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What will they do when they finish school?

Sinai’s vocational preparedness program helps special-needs students develop workplace skills

Above, partners like Grand and Essex Market in Bergenfield give Sinai students the chance for vocational preparedness that is tailored to their needs. (ALL PHOTOS COURTESY SINAI SCHOOLS)
Above, partners like Grand and Essex Market in Bergenfield give Sinai students the chance for vocational preparedness that is tailored to their needs. (ALL PHOTOS COURTESY SINAI SCHOOLS)

Worrying is part of a parent’s job. So is planning. So is hoping.

When you have a baby, part of you is entranced by the unbearable beauty, part of you is nearly felled by exhaustion, and part of you is mapping out the future. All this strategizing is expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating, but part of being a parent is ensuring that your child has the best possible chance for a successful life.

It is the rare child who flawlessly fulfills a parent’s expectation — Ivy League college, medical or legal degree, brilliant and gorgeous spouse, stunningly smart and terrifyingly beautiful and athletic and thoughtful children, properly and fittingly embedded in the community. Overwhelmingly most children turn out to be a bit more idiosyncratic than that. But still it’s a parent’s job to keep pushing, adjusting, trying. To keep hoping.

It’s hard enough to be a parent and plan for your child’s future when your child is more or less standard issue. Not that any child really is, of course. Every single one of us is a unique mixture of strengths and weaknesses, gifts and challenges. But when your child is not neurotypical — when your child has special needs — planning for the future is even harder.

The Teaneck-based institution that tailors education for children with a wide range of special needs, the Sinai Schools, knows that. Some of its students leave its program — particularly its Maor High School, housed at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston —and go on to college, and then to life, all in the mainstream.

(And it is important to add that Sinai is accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools; it is the only Jewish day school for children with special needs to have received that sought-after designation, which is hard to attain and hard to maintain. The school has been accredited since 2004, and that accreditation has been reaffirmed, as it must be, every seven years. As the result of a rigorous process, the accreditation has been renewed in 2011 and 2018.)

Two Sinai students, whose vocational preparedness placement is at 8th Day Caterers, work together in Bergenfield.

But other Sinai students cannot do that, so the school’s high school and post-high school’s focus is on preparing them with the kind of life and work skills that they can use in the jobs that the school can help them get; jobs to which they are suited — there is no one-job-fits-all approach at Sinai, any more than there is a one-anything-fits-anyone-ever approach to anything at Sinai. (Sinai’s students can stay at the school until they are 21; the education, which necessarily is expensive, is paid for by a complex combination of tuition, donations, and state aid, which ends when the student is 21.)

Sinai’s Vocational Preparedness program, in which local partners employ Sinai students, is an integral part of the older students’ training. As in all of Sinai’s programs, a carefully planned progression leads those students for whom it is appropriate into it.

One of those local partners is Brad Ruder of Demarest, a builder who is the founder of the building company Brad-Core, a company constructed around the concierge model, with a team that basically can do almost anything building-related. Ruder is the creator of the concept he calls Humanism in Building and also is, remarkably, the founder of the nonprofit and conceived-and-birthed-and-then-maintained-in-love Senior Source at Riverside Square in Hackensack. He will be one of the honorees at Sinai’s annual dinner and receive the Community Partnership award. (See box.)

That means that it’s a good time to take a look at Sinai’s vocational preparedness program.

When children first start at Sinai — and the younger they start, the better, the school’s administrators and leaders agree — “we hope that we can help each one of them gain the highest level they can attain,” the school’s dean, Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, said. “We don’t have blanket goals. We know that success is defined in so many different ways for our students.”

Just about all of the students on the vocational track “from an outsider’s perspective, seem to have some intellectual disabilities,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. Once they graduate, “Some of them will be able to live independently and will need a less intense level of support, while others will always need people supporting and managing aspects of their lives.” Some will get married — “in the last two years we have had two alumni couples,” the school’s communications director, Abigail Hepner Gross, said. “Both have developmental disabilities.”

Sinai students learn work skills at Villa Marie Claire, the Saddle River hospice owned by partner Holy Name Medical Center.

