be honored at the school’s annual fundraiser on Feb. 13 for her many years of service. She will receive the Lev VaNefesh Award “for being the heart and soul of what we began and what we’ve become,” said Karasick.

“I thought we were doing an exciting thing [in 1982], not realizing that two months later, there would be two more children, and the next year, children applying from all different communities,” she said. “Once people saw there was a possibility they hadn’t dreamed of, enrollment continued to grow.”

For her part, Laurette Rothwachs is extremely proud of what the school has accomplished.

“Now everybody wants it,” she said of the program, which this year serves some 100 students, most from Bergen County. “Not only is it important in and of itself, but think of all those [alumni] now out there and how they’re doing in their own families and communities.”

Rothwachs credits Sinai with fostering a “sea change” in the community’s understanding of special needs, showing that children with a variety of disabilities can be served successfully.

“Whatever we did, I knew we had to do a very good job,” she said. “It was a turning point. We didn’t want people to feel that they were compromising, making a choice” between quality education and special services.

“We had both,” she said, pointing out that the school is accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.

According to Moshe Weinberger, Sinai’s president, it is the only Jewish school for special needs that has such accreditation, “and it’s not an easy thing to get.”

Rothwachs said she thinks of the school as unique “because we try to meet the needs of the community and serve a broad spectrum of kids. Most schools specialize in one thing, for example, autistic children or learning disabilities, but we try to service a wide spectrum.”

Schools throughout the country have modeled themselves after Sinai, she said, “visiting us to see what we’re doing and replicate it.”

The Sinai program works through self-contained classes in host schools, “where the students benefit as much as they can from the host school,” said Rothwachs. Depending on their ability, some Sinai students participate in the school’s social activities, others in academic courses.

“Some are very capable, off the charts in their academic ability,” she said, pointing out that one third-grader is doing 10th-grade math but is prevented by an anxiety disorder from being mainstreamed.

Another child, who entered the program as “a selective mute,” will soon be leaving to teach at a seminary in Israel.

Sinai modules exist in several schools. The first one, founded in 1982 at what is now Kushner, was embraced eagerly by Rabbi Alvin Marcus, now rabbi emeritus of Cong. AABJ&D in West Orange, and former head of the board of education of the school. He and his wife, Marylin, will be honored at the Feb. 13 event with the Rabbinic Leadership Award. Also receiving awards are school supporters Scott and Abby Herschmann and Dr. Bruce and Sheryl Schainker.

Other Sinai programs are located at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge and the Torah Academy of Bergen County and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, both in Teaneck. The Nathan Miller SHELI residence for men serves those young adults over the age of 21 who have finished their formal schooling but need additional help.

As Rothwachs moves into the position of dean emeritus, she will pass the school leadership to her son, Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, a longtime Sinai teacher and current head of the program housed at RYNJ.

“‘Sruly’ has risen through the ranks from assistant teacher, to teacher, to assistant director, to director,” said Karasick. “He has taught in and/or directed every one of our schools.”

Not only does he hold a master’s degree in special education and a doctorate in educational supervision and administration, said Karasick, but “growing up in the Rothwachs’ home, he has been exposed to every facet of Sinai since he was a small child. He has a profound understanding of what and why we are and a deep love for our children.”

In her new position, Laurette Rothwachs said, she will focus on “accessing community partnerships,” working with local schools to help them identify and service children with special needs. But, she added, it was the right time to step back.

“There’s a need for younger people to move up and take responsibility,” she said. “It was the right time to make this happen.”

Still, she said, challenges remain.

“Despite the wonderful work we do, we’re still asking parents to pay an amount beyond anyone’s ability to do so,” said Rothwachs.

With a tuition of $45,000 — and many families sending more than one child to the school — the facility offers many scholarships. Monies are used primarily “to get the finest educators for all of the therapies needed,” she said.

