Mrs. Leah Steinberg is a wonderful woman to know—and not just as an interview subject (although after an hourlong chat, she is officially one of my favorites). The director of Project LEARN and a member of three advisory boards for children with special needs, Mrs. Steinberg is a powerhouse who has been working to implement legislative changes in New York State and integrate children with a variety of special needs into mainstream Jewish schools for the past 16 years.
As a result of her efforts, hundreds of parents have successfully advocated for their children and enabled them to have a positive school experience.
Helping others comes naturally to Mrs. Steinberg, the daughter of Holocaust survivors whose priority was always caring for others. Years ago, while building up a gift and housewares store, they were faced with a decision about whether to care for Mrs. Steinberg’s terminally ill grandfather, a talmid chacham who lived with them, or to focus on their fledgling business. Everyone advised them to put him in hospice care, but for her parents there was really no decision: “We can always make parnasah later.”
For Mrs. Steinberg and the rest of her family, it was a given that people came before anything else. Their door was always open to anyone in need, even those whose stories were questionable. “One time my parents opened the door to a man who lied and said he was a relative,” she recalls. “The truth was that he was a total stranger and not even remotely observant. My father once asked him if he knew how to put on tefillin, and he tried to put them on his foot! But my parents let him stay in their house for six weeks.”
When she went to college, Mrs. Steinberg opted to study neuropsychology at Brooklyn College and then at Touro College. “I wanted to have a to’eles,” she says. “This was something that could be used to help children.” At the time, the issue of kids at risk was coming to the forefront, and it resonated deeply with Mrs. Steinberg, who detected holes in the yeshivah system through which children with special needs were slipping. In school, she decided to write a paper on the subject, which enabled her to engage in one of her favorite activities—doing research.
“I looked into how the system was taking care of these kids, and I didn’t find much going on,” she recalls. “When these kids were sitting in the classroom, they weren’t feeling as if they were a part of things.”