When Ilana Ruskay-Kidd decided start a Jewish day school for children with disabilities in 2012, she expected to be challenged by fundraising and finding teachers well versed in both Judaism and special education. What she didn’t expect was how hard it would be to find a location.
So after 18 months and several false starts it came as a great relief to Ruskay-Kidd to find a home for The Shefa School at Lincoln Square Synagogue.
“My initial assumption was that there would be plenty of synagogues with extra space,” she said. “But it was very hard to find the right space and make it appropriate for a school.”
Most synagogues in Ruskay-Kidd’s preferred neighborhood, the Upper West Side, are old buildings, which are often difficult to make code-compliant for use as a school. (For example, a plan to convert The Jewish Center’s swimming pool into classrooms was scrapped because they ran into building code issues.)
Plus, she said, “Many of the buildings where there is room already had tenants, and synagogue boards; let’s just say they’re not the most nimble in terms of their decision-making process.”
Last week, Ruskay-Kidd signed a two-year lease in Lincoln Square’s year-old building, on Amsterdam Avenue at 68th Street. The school will be held in five classrooms on the second floor, down the hall from the shul’s beit midrash, Jewish study hall. Shefa will also be able to use the building’s terrace. The Manhattan Star Academy, an elementary school for children with developmental delays, has rented the synagogue’s third floor.
Ruskay-Kidd is thrilled to be able to have the school in a synagogue.
“For children to see Jewish life as it’s lived is a powerful message,” she said. “To see people praying and see the sanctuary with a Torah and see the sukkah … living in a Jewish community is a very powerful lesson for kids to observe and experience.”
The Shefa School will open in the fall, with about two-dozen children with language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia. There will be one class of second and third graders and one with fourth and fifth grade students. Eventually, Ruskay-Kidd plans to extend the school from kindergarten through eighth grade.
This is New York City’s first Jewish day school for children with learning disabilities, and parents have applied from as far as Far Rockaway, Bergen County and White Plains.
“I didn’t think people would travel so far,” said Ruskay-Kidd. “What it says is that there are not enough options.”
The school will be non-denominational with families ranging from haredi to reform. “It’s rare in schools to have such a diverse group, particularly in New York where you get to pick your exact flavor of religious observance,” said Ruskay-Kidd.
But for kids with learning disabilities, the choice is between a secular school with no Jewish education or a Jewish school where they’re going to have a “rich, exciting and deep Jewish experience” but not exactly like what they do at home, she said.
Funding for the schools has come from big donors such as UJA, and the Covenant and Littauer foundations as well as individuals.
“We are literally both getting checks for $18 and over half a million dollars,” she said.
As for Lincoln Square, the synagogue is thrilled to have Shefa in the building.
“It’s wonderful; we’re ecstatic about it,” said Perry Davis, co-chair of the synagogue’s building use committee.
The synagogue designed the building with extra space both to generate income and to bring more people from the community into the shul.
“When we opened the building a year ago we wanted a total makeover,” he said. “We wanted a synagogue that was buzzing all day, every day of the week.
“With Shefa you get both. This is a wonderful way to fill the classrooms and fill them with Jewish education for children who wouldn’t be served adequately in other day schools,” he said, adding, “As Rabbi [Shaul] Robinson put it, ‘This is just a great shidduch.’”