Today, both parents and educators pursue special services. But costs can be astronomical, and the process confusing and frustrating. That’s where Leah Steinberg comes in.
ears ago children who weren’t performing well in school would sit in the back of the classroom daydreaming and wasting the day away. Today parents and educators are aggressively pursuing special services so that every student has a chance to succeed. But the costs can be astronomical and the process of securing services can be confusing and frustrating. That’s where Leah Steinberg director of AgudathIsrael’s Project LEARN comes in.
I’m having a dinner date with Leah at the new Bison and Bourbon located onSeventh Street in an industrial area just offBrooklyn’s Gowanus Expressway. Think Lowe’s Home Depot Ikea warehouses and — yes trendy restaurants. It’s yet another area ofBrooklynthat’s being gentrified for a young hipster crowd.
Back to Leah. In the interest of full disclosure I should state that I know Leah from way back. I was vaguely aware of her work as special education coordinator for Agudah but it was only recently when I heard about her semiprivate White House tour that I realized that Leah was in the big league.
So I invited her out to dinner at B and B which turned out to be an eye-opening experience both in terms of Leah and location. We arrive on a humid summer night and the place which just opened a few months ago is bustling. I admire the outdoor courtyard area with its arched entranceways streetlights trees and whimsical mural-painted brick walls that give off an aura ofMainStreet USA. Combine all that with a distinctly casual and easy vibe and you know you’ve stumbled upon something unique.
There’s plenty of seating both indoors and out as well as a balcony area. We choose an indoor table and meet Andree the general manager. Clearly a fellow who likes to schmooze he tells us about the history of this location. In the 1920s B and B was a massive warehouse that was eventually converted into a Turkish restaurant called The Bhache. More recently three entrepreneurial and visionary Chabadniks David Menashe and Ariel turned it into a kosher steakhouse that’s apparently become an overnight sensation. Andree says he’s booked 300 reservations just for tonight alone! The clientele ranges from heimish to hipster and everything in between.
We’re introduced to our waitress Chelsea and our food runner Samantha both of whom are eager to please us. The executive chef is the talented and innovative Cyndi Stanimirov. Instead of having us order our dishes Samantha decides to surprise us with her own personal favorites.
As we wait for our first course Leah tells me how she came to become the voice of advocacy for special needs children in our community. Originally she says she was interested in pursuing another field entirely but somewhere along the way she realized that “I have a passion for this.”
Still, she didn’t really jump in until Rabbi Yaakov Bender of Yeshiva Darchei Torah offered to set up an interview for her with Agudath Israel.
It was a little scary at first. Leah claims that “I’m not exactly a noisy person.” But on the other hand, she’s determined.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudah, was intrigued by Leah’s suggestions and asked her to write up a proposal. It was a pivotal moment. “I was floored,” says Leah. “I felt I now had an opportunity to make real change. So I sat down and wrote about my dreams for educating special needs kids.”
At the time, Leah still had young children at home, “and three in shidduchim!” But Rabbi Zwiebel was impressed with her vision. “He called me back on Erev Pesach and invited me to come work at Agudah. I wasn’t really ready to go to work. I said I’ll volunteer. But he said no, if you’re hired it will give you more achrayus to get the job done. He was totally on board.”
It didn’t start as smoothly as she would have liked. Some at Agudah thought she was hired as a typist and others were skeptical of her goals. “Do you think you can change the world?” they would ask.
She started working on a small scale program, opening a self-contained classroom at a local yeshivah. It would consist of a small group of special needs students, who would ultimately benefit by being housed in a larger mainstream yeshivah setting. It was a trial run that was ultimately successful. Today there are similar programs in many schools.
We are interrupted by Samantha, who brings us our appetizers. I’m looking at a rectangular slab of grilled something, I’m not sure what, accompanied by a salad. It’s bright red and lightly charred, sprinkled with pine nuts and pomegranate seeds. Salmon? A block of pickled beef? Samantha solves the mystery easily. “It’s watermelon,” she tells us.
Indeed it is watermelon, charred on the surface, but lusciously sweet and refreshing all the same. Its toppings enhance its flavor. On the side is a salad lightly dressed in pomegranate vinegar. Not quite what we would expect, but I’m beginning to see that we’re in for a few surprises tonight.
As we enjoy our watermelon on this sweltering day, Leah tells me her mission statement. “My goal,” she explains, “is never to hang up on a parent unless I can help them in some way.” That sounds ambitious to me. But for Leah, it means that she had to teach herself the many intricate details of the special education system in New York State.
And that’s just what she did.
“We helped pass the Carter Law,” she tells me, “which clarifies that if the district’s public school is unable to provide an appropriate educational placement for a child, they are obligated to pay for a placement elsewhere as long as the parent can prove that the child’s educational needs are met.”
In this way, she was able to advocate for thousands of children and secure funding for their special education. “I’ve been working on this since I came to Agudath Israel,” she tells me. “And we’re still working on it. As a result of that process, there developed a very close working relationship between the mayor’s office and myself.”
One thing led to another, and Leah began researching the laws herself, designing ways of improving them. “I started reframing and rewriting the laws,” she says. “It meant I had to learn the whole system.”
Reimbursements were coming in, but slowly at first. So Leah met with representatives of the governor’s office as well as the legal counsel of the state assembly. Eventually they began to ask her to help them navigate the legal system. “I became the authority in Albany for everybody,” she says.
