It seems as if special needs sensitivity has always been with us. Sadly that was not the case in the past; even today, although it is acknowledged, it is not universally accepted as a norm or a more.
Rabbi Aharon Hersh Fried, a Munkacher hasid with a doctorate in education from the New School, was the pioneer, opening a school in the old Kedem wine factory in Brooklyn in the 1970s for hasidic boys with learning disabilities. Soon after, P’TACH was created in New York City as a lobbying organization for children with learning differences. It morphed into a provider some years later.
In New Jersey, in the 1970s, frum parents with special needs children had no real options other than to place them in special public school programs or bus them to New York, which at that time had a few so-so programs. Most principals, myself included, were not fully sensitized to the needs of this population, nor were they willing to provide programs for them. Although we had resource rooms, and I successfully lobbied the state (along with the archdiocese of Newark) to allow the state to provide remedial services to private and parochial schools, more serious disabilities were not addressed. Bear in mind that at this time there were no degree programs in special education nor was it on our radar.
In general, parents are the most successful advocates for their own children. In my shul there were two families with special needs children who were being educated in the local public schools in a totally alien environment. Rabbi Dr. Fried was invited by one parent to address a sisterhood meeting to educate people about the special needs community and how to serve them. Perhaps the audience would then go out and lobby the day schools to provide these services.
All Bergen County principals were invited. None showed up. Although my school was in Essex County, I came since it was in my shul and I was interested in learning about this issue. When the presentation was over I was embarrassed that as an educator I had not thought about these children and how to serve them on my own. Thus was born the idea of what eventually became the Sinai program.
There were two families in Fair Lawn and one in Teaneck who became the initial supporters of what at that time was only a dream. My initial task was to become an autodidact in the field. I had to learn about different learning disabilities and how to determine which issues a potential program could realistically handle. Then I had to develop the program.
I met with P’TACH and others and decided that their philosophy would not work in our setting. My initial thinking was that these children ought not to be stigmatized by being isolated and separated more than necessary from the general school population. I wanted them on the same bus, in the same lunchroom, and, as much as feasible, in the same classes with everyone else, except when a self-contained class was necessary.
Essentially I wanted to create a school within a school. Then I had to convince my board. It was a hard sell. All were good people, but they reflected society’s fear of the unknown. At one meeting I even went around the table showing that each board member had a cognitive impairment. I appealed to Torah values, and communal responsibility for all children. I was fortunate that the school leadership allowed me such latitude to make my case. It took two years of intensive lobbying. Finally they agreed to one class if I could raise the operating budget a year in advance. We started with five children in 1982.
This program became a success because our vision was vindicated. Even the children who were not in the program became sensitized to the point that they would shelter some of the children from insensitive remarks from some classmates. The entire school became a hesed machine. Even the custodian became protective of “his kids.” The Learning Disabilities Program of Metropolitan New Jersey became a nationally recognized provider of services that were equal to or superior to that which was offered in the public sector, but within a culturally sensitive (i.e., frum) environment. Families moved to New Jersey for what eventually became known as Sinai.
My dream was that every school should have such a program. There are dozens of Jewish day schools in New Jersey; every one should have a Sinai program. Yes, it’s expensive. But so is losing a single Jewish neshama — spirit. Eyeglasses, contact lenses, canes, braces, and hearing aids are socially accepted ways of dealing with certain deficits. Special needs are called “special” because each child is special, and we as a community have an obligation to meet every child’s needs.