Yachad means together. It shares a root with the word “echad” — one — but it’s all about bringing things together. It’s about creating community.
There’s more than one mission driving Yachad, the Orthodox Union organization that works with people with disabilities. The overarching goal — to create, encourage, and maintain an environment that includes everybody, no matter what their abilities and disabilities — includes the burning desire to find a space for everyone, both inside and outside the Jewish world. That means that just as people with disabilities must be welcomed into the larger Jewish community, and to the world of work and play outside it, so must the community learn to feel comfortable enough to welcome them, and to do so genuinely.
That’s a tall order.
And the only way to make any of it work is to focus on every single person. Together, they make up the whole.
Chani Herrmann, the creator and director of New Jersey Yachad, knows that. She began to work with Yachad in the late 1980s, when she was a 10-year-old summer camper and it was a fairly new organization with offices in New York and the goal of working with teenagers and young adults.
Now, Ms. Herrmann, who lives in Teaneck, is about to be honored as New Jersey Yachad celebrates its 10th anniversary. (See box for information about the evening.)
“When Yachad started, in 1983, there were no Jewish programs providing social opportunities on an inclusive level for people with disabilities,” Ms. Herrmann said. “Now, it serves a wide range of people with special needs. Some are on the autism spectrum, some have Down syndrome or cerebral palsy or learning disabilities or traumatic brain injury. The beautiful thing about Yachad is that it is open to everyone, even if you don’t have special needs. Everyone gains something.”
So what is Yachad? And what is New Jersey Yachad? What do they do?
Yachad offers afterschool programs for children with disabilities, usually beginning when they are 7 years old. One is in a day school, the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey — plans call for that program to expand to other day schools — and one is part of a larger, non-Jewish, non-special-needs art program. It has Shabbatonim for them, and retreats for them and their families. It has a vocational training program for people who have aged out of school. It gives workshops to help parents learn how to navigate the social service system, to accept their feelings and learn how to cope with them, to understand their children’s medical issues. It brings young people with special needs together with their peers who are not similarly challenged.
The New Jersey chapter, headquartered in Teaneck, has pioneered some of those programs, under Ms. Herrmann’s leadership.
Ms. Herrmann’s early and thorough immersion in Yachad was directly responsible for her life’s work.
“I was at Camp Hillel in Swan Lake, in the Catskills,” she said. “It was my first summer, and there was all this talk about Yachad coming for Shabbat. I didn’t know what it meant.
“And then this big bus comes down the road and pulls up, and participants from Yachad and their counselors get off the bus. And that weekend made such an impact on me. It was the first time I had spent significant time with people who had special needs, and it was in such a warm setting.”
Because it was before Yachad was able to expand to work with children, all the participants were young adults. It didn’t matter.
“One of the things I remember was how the staff of my camp interacted with the people from Yachad. And one young woman from Yachad got up and gave a d’var Torah, in front of a roomful of people.” She didn’t think that she could have done it then, she remembers thinking. Not in front of all those people.
“The seeds were planted in me,” she said. She grew up in Queens. “My synagogue, Young Israel of Hillcrest, was one of the first to host Shabbatons,” she continued. “They started in the 1980s. They still do. There was a Yachad chapter in my high school, HAFTR, too, and we had a Shabbaton in the Five Towns.” The Five Towns, of course, are the heavily Jewish part of Long Island’s south shore, and home to HAFTR.
“And I continued to be involved in my college years,” she continued; she coordinated Yachad for the borough. Next, she went to Columbia’s social work school, and continued to work part time for Yachad.
In 2000, newly married, she moved to Teaneck, and looked for a job. “I saw there was a job opening for Yachad, working in its national program.” Needless to say, that job had her name on it. “I worked there for five years, in the national programming department,” she said. “I oversaw chapters outside the metropolitan area, helped with the programming, and did outreach.” But she lived in Teaneck, and her imagination was sparked by her new community.
