Singing “Lecha Dodi” at Friday night services was a revelation for Daniel Lapidow, who couldn’t read Hebrew and often felt “lost” during prayers. That feeling changed one Friday night at the Chabad Jewish Student Center at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) in Ewing.
Calling the prayer welcoming the Sabbath an “amazing song,” he said, “we pushed the chairs away, and all the guys were in a circle dancing. I could feel a hand from the circle pulling me in. … I never felt so much Yiddishkeit.”
That experience led him to further his Jewish learning and become a Sinai Scholar in his sophomore year. The Sinai Scholars Society, a national program at college campuses throughout the country, is a joint project of Chabad on Campus and the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. It’s a course of study that teaches “life through the eyes of Judaism,” according to Kivi Greenbaum, Chabad’s co-director and Judaics professor at TCNJ. “We see how ancient Jewish teachings apply to modern-day scenarios,” he said, explaining that the curriculum focuses on the purpose of life, of the Jewish people, of Torah, and of mitzvot (good deeds). The program accepts 10 to 12 students each year.
At TCNJ, the Sinai Scholars Society includes undergraduates and students from the college’s Career & Community Studies (CCS) certificate program for young adults with intellectual disabilities; Lapidow, who has severe dyslexia and depression, graduated from CCS in 2017.
Rabbi Kivi Greenbaum Photo Courtesy Kivi Greenbaum
The 10-year-old CCS program at TCNJ offers a college experience to students with intellectual or developmental disabilities, explained assistant director Amy Schuler, a member of Temple Micah in Lawrenceville. “Part of college is not only an academic experience, but a social and independent-living component; if you want to grow in that fashion, the best place is on a college campus with other kids doing the same thing,” Schuler said.
CCS students take courses taught by CCS staff and attend TCNJ classes with accommodations; they live together in a dorm with a student-life mentor and are active in campus clubs. They also participate in on-campus work opportunities and off-campus internships, and many graduates now live independently and work in paid jobs.
Lapidow recommended the TCNJ Sinai Scholars program to other CCS students, and sophomore Rachel Beck, who is studying special education and applied to Sinai Scholars to deepen her understanding of Judaism, encouraged Greenbaum to include them.
“I asked [Greenbaum] why they couldn’t and [told him] that they would enjoy it,” she wrote in an email to NJJN. “I was very happy to hear that they were given the opportunity to take the course.”
Beck attended the fall Sinai Scholars series with a CCS student she was matched with through TCNJ’s Best Buddies club: “This class was another bonding opportunity for us besides our current bi-weekly social events or meals,” she wrote.
The eight sessions focus on Jewish identity, peoplehood, rituals, love and marriage, Torah ethics, mysticism, and survival. After each class the students sit down together for a meal cooked by Greenbaum and his wife, Zeesy, co-director of the Chabad.
Greenbaum told NJJN that a point of emphasis for them is to treat each student as an individual. Noting the diversity among the CCS students, he said, some are able to plunge into heated classroom debate, while others “are more reserved and quiet and can’t handle that kind of in-your-face debate style.” Some also struggle socially, he said.
Daniel Lapidow Photo Courtesy Daniel Lapidow
For the shy, quiet students who have difficulty relating and giving input, Greenbaum tells them in advance what question he will be asking them in class to encourage their participation.
“It was nice to see the rabbi bringing it down to students who didn’t understand these things,” said Lapidow, now a part-time staff member in the CCS program. “A lot of these kids told me that their rabbis at home didn’t understand their disabilities.” He posited that Greenbaum may be particularly sensitive to the CCS students because a member of his wife’s family has a developmental disability.
Besides learning, socializing with other students is integral to the Sinai Scholars program. “We try to get everyone in the class to know each other,” Greenbaum said. Each semester students in the class take a field trip together, whether to Lakewood to visit Jewish establishments or Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to participate in Chabad’s annual Shabbaton of college students.
Outside of his CSS job, when he has free time Lapidow now studies at Yeshiva Tiferes Bachurim in Morristown, a division of the Rabbinical College of America. He is also a blacksmith under the name “Hebrew Hammer Blacksmith,” doing his own smithing at the Blacksmith Shop of Trenton, teaching, and traveling to shows and festivals.
Lapidow is proud that he helped the Jewish CCS students get involved in the Sinai Scholars classes. “They liked the rabbi and liked the atmosphere,” he said. “It is discussion based, and no matter what your background, disabled or not, you could ask questions.