On the upcoming episodes of Queen of Cakes, Sarah Sander and her husband Nussun set out to celebrate the principal of the Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom, a yeshiva founded for young men with Down Syndrome. While Queen of Cakes focuses, very rightfully, on the school’s incredible principal, it also left us wanting to know more about this special place. So we set out to find out more about Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom and the people who made it happen.
When you walk into Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom, you find 70 young men engaged in spirited learning and enriching activities, laughing along with friends, and listening to divrei torah. It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when yeshivot like this did not exist. In fact, it was the passion and love of Sarah Sander and her husband Nussun that led to the founding of Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom, and it’s a love that only continues to grow.
In 1989, when their son Moishey was born and diagnosed with Down Syndrome, they were overwhelmed. In an environment where many in similar situations had chosen to give up their children with special needs, the couple struggled to find information on their son’s diagnosis. “There were no other young couples in our community, to our knowledge, who had babies with Down Syndrome,” Sarah recalls, “We were the only ones.”
It was important to Sarah and Nussun to pave a path for Moishey. They became advocates for the Down Syndrome community, but resources were sometimes limited. “We realized that his educational needs were not being met properly,” said Sarah. Many other families chose to send their children with special needs to public school, where more resources were available, but Sarah and Nussun had a different plan. They decided to open Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom, which became the first yeshiva for children with Down Syndrome to exist within a mainstream yeshiva. Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, an institution which has been educating bnei torah for over 100 years, has been home to Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom since its inception.
The yeshiva opened its doors with seven students in September of 2001. Days later, the students witnessed the 9/11 terror attacks from the roof of their school. “It was the first time that the students were officially able to pray,” Sarah recounted. “In their previous schools, there was no prayer allowed.”
Today, the school boasts 70 students and is a model for special needs yeshivas all over the world. “We have people, educators from all over the world who call and actually come to visit to look at Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom,” said Sarah proudly. “We have the board of education of New York City telling us and [Rabbi Horowitz], that there is no equal to Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom.”
She humbly credits principal Rabbi Zev Horowitz with the school’s outstanding success. Sarah is always looking for opportunities to say “thank you” to Rabbi Horowitz in new and unique ways, and Queen of Cakes seemed like the perfect fit—especially this year!
In a year that challenged every school around the world, Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom was no exception. In December 2020, they even lost a student to Covid-19. However, Rabbi Horowitz and the rest of the staff worked hard to create structure for the students even when the doors were closed. The students got their lessons via Zoom sessions. The staff, the teachers, the rebbeim, and Rabbi Horowitz orchestrated it all. “They were amazing,” Sarah said.
For some students, learning in a Zoom environment was extremely challenging. So, throughout the time when the school was closed, Rabbi Horowitz made weekly visits to the house of each student. “He prepared [care] packages, for the kids…educational packages where he’d put in papers of lessons, fun stuff, puzzles, coloring stuff, and gifts. And he would pose for pictures with them in their masks, social distancing outside of their homes.”
The Queen of Cakes herself, Shaina Dubroff, had even read about the inspirational yeshiva and found herself under even more pressure to make the perfect cake that would honor Rabbi Horowitz. “Creating this special cake for Rabbi Horowitz has really been touching for me,” Shaina said while facing challenges during filming. “It brought so much more importance to making this cake.”
Sarah described Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom as “a haven of warmth, love, acceptance, education.” It’s certainly a long way from what was available when Moishey was born, and because of that it has changed the view of the entire community. “It has totally changed the outlook on parenting a child with Down Syndrome,” she said, remembering that “there was no Torah education available for children with Down Syndrome and there was the absence of positive belief that such children can actually learn and thrive in a Torah-education environment.” But having turned all that around, Sarah said, “It gives us tremendous joy, knowing that we are helping so many holy children and their families.”
Tune into Queen of Cakes—coming soon—to learn more about Rabbi Horowitz’s contributions to Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom, see what challenges Shaina faces, and watch Shaina create an unbelievable, edible tribute!
Sarah Sander can be reached at [email protected]