“That’s what happens when you’re around long enough,” the school’s managing director, Sam Fishman, added. Sinai first opened in 1982. “We have a mom who showed up during my part of the intake process; I was talking to her and learned that she was a Sinai student. And now she has a child going to Sinai,” he said.

“The world changes,” Rabbi Roth-wachs marveled. “Who could have dreamed 30 years ago, or even 20, that two people, both of whom have disabilities, could get married? But now we have supports in place, so it is becoming more commonplace.”

So, when children start at Sinai, “regardless of where a student is on the spectrum, in elementary and middle school the focus is on gaining academic skills. If it is arithmetic, say, or a first-grader learning to put consonants and vowels together, the focus really is academic,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. But each child is treated individually; each student has an individually tailored education. That means that “at certain points, where the gaps between typically developing peers and our students are widening, we don’t say, ‘Okay, good luck.’ We change tracks. We don’t give up on the academics, but at the same time we offer strategies and skills to be able to be successful in the working world.”

Cross River Bank offers Sinai vocational preparedness students the opportunity to learn office skills.

That means that three of the four high schools —one for girls, housed at Ma’ayanot, one for high-school boys, housed at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, and one for boys from 18 through 21, housed at Heichal HaTorah, all in Teaneck, all called Shalem and all named after Rabbi Mark and Linda Karasick, who were among Sinai’s founders and remain among its most committed supporters — “have a functional focus,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “The math is functional math. The writing is functional writing — we teach writing emails, and concentrating on what you want to communicate. Even when we teach the weekly Torah portion, it is about being able to express a Torah thought to your family. It’s not only about the value of Torah; it’s also about the importance of being able to articulate your thoughts to other people.”

“Just like your siblings can,” Mr. Fishman said.

“It’s not uncommon to get a note from a parent that says, ‘For the first time ever, Chaim shared something at the Shabbat table,’’ Ms. Gross said. “Or that ‘Our daughter said the Mah Nishtanah, for the first time ever.’ That’s a big thing, particularly if the kids are not tiny, but they just hadn’t been able to do it before.”

Which brings us to Sinai’s vocational preparedness program.

“What we don’t do is prepare students for a particular trade,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “We don’t look at them in ninth grade and say ‘You have Skill Set X or Profile Y, and that means that working in food services seems like it will suit you, so we can give you seven years of work in food service, so you can have a job in food service.

“Our job is to prepare them to be able to be a member of the workforce. To be an employee. There are so many skills that are necessary in any context that you work in, that are universal, that students have to master to be successful at any job.

Sinai students learn gardening skills from the Bergen County-based education nonprofit Grow Torah.

“So some of our goals are to teach what you do when you get to work and you don’t know what to do. We teach you what to do if you have completed your task and you still are going to be there for another hour. We teach you what to do if you are sick and can’t make it to work. How do you communicate any of that? How do you ask for help? How do you manage things with co-workers? How do you manage if you are not comfortable?”

The training is realistic, Rabbi Rothwachs said; just like everyone else who ever has had or will have a job, sometimes the students will have to do things that are boring or challenging or unappealing. Sinai teaches about that too. “It is no fun to teach children what you do when your boss asks you to do something that you don’t want to do. So we teach it in a hands-on way, in a way that helps them be motivated.

“We value our students’ interests and skill sets,” he continued. “We have students who are passionate about animals, for example, so we try to find experiences that will be good for them, at a vet’s office or as a dog walker. We look for those kinds of experiences, through which we can teach those skills.

Sinai’s vocational preparedness program works with partner Hiro General Auto Repairs in Teaneck to give students the chance to pursue their interests in auto mechanics.

“We have students with interests in graphic design or computer work or data entry; we try to find the opportunity for them to develop those skills in an office. We had a boy who was interested in fixing cars, and he worked with the Bergenfield Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

“Like many students, our Sinai students are interested in working with younger children; often, because it is hard for them at times to develop relationships with their peers, they are less self-conscious and more comfortable with children. So they allow themselves to shine, working in a preschool.”

