Sinai expands special needs education program
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Sinai expands special needs education program

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 sgreenland@sinaischools.org.

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