There are some kids who struggle in a class or two, but are able to get the extra help they need to stay in a mainstream Jewish Day School. For me, multiple subjects were challenging, and it was clear to my parents that I needed something more.  I toured several schools and remember how nothing compared to SINAI.  In one school I noticed that nobody wore a kippah, and at another the “special ed” class was in the basement of the building.  Seeing SINAI at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy (JKHA) for the first time was an unforgettable experience.  I can picture the light filled lobby, the atrium garden, and most importantly, the lively SINAI classrooms, which dotted the halls of JKHA and were not singled out as “Special Ed.”  My parents were impressed with the SINAI philosophy that provides an individualized program based on the needs of each child.

I started at SINAI in the first grade, and struggled with learning to read. I have a clear memory of doing homework at the kitchen table, trying to sound out the word “JET” – my mother and older sister remember this as well.  It was rough.  Ms. Judi Karp, SINAI’s Associate Dean, did not waver and SINAI stayed true to its mission of “an individualized approach to teaching.” Ms. Karp decided that a multisensory, progressive approach, called the Wilson method, was the way to go for me.  Fast forward several years: my mom, sister, and I look back on those days when I struggled and see the beauty – and the humor – in the group effort of trying to get me to read the word “JET”!  By fourth grade, I had made significant progress and was mainstreamed into several Kushner classes.  I felt like a full member of both the SINAI and Kushner student bodies.

SINAI was always in-tune with what I needed.  My computer skills were advanced, although I had poor handwriting. Ms. Karp came up with the idea of getting me a portable word processor, called AlphaSmart – basically a digital notepad. This was in 2005, years before computers were common in classrooms.   It enabled me to easily take notes and keep up in class while maintaining my independence. 

I appreciated Jewish studies and loved the strong Zionistic atmosphere at school.  Being immersed in an Orthodox education and what that gave me, like davening in a minyan, and learning our traditions and history, left an indelible imprint.  I grew up expecting that I would go on to a gap year in Israel.  After I graduated from SINAI’s Maor High School at RKYHS (Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School), I spent a great year in yeshiva, studying Tanach while living in a caravan in Judea and Samaria.

The partnership between SINAI and Kushner led to me finding my career path. I am an ‘early adopter’ of technology. In ninth grade I joined the RKYHS video club and developed a close relationship with Gary Berger, Kushner’s Head of Guidance and faculty director of the video club.  I quickly picked up many aspects of film production, and Mr. Berger supported my interest in film.   It made no difference that I was a SINAI student – in fact, during the middle of my junior year, I became the leader of the club.  Being in the video club, leading it, and being asked to come back after I graduated to supervise and teach students in the club were defining experiences that profoundly influenced my future.  I graduated from The School of Visual Arts for college, and have since worked for the acclaimed directors Eliza Hittman and Nathan Silver, along with a hot production company, Three Strikes Incorporated.  Watch for their names in the Oscar nominations. In addition, I was an assistant editor for the film “Beach Rats,” which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and has my name listed in the closing credits.  It’s pretty cool to see “Zev Rand” on the big screen.

Based on my experience, I can tell you that stigma is a sensitive issue. I didn’t want to be thought of as the kid with learning disabilities.  Ten years after graduating high school, I look back and realize how remarkable the SINAI and Kushner administrators were in integrating both schools to create a judgment-free environment based on acceptance and inclusion.  Still, stigma is a work in progress for me.  I continue to work on seeing things clearly – without judgment about others, or of myself – and to embrace that I am a fully realized member of the Jewish community.  Every step in the direction of acceptance brings us all closer to the clarity of true human value.

SINAI gave me what I needed to highlight my strengths, form enriching relationships with teachers, and build lasting friendships with a wide range of my peers.  When I think about the concept of SINAI – a special education yeshiva that provides a progressive, individualized education, a value system, and a community for kids who might otherwise be marginalized – I am blown away by how fortunate I am.  I am impressed by my parents, and grateful to them for their unwavering support.  They are role models of dedication who I hope to emulate.  I will forever be thankful to my ‘dream team’ – my parents, SINAI, Kushner, Ms. Karp, Gary Berger – and the path they helped me reach. I feel blessed to have had wise mentors who encouraged me, and unique learning opportunities shaped to meet my needs, all of which helped me become who I am today.

By Zev Rand