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Sinai students rehearse for their production of “The Sound of Music.” yoni greenfield

“The von Trapp children don’t play; they march!” Baron von Trapp’s butler reminds Maria, who has suggested sewing new play clothing for the children in her charge.

Many people immediately will recognize that classic line from “The Sound of Music.” However, this scene, starring students from Sinai’s Rabbi Mark & Linda Karasick Shalem High School on May 7 was unusual: The butler and Maria read their lines from cards they held in their hands. And when the von Trapp children came to Maria’s room seeking solace during a scary thunderstorm, one of the kids arrived in a wheelchair and another had Down syndrome.

Sinai’s production of “The Sound of Music” was the fifth annual play performed by students at the only Jewish high school in Bergen County for teens with developmental disabilities or profound learning disabilities. In past years they have presented “Newsies,” “Robin Hood,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and “Peter Pan.”

In fact, 18-year-old “Lee” (not his real name), who played Baron von Trapp, said he wasn’t nervous in front of the audience because he’s a veteran of the stage by now. This was his second leading role – he played the part of the eccentric chocolate factory owner Willy Wonka in a previous production.

Lee said he’d seen the film version of “The Sound of Music” and tried to imitate Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of von Trapp. “I like acting in the same voice from the movie,” he said. “I’m really good at that.”

Assistant Principal Esther Klavan, who is a speech and language therapist, began preparing the high school’s 15 boys and two girls, ages 14 to 21, for the production during a weekly drama class begun in September.

“We find the strengths of each student, and find a play that is suitable to allow each student to shine,” Klavan said. “For example, some students are musical and others have a good memory.”

Principal Shira Greenland selected the play and wrote an adapted version for the students. The show was performed in the auditorium of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, a Shalem partner school along with Torah Academy of Bergen County, both in Teaneck.

Teachers pitched in personal time over the weekends and after school to sew costumes, build the sets, and help get the students get ready for opening night.

“There are a lot of pieces that go into putting on a performance with our students,” said Klavan. “We introduce them to the storyline to understand the background, and we work on reading clearly, learning how to take turns, and having a lot of patience with students who need to be cued in. After Pesach, we start to rehearse on stage, which takes it to a whole new level.”

She added that many Sinai high school students have difficulty with spatial concepts, motor planning, and auditory processing, all of which play a vital role in a performance in front of an audience.

“There is very careful, deliberate instruction, so each student finds ways to feel successful,” Klavan said. “We use a lot of adaptation and positive reinforcement, and try our very best to let each student do his or her best. It’s not meant to see how well they do but to make them feel good, to create an opportunity to step out of the box and do something different, and to allow people in their lives to see that they are capable.”

Sinai operates several schools within mainstream Jewish elementary and high schools in North Jersey. It serves more than 100 students, 30 percent of whom commute from outside the area, in addition to adult live-in and day habilitation programs. Shalem is one of two Sinai high schools; Maor, housed at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, offers a more rigorous academic program for students with learning disabilities, most of whom are college-bound.

The annual free theatrical productions at Shalem are just as important for the parents as for the young actors and singers, Klavan said. “What’s most exhilarating is giving the parents and community an opportunity to see another side of the children they didn’t necessarily know was there.”

Sinai students look forward eagerly to each year’s production, she added. “Typically, about an hour after the play is over they come running with suggestions for next year’s play.”