That ability to shine also is important, Rabbi Rothwachs said. “The other purposeful benefit in teaching them skills is in providing them an opportunity to develop a sense of worth. A sense of value. A sense that they’re contributing to the community. When you go through eighth grade focusing on things that are difficult, and in ninth grade you are able to focus on things that are exciting, that you are talented at, when you can see your own growth — that is a very powerful thing.

“Parents have told us ‘Finally, my child is coming home recognizing their own talents, and also seeing how they can use them at home. It is very powerful.’”

Because it is important to Sinai’s leaders to allow the students to be exposed to many different work experiences, both so they can learn to adapt and also so they can figure out where their interests lie, “and because we often have students for seven years, it can be tricky not to repeat the same experience year after year but to provide a variety of experiences,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “And they spend more and more time at work as they get older. In ninth grade, maybe it’s an hour a week; by the time they are getting ready to leave us, they spend multiple days a week gaining these skills.”

Just as the Sinai Schools focus on each child’s individual strengths and needs; each student’s interests, talents, weaknesses, and learning style; just as Sinai tailors its education to provide what each child needs, so does it custom-fit its vocational preparedness program. “Throughout each child’s entire career, we have a comprehensive student plan,” Mr. Fishman said. “We constantly recalibrate and measure for each strength; when we have achieved that we look at what the next step is.” That is true not only in academics but in vocational preparation as well, he said.

A Sinai student talks to Senior Source participants.

Rabbi Rothwachs agreed. “We have students who are working in a local kosher supermarket, and we have targeted stocking the shelves” as a way to teach workplace skills. “And then, after a while, for whatever reason, should that no longer be the vehicle through which they are learning those skills — maybe they are being distracted by the people going by, or maybe their own motor skills aren’t a good fit — it means that the environment might not be right, but there are so many other opportunities in the same context. Sometimes maybe they go to the backroom of the store, sometimes to another placement.”

Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck has been a wonderful partner for Sinai. “Holy Name is like a little city,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “There are so many things going on there, between the day care and the mail and the laundry and the many offices and the interactions with volunteers and patients. So when we say we have a student whose placement is at Holy Name, that could mean so very many different things.

“Our vocational partners range from billion-dollar corporations to mom-and-pop stores,” he continued. “It is a mixture of experiences; it is important for our students to be able to see what it’s like to work at Party City, or at Holy Name, or at Ma’adan,” to name just a few of many local businesses. Rabbi Rothwachs is deeply grateful to all of them, he said. “Their work is remarkable.

Sinai at Ma’ayanot students and their teachers explain and model mindfulness at Senior Source.

“The partners approach this with a full heart,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “They want to do good for the students, and for the community. But often we place a student, and then the partner — the employer — realizes that this is so much more than just our doing chesed,” an act of loving kindness. “The student is really good at this. If I could pay them, I would.

“So sometimes the employers ask, ‘Is it okay if we pay them over the summer?’ It energizes the students, and it’s eye-opening to the employers. They realize that it’s not just an okay thing to do, it’s not just cute to hire Sinai students. These students really make a difference.”

Why is that? What do the students add? “They come with less baggage,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “They are focused on their work.” They worry less about advancement and positioning and how they look when they work. They give more of themselves to what they are doing, and they get more from it.” And at a time when often it is hard for employers to find people to hire for the unglamorous jobs that Sinai students happily perform, often it fills a very real need in the workplace.

A Sinai student at work at his vocational preparedness placement at EJ’s Place in Teaneck.

“It’s very gratifying for us to be part of the vanguard,” Mr. Fishman said. “We talk about inclusion a lot, but we’re talking about our schools.” The Sinai model, with its programs housed inside other schools, always has balanced including each student in the life of that school with his or her own specific special needs, which mandate separate classroom work. It’s a delicate balance. “This is inclusion in the community,” he continued. “This is just another way of seeing the remarkable progress and progressiveness of our community over the last few decades.”

Sinai now has about 45 students in the vocational preparedness program, “and that number is growing,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. Their placements can be just a walk from the student’s high school, or it can be 20 or so minutes away by car. And the students can’t go alone. They are accompanied by a job coach.

It’s a complex operation, finding placements for students, arranging the transportation and finding the coaches. The logistical challenge can be formidable, but like most of Sinai’s work, the arrangements have grown along with the programs. “I remember that 20 years ago, our vocational program at TABC was having our students driven by volunteers,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “We also had far fewer students. The sophistication with which we approach our work has developed over time. It is a huge undertaking.”