In addition, she said, “stigma is still an issue. It’s getting better, but it’s still hard for people, especially when there are children who would benefit from this but who are borderline, who fit in [to their schools] but are struggling and don’t feel good about themselves. It’s hard to stigmatize your child by putting him into a program for special needs.”

Nevertheless, she said, the community is much more accepting than it used to be. And, she suggested, “the next generation won’t have the problem.” Children in the host schools living side by side with Sinai students “won’t see them as different. They see them as buddies learning in a different class. The line of demarcation has been lessened.”

With all her accomplishments, Rothwachs is most proud of her students, “kids who really have it hard sometimes and have so much to overcome. I learn from them. When I’m ready to give up, I watch them and see what they’re accomplishing.”

Weinberger said the Feb. 13 fund-raising event will include a video depicting the growth of the school since 1982.

As Rothwachs built it up, “it was not about ‘good enough’ but about ‘excellence,’” he said. “She always asked ‘What is the state of the art?’”

The presentation will include interviews with Sinai parents as well as with former Sinai students “who can really talk about what it meant,” said Weinberger.

The event, which typically draws some 650 people and raised about $1.2 million last year, is very important to the school, he said, pointing out that some 75 percent of Sinai families need “very significant financial aid, and the bulk comes from this dinner.” The school is hoping to raise a similar amount this year, when economic conditions have affected not only families’ incomes but the school’s donor base as well.

“Fortunately, we’re a priority for so many people,” he said. “We’re blessed like that. The community has risen to the occasion.”

 
 

Finding Judaism, finding Sinai

The remarkable journey of Hadassah Davids

Lois GoldrichLocal
Published: 16 December 2011
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Hadassah Davids and her two sons, Asher Chaim and Yeshaya Simcha. Courtesy Hadassah Davids

Hadassah Davids has had a remarkable journey.

Daughter of a Pentecostal minister, the 38-year-old became an Orthodox Jew 11 years ago, leaving behind not only her childhood faith, but a blossoming musical career. Now, as the mother of a child with special needs, her journey has led her to the Sinai Schools.

Three years ago, Davids — originally from Southern California and named Daisy Lee — moved to Monsey, where her son, Asher Chaim, who has been diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, on the autistic spectrum, attended a public school special needs program. When it became clear that he had was not making progress, a therapist suggested that the boy needed something more intensive.

“He had Sinai in mind,” she said. “He knew it would be the perfect place, but there was no way I could afford it.”

Still, the young mother did her research, concluding that “this is where he needed to be.”

At its annual dinner, scheduled this year for Feb. 12, Sinai will show a short video telling Hadassah and Asher Chaim’s story.

In addition to serving as a minister, Davids’ father is a well-known television and radio personality in the Hispanic community.

“I grew up with that background,” she said, noting that after majoring in opera at the University of South California and preparing for a career in music, she unexpectedly experienced a “spiritual revival.”

“I started questioning my beliefs,” she said. “I dug deeper and looked at the roots of Christianity — Judaism. Initially, that’s all it was. I looked at it historically and took out a ton of books. It just snowballed.”

A year later, she told her parents that she planned to convert.

“I knew that I needed to be true to myself to be true to them,” she said. “It was hard for my mother,” she admitted, “but it’s been okay since.”

As Judaism became more of a force in her life, her commitment to a musical career receded into the background. “That was the most difficult part,” she said. “I realized either you accept it or you don’t. I had to let go, to be willing to learn who I am as a Jewish woman.”

After her conversion, she obtained a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Rhode Island. She used the skills gained there to work as a transportation planner for several years and, later, as a grant writer — a job she held until recently.

She has also been writing music “on and off, like therapy.” That musical skill has become more important to her than ever.

To send her son to Sinai, “I knew I had to come up with a huge amount of money,” she said. “My best friend told me it was time to tell my story.” While previously uncomfortable talking about her personal life, she realized that “now it’s no longer about me.”

To raise funds, she agreed to speak before an audience of women at a bungalow colony.