“In 2006, we decided that it really was time to open a local branch in New Jersey,” she said. “We always had people from New Jersey who participated in Yachad, but my very strong feeling was that we had to provide support to families in New Jersey.
“During the first five years that I lived here, I was meeting families with children with special needs. They didn’t know what Yachad was, or that it could help their child. It became clear to me that if we were not helping parents, holding their hands, they would not become part of the Yachad family.
“When your child is diagnosed with a disability, it could feel isolating and scary,” she said. “Having a caring and professional staff that can sit with you, hear your story, help guide you, and have a relationship that takes you through every stage of your family’s life — that can be so important.”
Reassuring parents is so important, in fact, that the first New Jersey Yachad program was a parents support group. Back then, Ms. Herrmann was the only staff member in New Jersey. “I really needed to get my pulse on the county, to see who the parents are and what they needed,” she said.
“I think that one of the biggest turning points in terms of growth for us was five years ago, when I had a parent come to me whose daughter was 22. She was sitting at home doing nothing. She was done with school, had tried a day program but it wasn’t meeting her needs. Her mother said, ‘Please start a vocational program.’
“It was just one parent, but sometimes it only takes one parent. So we became a provider of DDD services” — that’s the state division of developmental disabilities — “so we can provide these services, and we can help our families go through those steps to get funding.
“We went from one person in the region to five, and now it’s over 25, and our new vocational training program is the fastest growing department in New Jersey Yachad.”
As their participants have grown up, Yachad’s span has broadened. “The oldest participants, who started in their teens, are now in their 60s. We have started working with families on issues of aging, both for themselves and for their children. The youngest child we work with is 5, and parents come to us as soon as their babies are diagnosed.”
The vocational program is new, and it is complex. “We have about 25 or so participants,” Ms. Herrmann said. “They’re 21 or older; the oldest one is about 35. Participants come from all over — from Teaneck, Elizabeth, Highland Park, West Orange — from all over the state.
“They come in the morning, and then they go to a job site with a job coach. They spend several hours working, and then in the late afternoon they come back for different classes, social skills, and other therapeutic activities.
“Every participant goes to a different job, and each one has a job coach. In the beginning, the job coach will be more involved; the goal is that they will scale back in terms of how hands-on they will be.
“A really exciting thing is that we hired a part-time job developer to look for jobs. That is her job.”
The jobs — actually more like internships, which might end up as paying jobs — have included being an assistant in an early childhood classroom, working in food service, washing and styling wigs, packaging at an Amazon warehouse, and doing administrative work in an office. “In the beginning, when we first meet them, we try them on a variety of jobs to see what their skills are,” Ms. Herrmann said. “That’s what the program is about. Everyone is a unique individual. And even if someone has learned work skills, it doesn’t mean that they know appropriate workplace etiquette. That’s the job coach’s job, to teach about things like chain of command, what to do at a lunch break, what do you talk about and not talk about, and how to make eye contact.
“It’s a lifelong process,” she said.
The family retreat, which is for people from New York and New Jersey, is a yearly highlight, Ms. Herrmann said. “This year, close to 1,000 people participated. It draws children of all ages for Shabbes. The parents have a weekend filled with workshops with professionals, and there are sessions for siblings and a day camp for the really young children. There are programs for Yachad participants all weekend long. Parents come with married children and grandchildren.”
As part of its commitment to inclusion, Yachad serves the whole Jewish community, and she’s very proud of that, Ms. Herrmann said. “It doesn’t matter what anyone’s affiliation is, and non-Orthodox Jews take advantage of it.
“It is open to everyone. That’s one of the things that is so beautiful about it. We break down barriers, and people can see what they have in common with each other.”
Among the broken-down barriers are the ones that separate children with disabilities from those without them. Some of the afterschool programs are for everyone. Often, Ms. Herrmann said, “typically developing kids come to these programs thinking that they are coming to give, but really they end up getting so much more. They have fun. Everyone is treated equally.