“It’s a big, intricate, complex puzzle,” Mr. Fishman added.

That brings them to Brad Ruder, the builder they will honor. “One of the nicest things about what I do is that I get to meet people who operate on a different level of kindness, with hearts of gold and a kind of selflessness. When I first met Brad, I thought that I was sitting with someone with a real heart of gold. He has made a continuum between his business life and his professional life that is part of working to make the world a better place.

“He seems to believe that he was put here to use every skill and talent and gift that he has to make the world a better place.”

Brad Ruder of Brad-Core and a Sinai Schools student work together on the student’s vocational preparedness assignment at Mr. Ruder’s office, behind Senior Source in Riverside Square mall in Hackensack. (Sinai Schools)

Mr. Ruder is a builder; he knew from the time he was a child, growing up in Livingston (and not all that long ago; he’s not yet turned 50 although that milestone is approaching) he always wanted to create things himself, using his own hands. He went to the construction management program that Purdue University pioneered; it’s a multidisciplinary education that prepares a graduate to do just about anything in building, including the ability to build a career at the highest levels of huge global corporations. It includes hands-on work, on the theory that you can’t direct and manage it if you don’t know how to do it, so Mr. Ruder spent summers working in New York City subway tunnels for Local 731. “Picture a Jewish kid covered like a miner in the tunnels. I was ridiculed a lot — they’d say ‘Bradley,’” he said, infusing his name with every last bit of pretend effete ineffectual snobbery he could manage — that’s a lot! — as he imitated his co-workers. But he stuck it out, and earned their respect when he graduated in 1992 and went on to a career at high-power, high-end corporations including Skanska and Hensel Phelps; during that time he got married, to Linda, who is a social worker, they moved to Demarest, and they had two daughters.

In 2007, Mr. Ruder decided that he needed a change. He’d tried corporate life and he loved it, but he had gone far from the hands-on work he loved. So he decided to start his own company. “I had zero plans,” he said. “But I knew I could always go back.” But he wanted to work on a more personal level; he wanted to be part of the community; he wanted to do well while doing good.

As a member of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, Mr. Ruder found good friends and mentors; the executive director then, Avi Lewinson, who coincidentally had been his camp counselor at the MetroWest JCC, influenced him greatly. Mr. Lewinson’s concern about other people, his curiosity and his goodness, his ability to listen and to hear, made him a great role model. And Norman Seiden, the entrepreneur and philanthropist who died last year, and whose ethic of giving and personal involvement was key to developing the culture of philanthropy in Jewish Bergen County, took him on. “For whatever reason, Norman saw something in me,” Mr. Ruder said; the fact that Mr. Seiden, like Mr. Ruder, was a Purdue graduate certainly didn’t hurt. “My father had just died, and Norman came into my life. He was in the background for everything I did, as a loving, caring mentor.”

Mr. Ruder also met Drs. Arnold and Sandra Gold — Arnold Gold died in 2018 — whose passionate work for decency and goodness — and also rigorous science — led to their work for humanism in medicine.

Mr. Ruder played with that concept and came up with humanism in building. It’s about developing relationships with clients, it’s about providing them with whatever help they need, it’s about being professional but not allowing professionalism to wall off genuine connection, and equally about developing connections but not allowing them to compromise quality. It’s about collaboration. It’s about doing what you do best and developing a team to do the things they do best.

It takes off.

“So now I have this company up and running, and soon I realized that it’s odd to be just taking money from the community. I needed to do something. Some big thing. So I started Senior Source.”

Senior Source is an extraordinary project. It’s a place, a big room with big windows facing out into Riverside Square mall in Hackensack; Brad-Core’s headquarters are behind it, incidentally windowless. The light and air goes to Senior Source.

Senior Source is a place for older people — and for that matter anyone else, everyone who finds themselves free during the day and has a yen for company or lectures or exercise or mahjong or for whatever else is on the schedule that day. It’s entirely free, does not offer memberships, is completely open (that big window is both a physical and a metaphoric reality), and is a gift and labor of love from Brad Ruder and his family to the community.

