Sinai honoree takes particular pride in award
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Sinai honoree takes particular pride in award

'Inclusion by design' sets school apart, Sinai dean says

Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, dean of Sinai schools (and Lorette Rothwachs’ son), has no doubt that people appreciate the work the school is doing. But, he fears, they may not fully understand its philosophy.

“I wouldn’t want to come off as being presumptive about what people think,” he said. “But in conversations I’ve had with both professionals and prospective parents over time, I’ve become sensitized to the lack of understanding of what our philosophy is.”

Because the school offers self-contained classes, he said some mistakenly assume that the special needs students are kept “separate.”

“For so many years, when parents had to find a better placement for their children than a regular yeshiva, for the most part they had two options,” he said. “They could put the child in a restrictive, segregated type of setting, which might give academic or specific emotional support but [leave the child] socially isolated. Or, they might try to make it work in a mainstream school and give extra support through things like a shadow. [The children] wouldn’t be isolated, but they might not be getting the support they needed.”

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Sinai and RYNJ students sit together in music class.

Sinai, he said, sees itself as “offering the best of both worlds. They come to our school, get self-contained classes and individual instruction for the parts of the day they need that for. But for those parts of day they don’t, the options are there.”

The dean explained that some children may be in self-contained classes for one subject, like reading, but in “partner classes” for other subjects, whether math, history, or Chumash. “It depends on the kid,” he said.

Describing what he called “the individualized approach to education,” Rothwachs said that Sinai’s policy, inclusion by design, does not mean that Sinai students will have the opportunity to participate in everything, but that decisions regarding their placement “are thoughtful and deliberate. We sit down with the parents not only when the child is accepted but on an ongoing basis, planning with them what the inclusion formula will be for this particular child.”

Minimally, he said, the children benefit from being in a school with their peers, “riding the same buses, sitting at the same lunch tables, attending the same music classes. They can say, ‘We go to YNJ’ or ‘We go to Kushner.’ They don’t have to explain about Sinai.”

Rothwachs said that “for anything that’s available for the kids to be part of and included in, we make the right decision together with the parents on what to offer.” He stressed that inclusion by design isn’t just about academic classes but embraces the totality of the child’s participation in the school, “from color war to field trips.”

Today, Sinai students can be found at the Sinai Elementary School at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston; Sinai Elementary School at Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge; Maor High School, hosted within the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston; and the Rabbi Mark & Linda Karasick Shalem High School at Torah Academy of Bergen County and the Rabbi Mark & Linda Karasick Shalem High School at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, both in Teaneck.

Sinai also runs adult transitional programs, including the Nathan Miller S.H.E.L.I. Residence for Men and Sinai Netivot Day Habilitation Program, both in Teaneck.

“The partner schools cooperate 100 percent of the time, if it makes sense,” Rothwachs said, noting that there are “so many variables in each class. They usually work with us to find the right siduch between a teacher and our students. I can really say that 100 percent of the time, the teachers chosen to include our kids do it eagerly and embrace it.”

For their part, Sinai staff “don’t just pop them in and say good luck. There is a high degree of communication.”

Sinai’s mission, he said, is to serve “all the kids who need us. It’s not our mission to be in every school, but to fill the needs of the community.”

According to Sam Fishman, a former Sinai parent and now its consulting managing director, Sinai is the only school in the community that serves Jewish children with a broad range of learning or developmental disabilities.

He pointed out that creating a completely individualized program for each child “translates into a nearly 1:2 staff-to-student ratio and several different in-house therapies, with specialists on staff at each school.”

Noting that Sinai is the only Jewish day school for children with special needs that has received accreditation from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Fishman said the school’s tuition, “reflective of the school’s own costs,” ranges from $45,000 to $66,500 per year.

“Without significant financial aid, Sinai’s tuition is beyond the reach of the vast majority of families,” he said. “Sinai awards large scholarships to 90 percent of its students – with the average scholarship actually exceeding the amount of full tuition at most regular yeshivot. Sinai relies on its dinner to raise a large portion of the funds necessary for these scholarships each year.”

This year’s dinner will feature a video called “Heroes.”

“It tells the moving story of the Minchenberg family and the challenges they have overcome with three children in Sinai Schools,” Fishman said, noting that Rabbi Yehuda Minchenberg is a teacher at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus.

Rothwachs said that the most important thing about Sinai’s policy of inclusion is “the individualization, the thoughtfulness of the process. It’s very unique,” he said, both in yeshivot and in special education schools.

“I try to get across that this is not just a Jewish option but a really good option,” he said. “The fact that we’re a yeshiva is an added plus. It’s high quality. Outside evaluators who get to know our structure are impressed by the amount of energy that goes into each child in a very thoughtful way.”

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