New York City’s first Jewish day school for children with disabilities is planning to build its home on the site of what used to be an Upper West Side synagogue’s pool.
The Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue on West 86th Street, is in discussions to host the Shefa School, which will focus on serving children with learning disabilities. When the contract process is concluded the school sees spending about $750,000 to transform the building’s cement-floored seventh story in time to welcome its first two classes next fall, Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, told the Jewish Week.
“The upside is that we’re going to have room to grow and a space that works for us,” Ruskay-Kidd said. “The downside is that we have to manage a construction project.”
Ruskay-Kidd did not respond to questions about when the contract process will be finished.
"It's just the complexity of a New York real estate deal," she wrote in an e-mail.
The school already has about $500,000, a gift from the Poses Family Foundation, toward the sum it needs, Ruskay-Kidd said. During its first three years, most of the school’s rent will be covered by the cost of the building project, she said.
“Being in a synagogue really enables kids and families to see Jewish life in action,” she said. “It’s much more powerful for children to experience it than it is for us to talk about it.”
"What Shefa is doing is not just a blessing for its students; it is a blessing for the Jewish people," said Rabbi Yosie Levine of the Jewish Center. "We care deeply about enriching the Jewish lives – not just of our members – but of the Jewish community in the broadest sense of the term."
The school's first two classes will include children ages 7 to 9; ultimately, Shefa will serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade, Ruskay-Kidd said.
It has already raised $2 million and is working toward a fundraising goal of $5 million to secure its needs to start and operate for its first three years, Ruskay-Kidd said.
Some sources of funding for projects serving people with disabilities, like the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Ruderman Family Foundation, are known for their desire to support “inclusion” programs, or those that integrate people with disabilities into mainstream settings, Ruskay-Kidd acknowledged.
“There are certainly some who are not interested in this project for this reason, but when you scratch the service there are so many who made a different choice, and some people just want to increase the options even if they’re pro-inclusion,” she said. “To the extent that Jewish day schools become more inclusive and we become obsolete, that will be my great pleasure.”
But in New York, most day schools won’t serve children with disabilities, and their families end up leaving the day school world and resenting the Jewish community in general, Ruskay-Kidd said.
The Shefa School is a necessary option right now, said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a disability activist known for her emphasis on inclusion.
“The best model would be to include these children, with supports, into mainstream classrooms in the least restricted way possible,” Mizrahi said. “So as long as the bigotry and short-sighted leadership continues, Shefa is a good interim solution.”