At Shalem, a Teaneck high school for teens with developmental disabilities — part of New Jersey’s SINAI network of Orthodox special-needs schools — Shira Greenland’s official job title is director.
In recent years she’s also become the school’s theater director — and producer/playwright/choreographer — overseeing such productions as “Newsies,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and, most recently, “The Sound of Music.”
She first tried a production five years ago, inspired by an autistic student who “had a natural ability to act, and I wanted to try and create that opportunity for him. And I felt his peers could do well in supporting roles.”
After that student graduated, Greenland wasn’t sure the show could go on. But because the kids had enjoyed the experience so much, she decided to try.
“What I’ve learned is how capable the kids really are,” she says.
A native of Chicago, Greenland began working with developmentally disabled kids the summer after her freshman year of high school, volunteering as a “shadow” at a day camp.
By the time she started college, at Stern, she knew “this was a population I wanted to work with, I just wasn’t sure in what capacity.” While pursuing a master’s in social work at Columbia, she began working at SINAI, first as a school social worker.
Greenland organizes a variety of chesed projects where her students “are the do-ers of chesed.”
She explained, “I’m trying to teach society that [these students are] capable of giving, not just receiving.”
Before running the SINAI high school, Greenland worked in its group home for adults, where “I’ve made it clear that a developmental disability is not an excuse to sit on the couch and watch TV. They’re adults and part of our community, and there are all sorts of ways they can contribute, whether it’s going to a shiva house and completing the minyan or comforting a mourner by your presence, or delivering meals on wheels.”
Bittersweet move: This summer Greenland, who is single, will make aliyah, something she’s been wanting to do for 15 years. “Last summer I decided I’m not going to wait anymore, I’m going to take the plunge,” she says. “But it also means saying goodbye to my students.”