Because of her expertise, she was appointed to chair the NYC chancellor’s Subcommittee for Special Education in Nonpublic Schools. She also is a member of the governor’s Developmental Disabilities Advisory Council, which deals with individuals with disabilities.
Not bad for a former Boro Park housewife. I wonder aloud how she made that transition. “I had to come out of my shell,” Leah says, “in order to make this work. Also, I was told to say kapitel kuf chaf gimmel (123) in Tehillim for chizuk.”
She also tried to stay focused on her mission. “I decided it’s not about me,” she explains. “It’s about the kids of Klal Yisrael who need my help. For some reason Hashem decided I should be the one to do this. And that helps me overcome my shyness.”
The noise level at B and B is rising as we speak, as the evening dinner crowd arrives. There’s an animated and energetic chatter all around us, the healthy sound of people connecting and enjoying. Samantha returns to our table with lamb ribs covered in pea puree and served in a cast-iron skillet. The lamb literally glistens in its soy hoisin sauce marinade. It’s dark and grilled to perfection. But the real eye-opener is the pea puree, which adds a vibrant and dramatic deep green color.
We are both thrilled with the lamb. The seared dark outer crust is just half the fun. Inside, it’s bursting with juices and sizzling with flavor. We take a few moments to fully enjoy it.
I ask Leah if she’s ever met Mayor de Blasio personally. Oh sure, she tells me. “You wouldn’t believe how tall he is.”
Since she’s so involved in politics, I bring up the upcoming presidential elections. As a representative of Agudah, Leah can’t endorse specific candidates, but she does comment that Hillary is “very focused” and that “she actually looks better in real life than in pictures. I never realized her eyes were so blue!”
Leah travels regularly to Albany and to Washington, DC. She’s not a namedropper by nature, but when I ask her about it, she tells me that she works closely with the current President of the NY State Senate, John Flanagan, “a real straight shooter”; Assemblyman Philip Goldfeder; State Senator Simcha Felder, “a real mentsch”; and many others. The shyness, it seems, eventually wore off. “You know what?” she says. “They’re only human. They also make mistakes.”
She also dismisses the stereotype of the power-hungry politician. “For some, it’s a power thing, I suppose. But there are many who really are in this because they care about the people and want to serve them. Ultimately those are the ones who succeed.”
Leah’s been instrumental in redrafting the P-3 Resource Room service policy in New York. “Before the change,” she says, “individuals were only able to bill for one student per hour at a very low rate. So I spoke to the NYC Department of Education and made them aware that it would be more cost effective and practical for them to include group rating. It took several years, but at the end of the day we have a good grouping rate.”
Samantha interrupts to tell us that she’ll be bringing us branzino. Leah and I exchange glances. Do we really want sea bass at a steakhouse? We wonder if we should change the order to steak, but Samantha just smiles knowingly. “Don’t worry, you’ll like it.”
Branzino it is then.
It turns out that Samantha is right. The fish is swimming in a flavorful tomato sauce that is prepared with poblano peppers. It is fluffy and flakey and ultimately sublime. The sauce enhances the flavor, but the real surprise is the bed of thinly sliced zucchini ribbons hiding underneath.
With food on my mind, I wonder how Leah prepares dinner at home, considering all her traveling. “I often put up a Crock-pot in the morning,” she says. “That does the trick. Also, I’m lucky to have my wonderful daughter, Chaya Rochel, who makes dinners while I’m away. She’s becoming a real master chef!”
I finally inquire about Leah’s exclusive White House tour. She laughs. “I was getting these e-mails from the White House and at first I didn’t even answer. I thought, It’s got to be spam!” Eventually, she did take the tour together with others who were also advocating on behalf of the special needs population. “We had to go through five levels of security!” she says. Most intriguing of all, according to Leah, are the imposing portraits of former presidents that stare down at you from the walls.
Leah is delighted to be working with Agudath Israel, which she considers to be a remarkable organization. “People don’t realize how much they do, as much of it is behind the scenes. And that can be frustrating. Sometimes I’ll work on something and the credit will go elsewhere.”
She also has a message for parents of special needs children. “We sometimes care too much about what the neighbors are thinking. Do what’s best for your child, and don’t worry about everyone else.”
As for the rest of the community, she advises that we “look past the package. That special needs child is a neshamah like any other. Be understanding. It’s not easy for that parent, believe me.”
We may have thought we were done with our dinner, but Samantha has another surprise for us — Chocolate Almond Ganache. (How did she know about me and chocolate?) A long block of chocolate is garnished with marshmallows and some graham crackers, but I don’t see the almonds anywhere. Samantha explains that the ganache is actually mixed with almond milk, which creates a richer and smoother texture. She’s not kidding. It’s as smooth as silk. In fact, it’s so rich that I’m wondering why they need to embellish it with the marshmallows and the crackers at all. It would have been perfectly dreamy all by itself.
As our dinner ends, our conversation takes a serious turn. Leah tells me about the many parents who cry to her on the phone. “They’re suffering,” she says, “and I wish I could make their problems go away, but I can’t. Still, if I can help get that child to function better, I have done my job. And I won’t hang up until I can work out some kind of relief for them.”
With over 2,000 calls annually coming in to her office, that’s a tall order. But if anybody can fill it, Leah can.
(Originally featured in Family first, Issue 509)
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