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At Jewish School in New Jersey, Autistic Students Make Progress

June 23, 2005
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The first graduating class at the Hineni school here might have been small, but it still represented a milestone for the institution, which serves Jewish children with autism. Founded in 2002 and with a current enrollment of 11 students ranging from ages 3 to 12, Hineni is one of the only schools in the country for Jewish autistic children.

Because they are small and have problems qualifying for federal funds, Jewish schools have particular difficulties helping special-needs children.

But as the June 15 ceremony at Hineni demonstrated, the rewards can be great.

The 20-minute ceremony featured a brief video about Hineni, the presentation of diplomas and a short musical performance by students in the school, which is a branch of the Sinai Special Needs Institute. The Sinai institute consists of eight schools in New Jersey serving Jewish children with learning and developmental disabilities.

The graduation resonated with Barbara Listhaus. Her son, Jonathan, not only graduated from the school, he is also one of the chief motivations for its founding.

Though Jonathan, 13, had attended several therapeutic programs in his early years, Barbara Listhaus wanted to send him to a school serving autistic children in a Jewish religious setting.

So she approached Laurette Rothwachs, the dean of Sinai, and suggested the establishment of a program dedicated exclusively to educating Jewish autistic children. Together, they worked to develop a curriculum based on the principles of applied behavior analysis, which seeks to build language and social skills through structured learning programs and constant reinforcement. Students also receive occupational and speech therapy.

“We do a lot of review and repetition and we work hard to make sure they’ve mastered their skills before they move on to new skills,” says Judi Karp, the assistant dean of Sinai.

According to the Medical Research Council, one in 165 children in the United States is born with autism, a psychiatric disorder that begins when children are young and is marked by severe language impairment and an inability to develop social skills. Rothwachs says the rates among children in the Jewish community are the same.

Almost all of Hineni’s programs consist of one-on-one instruction. The school also has special observation booths featuring one-way mirrors adjacent to the classrooms, allowing parents and faculty to observe students without being seen by the students.

What makes Hineni unusual, however, is that it is located within the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, a modern Orthodox day school in Livingston. That backdrop enables Hineni students to integrate with their peers in social settings such as sports, prayer services, meals and even the school bus.

“The most important thing is that he’s been able to socialize and be with other kids,” Listhaus says. “That has a significant impact. Because we don’t feel embarrassed by him, we don’t have to hide him.”

Nearly all of the students live in New York or New Jersey, enabling a convenient commute. Listhaus, in fact, relocated to New Jersey from Allentown, Pa., so that Jonathan could attend the school.

Hineni’s direct embedment within the broader Jewish day school system is particularly important for the families of the students.

“Special needs families desperately need the support of their community,” says Rothwachs. Hineni “affords them the opportunity to stay within the community.”

Community programming also includes the Chabad-run Friendship Circle, in which local teenagers, some of them Kushner students, come visit the Hineni students in their homes at least once a week in order to play with them.

The variety of social opportunities presented by the school as well as the scientific advances in research have facilitated the advancement of Hineni students, Rothwachs says.

Next year, Jonathan Listhaus will be attending a more advanced vocational school, while the other two graduating students will be entering a different Sinai program within Kushner.

“When I started in the field, they spent the rest of their lives” in developmental programs, says Gedalya Persky, the administrative director of Hineni, who has worked with autistic children and adults for more than 25 years.

That, he says, is no longer the case. At Hineni, students “have a chance to really blossom in life. The technology of teaching children has really advanced.”

The program isn’t cheap, though: Tuition at Hineni is $65,000 a year. According to administrators, most of the students’ families receive funding from the school district.

In order to receive government funding, Hineni is officially nonsectarian; the Jewish studies component of the curriculum is optional and takes place both before and after regular school hours.

Persky notes, however, that not all the students come from religious families, and that many parents send their children to the school in large part because of the high quality of its education.

While Sinai has no immediate plans to open additional schools for autistic children, Rothwachs says Hineni’s success reflects the growing need for such programming in the Jewish community.

“I get calls from people in Canada and Florida” asking about Sinai programs for their children, Rothwachs says. “It’s taking on a life of its own.”

Testifying to the school’s success, Hineni last year received accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

“You and your students have touched us deeply; we marvel at the task you have set for yourselves and the apparent success you are achieving,” the commission report stated. “The devotion with which you approach your goals is commendable.”

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