As Wallace (Wally) Greene tells it, he got the idea for an integrated Jewish day school special needs program from a Sisterhood meeting at Fair Lawn’s Cong. Shomrei Torah in 1980.
Jewish special education pioneer Dr. Aharon Fried addressed the meeting, which was called on behalf of two local children with no options for formal Jewish education. Greene, a rabbi then in the midst of a 10-year position as principal of Hebrew Youth Academy in Essex County, was the sole area principal who showed up.
On Aug. 16, Greene is to receive the 2010 Lifetime Achievement for Jewish Education in the diaspora award at a Jerusalem ceremony for his role in founding the SINAI schools for Jewish special needs students. Winners are chosen by Lifshitz Teachers College and the World Council for Torah Education.
The 65-year-old Greene was responsible for the creation of SINAI as well as of many other local Jewish educational initiatives. A Fair Lawn resident since 1971, he is executive director of the Jewish Center of Teaneck.
SINAI Dean Laurette Rothwachs was among five people who nominated Greene for the award. Rothwachs, also of Fair Lawn, has headed SINAI since Greene instituted it in September 1982 at what was then the Hebrew Youth Academy (now Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy).
Rothwachs said that Greene “took an opportunity he really believed in and worked very hard to lobby and do the necessary work to make it happen, where many others did not. SINAI has touched close to 1,000 students over nearly 30 years, and other programs that were able to model themselves after ours grew from the seed Wally planted.”
In 1980, special education was not at the top of any day school’s agenda. Greene had to persuade his board to implement a program. “It was a tough sell, because it hadn’t been done before,” he said. The board finally agreed, on condition that Greene raise the first year’s operating budget in advance. He did so, and brought in childhood acquaintance Rothwachs to head the program.
Today, SINAI serves about 100 students at independently funded and administered “schools-within-schools” at JKHA in Livingston, Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, Torah Academy of Bergen County and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, in addition to providing a supportive residence for men in Teaneck.
“There is still a need for more,” said Greene. “Every day school, everywhere, should have a SINAI. The host schools have gained a feather in their cap, and the children in regular classes get a lesson in chesed [kindness] every day, and become very protective of the special children in their midst.”
Greene looks forward to the August award ceremony at Jerusalem City Hall, where Minister of Education Gideon Saar and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat are to give presentations. He hopes to give his wife, Teaneck native Ronni Rosenberg, a guided tour on what will be only her second trip to Israel.
Three years before his 1969 ordination at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Greene began teaching at Temple Emanuel in Westwood (now in Woodcliff Lake). When the Frisch School opened in Paramus in 1972, he was among its first faculty members. “I taught Talmud and Jewish history there for four years. I had a wonderful girls class in Talmud, which was unusual in those days.”
In 1976, he took over at Hebrew Youth Academy, which had been founded in 1948 as the Yeshiva of Newark. The school was housed in a Victorian mansion in South Orange. When the school bought a former paint factory in West Caldwell, Greene designed the renovation. “I took some butcher paper and a crayon and drew my vision for the building. Federation took that drawing to their architect and said, ‘Make it happen.’ I wanted to build a high school, too, but they weren’t ready for it yet.”
In 1999, he was hired to direct the Jewish Educational Services division of the UJA Federation of Bergen County & North Hudson (now UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey).
“When I came to UJA, there was a staff of four, and by the time of the massive budget cuts [in 2009] we had a staff of 11 and provided a tremendous range of services,” said Greene. His main innovations were extending services to day schools and developing a Teachers Center under the direction of Minna Heilpern. In addition, the JES Principals’ Council and Day School Network provided ways for school leaders from different streams to get acquainted and share ideas.
A grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation funded a professional development program for congregational-school teachers, who often lack formal training and certification. “We ran three annual conferences, reaching about 700 teachers, and I brought teachers to Israel twice a year,” said Greene. The program was marketed and sold to 13 communities across the country before the local grant ran out.
Funding woes were also behind the demise of Hebrew in America, a JES initiative that ran from 2004 to 2008. It trained teachers to introduce Hebrew to pre-schoolers with the goal of fluency by first grade.
“This was a magnificent dream that could have transformed day school education. Our methodology was adopted by the Jewish Agency in one of its textbooks and we were in 15 schools including some afternoon schools,” said Greene. “It included a Hebrew language summer day camp, which I am still running at the Jewish Center.”
Though Greene left UJA-NNJ in February, he remains a strong proponent of broad-based federation involvement. “Getting money is a game, and a game has rules: you have to show up around the table,” he said. “You don’t have to give big bucks; you just have to work for the organization.”
More than anything else, he remains passionate about prioritizing Jewish education. “Without it, the next generation of leaders is not going to be there,” he said.