“I wrote a song, put together graphics and a slide show, did video editing, and listed the bullet points of my life story — growing up, converting, music,” she said. “I asked people to give what they could.”

“It was not to be believed,” said Davids. “The first night, there were about 40 women. They were so moved, and I was, as well. I did it the whole summer,” she said, noting that after the first presentation, she was invited to speak and perform for women’s audiences throughout the bungalow colony circuit.

Davids teaches music at a Chabad school, works on graphic projects, and continues to write music. She also gives private lessons in voice and piano. Now that she has stopped her grant-writing work, “for the first time in 11 years, all my jobs are arts-related. I’ve come full circle,” she said. “But I don’t think my music would have the impact it has if I hadn’t had to leave it and come back with so much more passion and life experience. I’m grateful for that.”

Davids describes her eight-year-old son, now in his second year at Sinai, as “very happy and bubbly.” In addition, she said, “His skills in drawing and music are really out there. He draws things from a different perspective. It’s fascinating.”

Those skills are being integrated into his learning, said Marcy Glicksman, director of Sinai at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, where Asher Chaim is a student. His younger brother, Yeshaya Simcha, attends the yeshivah’s regular program.

Glicksman, formerly preschool director at the Hebrew Academy for Special Children, knew the Davids when they lived in Monsey. “Hadassah is a strong advocate for her kids,” she said. “It’s really impressive.”

The Sinai director said that, like his mother, Asher Chaim, is extremely artistic. “You completely see the creative piece. It’s so much more advanced than most kids his age. His drawing is so beautiful, and he can describe what he draws,” she said.

Glicksman said Sinai focuses on providing support in areas of need while allowing students to express what they’re capable of doing. Asher Chaim, for example, is encouraged to draw during his reading and writing classes.

“The whole parent-school partnership is extremely motivating,” said Glicksman. “Everybody is in it together, trying to push the child along.”

It is that aspect of Sinai that Davids particularly appreciates. “It’s not just a good fit for him,” she said, “but for me, as well.”

A single parent — divorced after a four-year marriage, during which she lived in Lakewood — she noted that dealing with her son’s disability had proved “a little overwhelming” before she came to Sinai.

Here, she said, “I’ve been able to go and cry and they’re happy to help. They’ve offered incredible emotional support. I feel like I have a family with Sinai. I can’t describe how much they’ve changed our lives.”

Disabilities “can tear families apart,” said Sam Fishman, managing director of Sinai Schools, which includes two elementary schools and three high schools. Aside from money, there is the constant running to therapy [and the need] to lavish attention on one child.”

“Asher Chaim is, in a sense, what Sinai is all about,” said school president Moshe Weinberger. “He is a Jewish child whom we are uniquely capable of helping. We take very seriously our responsibilities when we are the Jewish school of last resort.”

Fishman said when he met Davids two years ago, he felt the school could help her son, but knew that meeting Asher Chaim’s needs would cost Sinai $50,000 a year. While the school was willing to offer its maximum scholarship, $30,000 per year, she would still have to come up with the rest of the money.

“From moment I saw Asher Chaim, I had a sense of déjà vu,” said Fishman. “He had big, soulful eyes that don’t make eye contact. In the hour he and his mother spent in my office, he touched everything. He reminded me of my own son at six. I talked to his mother about how we could make this work.”

Fishman stressed that while Hadassah and her two sons “were clearly religious in appearance, she did not speak about religious content, but said that her child needed to come because as a human being, he was stagnating, not advancing.”

“But she had no idea how she would raise the money she needed for her son’s education,” he said. Now, through her music, she has been able to raise $25,000 for the first year of tuition. “She’s truly unique,” he said, but so, too, is Asher Chaim.

“He’s a magically gifted child,” said Fishman. “One teacher described the privilege of teaching him and unlocking his mysteries — because she knows that Asher Chaim’s unique gifts will make the world a better place.”

Davids is hoping to offer her musical program to other interested women’s groups. For information and a contact form, visit her website, hadassahdavids.com.

 
 
 
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