Being the honoree at an annual dinner is always a cause for pride. But for Dr. Wallace Greene – who is among those being feted at this year’s Sinai Schools benefit dinner – it is also a joy.
“I’m fortunate to have some noteworthy accomplishments,” said Greene, the driving force behind the creation of the school and the recipient of Sinai’s Poel Tzedek award. “But this stands out.”
Greene – now managing director at the Adolph Schreiber Hebrew Academy of Rockland and former longtime director of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Educational Services – said the idea for the school took shape at a sisterhood meeting at Fair Lawn’s Shomrei Torah some 35 years ago. “We had two kids in the shul with serious issues,” he recalled.
The meeting included a presentation by Rabbi Aharon Hersh Fried, who, Greene said, founded the first Jewish special education program and “was one of only a few working on that.”
“Every principal of every day school was invited to attend,” he said. As it happened, he was the only one to show up, representing the Hebrew Youth Academy of Essex County, now known as the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy.
“What he said turned me on,” Greene said. “I was embarrassed that as a Jewish educator I didn’t think of this on my own. Why weren’t we taking care of these kids? I gave it a lot of thought and came up with an idea to develop a school within a school.
“It wasn’t called inclusion,” he continued. “The word was not yet invented. But I realized that the social impact of being sent to a special school was very harmful to these kids. They needed to go on the same bus as their friends and siblings. They needed to be part of an environment that was welcoming – not set apart or discriminated against.”
Apparently, Greene said, that idea was still a novelty, so he set out to do the necessary research, immersing himself in the subject. Ultimately, “it took two years of persistent, annoying cajoling of the board to get them to understand and agree to house a school at HYA.” The two conditions were that he raise one year’s operating expenses in advance and that the school not take up more than two classrooms.
“I have to give credit to Bruce Shoulson, president of the school at the time,” Greene said. “Most board presidents would have shut me down a long time before that. But he allowed me to make a pitch at every board meeting.”
“It was unheard of,” he said. “At that time, in the late ’70s, this was not a socially acceptable disability. Glasses were acceptable, hearing aids were acceptable,” but with learning disabilities, “there was tremendous prejudice to overcome.” He said, though, that Dassy Brandstatter and other founding parents were there to “push him along.”
He convinced an old childhood friend, Lorette Rothwachs – then living in Far Rockaway and teaching learning disabled children – “to come to the wilds of Fair Lawn.” (Although the school is in Essex County, Greene lives in Fair Lawn.)
When Rothwachs agreed to become a partner in the project, the program began with about four students. Today, Sinai Schools serves 110.
“People started coming here from everywhere,” Greene said. “Some people even moved here from other parts of the country. Our biggest disappointment was that we had to turn away kids” – the program was unable to accommodate children with physical disabilities. “It was heartbreaking, but we could only handle people within a certain range.”
As news of the program spread through word of mouth, “it took off like wildfire.” And not only did it benefit the special needs population, “but it had a tremendous effect on the population of the school itself.”
While some HYA children teased the newcomers at first, “in very short order the school became an example of chesed in action. The older children became protective of the younger children. It changed the tenor of school” – even affecting the teachers and custodians.
Greene said that his original dream was to have a Sinai school in every yeshiva. At the very least, he longed to see the program spread to Bergen County.
Despite having “doors slammed in my face,” the program did indeed take root in a number of local schools, at both the elementary and the high school level.
Greene said the biggest challenge to the program is the high cost of tuition, “which is why these dinners are so important.” The problem is especially acute for parents who have more than one child in the program.
“We have overcome the reticence of parents to acknowledge that their kids have a problem,” he said. “Originally, that was a major obstacle. But now fundraising is the major problem because the services Sinai offers are second to none, but it costs to have highly trained people in both general and Jewish studies.”
Still, he said, “Sinai has exceeded my original goals. It’s far beyond what I could have imagined when I started the little program in my school.” He pointed out that when he left HYA, he, in effect, left Sinai, though he has remained unofficially involved.
“I’m very proud of the establishment of this program and the help it has brought to families,” he said. “You can’t imagine the joy it has brought to parents and grandparents. You can’t measure that.”