Why do parents send their children to Sinai schools?
Because the school’s innovative program allows developmentally disabled Jewish children to develop the skills they need to live in this world, to make friends, not to define themselves by their disabilities. Because the school pays close attention to each child and spends a huge amount of time, care, experience, and love in tailoring a program that gives each child what he or she needs to live as independently as possible and as joyously as anyone else.
Why do parents not send their children to Sinai Schools?
Ah, that is an easier question to answer in some ways, but the answers to this one are devastating.
Finances and stigma.
That’s according to Sam Fishman, the school’s managing director.
He tries to help solve the first problem and defuse the second at the annual dinner, itself Sinai’s biggest fundraiser, by creating a video that looks at the very human dynamics behind a family’s decision to send a child to the school. This year’s video, “Sweet Boy,” looks at the Leiter family’s decision to send their son Binyamin to Sinai.
It is extraordinarily expensive to provide the level of personal attention that Sinai gives each child. “Our uniqueness, and the length to which we will go to craft a program, costs a fortune,” Mr. Fishman said. “Our costs begin at about $70,000 per child per year, and go up from there. There are few families that can afford anything close to that.
“That’s what our dinner is about. One of the beautiful things is that people get it. They understand that it is a fact of life that there is a certain percentage of children born into this community who have this need.
“If you are blessed with a child with this need, the chances are that you won’t be able to do it on your own, so we are able to say that we are here.”
As an admittedly extreme example, he talked about a 5-year-old boy who was admitted to Sinai. “He is brilliant, on the autistic spectrum, and legally blind,” Mr. Fishman said. “You have the combination of a kid who is locked into his own world and who has a soaring IQ – he was doing sixth-grade math at 5. Creating a program for him was a challenge – bringing in a teacher for the visually impaired to teach him Braille, keeping him intellectually challenged, and teaching him boundaries and the social skills that any kid with hyperactivity and autism has to learn.
“We undertook this as a challenge. Programming for this child costs us over $100,000 to do this. There is no ability within his family to meet this. We view it as our mandate and our mission. Where else is this child going to turn? We are thrilled to put something together for him.”
And then the stigma.
“It’s real,” Mr. Fishman said. “It has existed as long as I can remember. I faced it personally. When he was that age, my own son,” who went to Sinai, “didn’t look that different from Binyamin.”
He remembers how hard it was in shul, the comments he overheard, the worldview that excluded his son, somehow seeing his behavior as a result of moral weakness.
“The sad result is that we see parents who delay in seeking our help, who have their children in other schools in the community, who fight with their schools. Educators often tell them that this is a kid who would do better at Sinai, but the parents fight it. They say, ‘I think that she can get by for another year, if I just throw a shadow on it.’ If I just do this, if I just do that.
“I hear them say ‘I think the kid can get by.’ That is a very low standard.”
In the video, the Leiters talk about the stigma. Life was hard at home before Binyamin entered Sinai; his three siblings couldn’t invite friends home, the family could not go to other people’s Shabbat dinners, everyone else was dependent on his moods. Life was chaotic.
Binyamin went to schools that were not right for him, including a public school. Nothing worked, and he did not fit in. Still, his parents hesitated.
As they talk about it on the video, you can see it in their faces, in their voices, in the way that they look at each other. The emotion is unmistakably real as they talk both about the chaos of life before and the safety and relief of life now.
To some extent, Mr. Fishman said, the resistance to accepting the need for special education is generational – the idea that acting out is the kind of misbehavior that merits punishment. “I think that our community has come a long way in accepting and including individuals with special needs – but we have a long way to go,” he said.
“Sweet Boy,” like the other videos Sinai has produced, humanizes the problem. It is meant not only as a fundraiser but as a consciousness-raiser as well. It will debut at the Sinai dinner, and then will be available online.