“We live in a community where parents want their kids to be involved in as many meaningful activities as they can,” she added. “There are competitive activities, like sports, and parents say that’s all good, but they also want meaningful experiences. Also, many parents believe — and it is true — that if their kids are involved in a program like Yachad, it will have a long-term effect on their character development.”
And often, she said, children come because their parents were involved, as Ms. Herrmann was, when they were young, perhaps at a Shabbaton or at camp. They know how important it was for them, and they want that for their own kids.
Fun. That’s a word Ms. Herrmann uses often. The programming she discusses is educational, the disabilities the participants are challenged by often are serious, and the problems and roadblocks their parents and caregivers encounter can be daunting. But that does not negate the truth that Yachad participants, like everyone else, have a right and a need to have fun.
“One of the reasons that our programs are so appealing to everyone is that they are fun,” she said. “You feel accepted, you feel that you belong to a group that likes you for who you are, and you want to come back week after week to create even more meaningful relationships.
“If they weren’t having fun, no one would come back.”
Most of New Jersey Yachad’s programs are in Bergen County, but it serves the whole state. There is a chapter in Middlesex County, which has events on Sundays, and the goal is to expand further.
Leslie Rosenberg lives in Edison, in Middlesex. Her son, Moshe, 22, has been involved with Yachad since he was 7 years old. She loves Edison — “we have been totally blessed in this neighborhood,” she said — but she drives Moshe to Teaneck every day for Yachad’s vocational program. (Before that, Moshe went to Bergen County every day for school; he was the Sinai Schools student whose smile beamed down from Holy Name Medical Center’s huge electronic billboards over Route 4 last year.)
“Yachad used to provide a respite for us,” she said. “I adore my son, but it’s very physical, hard work — you always had to know where he was, and be sure you put everything away or you’d wake up and find a mess. But he’d go to a Shabbaton, and then we’d have some down time.”
It would also give her and her husband an opportunity to devote more attention to their three daughters, she added.
“But now Yachad has become a respite for Moshe from us,” she said. “I have seen big changes in him. It gives him more independence, and he loves it. It has been amazing.”
She is astonished by the care and love that comes from the staff. “I remember one advisor who would offer to stay with Moshe for the hour between the time that his school ended and the transportation came,” she said. “Rather than making me feel bad, because I had to ask someone, he would make me feel that I was doing him a favor to let him spend this time with Moshe. It was a blessing. He would thank me for letting him spend time with Moshe. It was wonderful. I hate having to ask anyone for help, and here was this person saying of course I would stay with him. That experience was incredible.
“There is always someone on staff or another person who can help talk you through a situation or give you advice or help or whatever you need. I didn’t call every week, or every month, but over 15 years plenty of things came up — emotional or financial or legal questions.”
Moshe’s now in the vocational program, where he works three days a week, and also goes to classes on practical life skills, including how to communicate, an area that is particularly important and benefits from continual reinforcement.
As part of the vocational program, Moshe is in a group that goes to Yeshiva University every Thursday. “They learn with the guys there, YU college students, at the beis midrash. I think that’s his favorite part of the week. He loves it.” There’s a gym at the Jewish Center of Teaneck, where New Jersey Yachad is based; a trainer works with Yachad participants there.
And then there are the horses. “Every Wednesday they go to a place where they learn to groom horses,” Ms. Rosenberg said. It’s a very smart idea. The Yachad participants learn to read the horses’ body language. “It’s nonverbal communication,” she added; it’s a skill, a way of watching and paying attention, that could be transferred from animals to people. And, of course, it’s fun.
Laurie Minchenberg lives in Passaic. “My connection with Yachad started about ten years ago,” she said. “I started going to the Yachad mother’s support group, and then to the family Shabbaton, and now we go to the family retreat and my daughter goes to one of the Yachad summer programs. I feel very connected and very grateful, and I appreciate Yachad for everything it’s done.”
