We write about the Sinai Schools every year; the story is different every year, but the underlying truth doesn’t change.
Sinai’s mission — to take children with a range of special needs and to tailor an education specifically for each one of them, so each one will reach his or her potential and be able to live a fulfilled, happy, and as this story tells us, menschedik life — remains unchanged, although its methods have evolved along with the field of special education.
But these last few years have been hard ones; they’re tough on everyone but particularly hard on people whose innate orientation is not social. Living in isolation might be easier for them in the short run, but it’s harder to come back from.
All the schools that house Sinai were open last year and of course are open now, so the worst part of the pandemic is over. But it trails long strings.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Sinai’s dean, Rabbi Dr. Yisroel Rothwachs, told me something that’s haunted me every since. He said that it’s particularly hard for many special needs children to learn effectively over Zoom because one of the most basic skills they need — a skill that most of us mastered effortlessly when we were children — is eye contact. “You can’t make eye contact over Zoom,” he said.
Now everyone’s back in school, and masks are vitally important in keeping everyone safe. But not only can they be hard to keep on all day, they make it harder to students and children to transmit vital information to each other. Pieces of data that we often don’t pay any attention to but our minds gather and put together — clarity of speech, expression, state of mind — necessarily are lost behind the cloth.
But Sinai’s kept going.
One of its many accomplishments — aided by the zeitgeist, clearly, but that’s only part of it — is the reduction of the stigma that special-needs kids and adults have to confront. By modeling correct behavior, Sinai — and Yachad, which works with similar kids, sometimes the same ones, after school and over the summer — have worked hard to make it socially unacceptable to be anything less than welcoming.
Sinai’s administrators talked about how they teach their students basic menschlishkeit — the art and craft of being a person who both takes and gives, who understands that other people exist and tries to feel some minute fraction of what someone else is feeling — and they teach it all the time.
For them, as for other good educators, there is no rigid line between subjects; you don’t give up being a human being when you apply analytic thought to an academic topic. The school functions as a loom; teachers and students, staff, employers, friends, and family all are woven together, in the seamless web that is life.
We are awed by Sinai and its indefatigable educators, administrators, students, parents, and the community that surrounds and upholds and supports them, and we are proud to count ourselves among its grateful admirers.