Brad Ruder and a Senior Source participant talk to a Sinai student as her teacher looks on.

Mr. Ruder’s mother, Leslie Greenberg, a retired social worker, a source of energy and caring and love, is an integral part of Senior Source, which is run almost entirely by volunteers. The exception is Michelle Silver, Dr. Sandra Gold’s daughter, who has taken her parents’ commitment to humanism and brought it to a new arena.

Senior Source is a remarkable institution; it deserves its own story and soon we’ll tell it here. For now, though, it’s enough to say that Brad Ruder, Leslie Greenberg, Michelle Silver, and Senior Source’s volunteers and participants have developed relationships with Sinai. Sinai students work at Senior Source; they develop real relationships with participants. “It is miraculous how at every level they have affected us, and we have affected them,” Ms. Greenberg said.

Mr. Ruder also established the Brad-Core Humanism in Building scholarship fund at Sinai, showing once again that he means what he says and actively does good in the world.

The model that all of these institutions — Sinai, Senior Source, Brad-Core — use, the model that demands that you look at each person as unique, as a person with real value, as someone who has needs and also as someone who has something to give, have affected the lives of the very real people they touch.

Rabbi Mark Karasick of Teaneck knows that. Not only were he and his wife, Linda, among the five couples who worked with Rabbi Dr. Wallace Green to found Sinai, not only is he the chair of Sinai’s board these many decades later, but he also can see the effect that it had on two of their four sons.

The first Sinai program started when Yakov Karasick was 6 years old, his father said; all the founding families had sons with special needs whom they knew would benefit from the individualized education. When that cohort reached high school age, Sinai expanded to meet their needs, growing both vertically and horizontally. “And as it became evident that some of these boys were not going to college, the question was how do we prepare them for life,” Rabbi Karasick said. The need for vocational training became clear, “so our original approach was to local vendors, local stores, local business, that would offer the opportunity for our boys to be able to go there and develop a skill.”

“Yakov worked in Ma’adan,” the kosher food store in Teaneck, “for 10, 12 years,” he continued. “He loved it, and they loved him. They still do. It was a great setting for him, and also very convenient.” Yakov first lived at home and then moved to Sinai’s Sheli house, also in Teaneck, where he is today.

“And then he moved over to Yavneh, and he’s been there for 10 years. He works in the kitchen; he helps set up lunch for the kids. He’s very beloved.

“And over the summer, when there is no school, he goes to Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn and works for Janusz.” That’s Janusz Legutko, Shomrei Torah’s custodian, who also volunteers as a counselor at the Sheli house, because everything connects. “He loves it there,” Rabbi Karasick said.

Mark and Linda Karasick’s other son with special needs, Avi, “worked at Holy Name Hospital — which we have a special, very close relationship with — about 20 years ago. He delivered mail; he had his own badge and the run of the hospital. It gave him a feeling of independence, and let him feel good about himself.”

That’s one major component of Sinai’s vocational preparation program, Rabbi Karasick said. “What a student can do depends on that student’s level and skill. Some can learn real-life skills, and the others are able to go and spend their time productively during the day, helping both the institution and themselves. And it helps their parents, who would have to figure out how to keep their children occupied during each otherwise hauntingly empty day. “That is a terrible responsibility and drain and worry for parents, to occupy their time and keep them busy,” he said.

“The main thing about Sinai is that there is an individual education program for each child,” Rabbi Karasick summed up. “We see what needs to be done, and we do it. This vocational program is an especially important piece for those students who need to find a place for themselves for the rest of their lives.”

 


Who: The Sinai Schools

What: Holds its annual benefit dinner

When: On Sunday, February 23,
4:45 p.m.

Where: At the Marriott Glenpointe Hotel, 100 Frank W. Burr Blvd, Teaneck.

Why: To raise funds to support the school, and to honor Rabbi Yosef Adler, Philip and Peggy Danishefsky, Rabbi Yehudah and Laurie Minchenberg, and Brad Ruder.

For more information and reservations: Call (201) 833-1134, email info@sinaischools.org, or go to www.sinaischools.org/dinner/2020/reservations

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