|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 dÃ©jÃ 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.