Ms. Minchenberg has four children with disabilities, a 17-year-old, a 15-year-old, and almost 12-year-old twins. Each of the children is different; each has not only different needs but also different personalities, interests, and talents. Each connects with Yachad differently.
“One of my daughters went to a Yachad program at Camp Kesher,” she said. “What I found really remarkable is that after she came home from camp, almost every Friday her camp counselor called to say hello, ask how she was doing, and how her week at school was.
“It makes my daughter feel good. What’s really beautiful to me is that the counselor really took an interest in her, and thinks about her. It means that she’s really on her mind.
“Chani has run some really good support groups,” Ms. Minchenberg added. “She has brought in excellent speakers on how important it is for mothers to take care of themselves. That has been really helpful.”
Ken Saibel is the associate director of Yachad’s national organization. He raves about Chani Herrmann. “Chani is really an incredible person,” he said. “Everything she does, she does with such warmth and feeling for our Yachad members and their families. That’s what drives her every single day, thinking about how best she can serve our members and their families and the community. It is done with such warmth and incredible care.
“She has grown tremendously over the four and a half years that I have worked with her, personally and professionally, in amazing ways, and she has expanded the program a great deal,” he continued.
He talked about the gala reception, a melava malka at a private home, that will be this year’s main fundraiser for New Jersey Yachad. Characteristically, it was Ms. Herrmann’s idea; the first one was held four years ago, and it has become New Jersey Yachad’s main fundraiser. As its programs become more ambitious, its need for funding has grown, and so have the fundraising events.
Uncharacteristically, Ms. Herrmann is allowing herself to be honored. “It was not easy to get her to agree,” Mr. Saibel said. “It took a lot of arm twisting. But she agreed to do it because she finally was convinced that it will benefit Yachad members and the whole community.
“It is no exaggeration to say that Chani is New Jersey Yachad,” he concluded.
“It’s been incredible for me to see the organization grow from the small operation it was to the enormous organization it has become,” Ms. Herrmann said. Of course, the New Jersey group has had help. “We work very closely with the national offices, and with the New York department, to ensure that we have as many programs as possible, and the best services available,” she said.
She thinks back over the personal benefits she’s gained from Yachad. It’s all about relationships. One Shabbat afternoon last fall, she and one of her daughters walked over to a friend’s house for an oneg. “And from across the room, I see Chayim from my Queens Yachad chapter.
“I hadn’t seen him for years, but he came running across the room. ‘Chani Schwartz!’ he said — and you know that if someone calls you by your maiden name you go way back — and his smile was so huge and I think that mine probably was even bigger. And immediately we picked up where we had left off.
“There was such a bond! From every Shabbaton, there are those bonds.”
Ms. Herrmann’s husband, Daniel, is a school psychologist at the Hillel Academy in Deal. The Herrmanns have four chldren — Atara, 14, Gabriella, 12, Dovid, 11, and Yaakov, 7. “I hope that my children get a lot out of the programs they go to, and I hope that they take the message of Yachad with them,” Ms. Herrmann said. “I always say ‘Include people. Be nice.’ That’s really what we want for our kids. We want them to be included, and we want them to include others.
“It’s no different for people with special needs,” Ms. Herrmann said. “
Everyone wants to be included.”
What: New Jersey Yachad’s Gala Melava Malka reception
When: On Saturday, November 19, at 8 p.m.
Where: At the home of Miriam and Allen Pfeiffer in Teaneck
Why: To celebrate New Jersey Yachad’s 10th anniversary, and to raise funds to allow it to continue to dream and grow.
Who is being honored: Chani Herrmann, its founder and director.
Who is being remembered: Devorah Stubin, whose devotion to Yachad was a large part of her life, and whose brother benefits from it. A memorial scholarship fund has been established to honor her memory.
Who will provide the music: Mordechai Shapiro
How to learn more and make a reservation: Go to yachad.org/NJGala