Community is a real thing.
It can be messy. It can be uncomfortable. It means including everyone, including people who look different or sound different or in some other way are for-real different.
It sometimes take work to learn to include everyone in the community, but the younger you are when you first learn how to do it, the more natural it is.
And when most of the community accepts the truth that not everybody is like everybody else, in a wide range of ways, in a myriad of ways, then everyone can be more comfortable in his or her very own skin.
Yachad proves that truth every day.
Yachad is the part of the Orthodox Union that works with people with disabilities. Yachad New Jersey is the local chapter of that organization. That is the most blunt and least inclusive way to describe what Yachad does.
Yachad works with people with special needs, seamlessly weaving them into the community. It does not provide schooling — here, that’s the province of the Sinai Schools, an unrelated organization whose mission dovetails with Yachad’s — but gives children, teenagers, and adults with disabilities a range of afternoon, weekend, and summer activities, and with them a firm foothold in the world around them. It also gives the adults with whom they live a break, and it gives their siblings a chance to be around people who understand their situation exactly, and neither judge nor fawn.
Yachad is not just for the Orthodox community, either; it is open to the entire Jewish world, and welcomes everyone who can benefit from it, either by getting or by giving (or, as happens very often, by doing both).
Chani Herrmann of Teaneck, Yachad NJ’s creator and director, who has grown New Jersey Yachad, and grown personally along with it, talks about the many advances Yachad has made recently.
“We just opened a community center program,” she said. “That was a huge leap for us.” It’s the Mendel Balk Community Center; Mr. Balk, who lived in Englewood and died two years ago, was the husband of Ariela and the father of Yoel, now 24, who has been part of Yachad “ever since he was a little boy,” Ms. Herrmann said. “We were looking to do something to commemorate Mendel Balk’s name, and also help Yoel and his friends.
“We realized that there was a tremendous void in the evenings. So now, the center is open every evening from Mondays through Thursdays, and it includes dinner.” It’s for people 18 and older, and offers programming as well as social opportunities.
“When we started the center, we tried to think about what might be helpful for parents,” Ms. Herrmann said. “What would make it easier on them. So we bought one 15-person van and one minivan, and we can take them home.” Most people at the center come from Bergen County, but others come from “Passaic County, and even as far as central Jersey — Edison, Highland Park, and Elizabeth,” she reported.
“The center is an unbelievable tribute to Mendel Balk, and a jumping-off point for Yachad,” she continued. “It is amazing to have someone like Ariela Balk, who steps up and invests in us.”
As in all Yachad program, the special-needs participants are joined by more typical ones; mainstream high school students participate in the program, and college students work there. “We usually have between 15 and 20 people there each night, and that’s the maximum number we can hold,” Ms. Herrmann said.
The way that mainstream and special-needs participants come together unselfconsciously is key to Yachad’s success. When people, no matter what their abilities, meet when they are young, before they start making assumptions about each other, before they start judging each other, when they are still open to the range of differences that any naturally occurring community encompasses, they stand a much better chance of accepting each other when they are older.
When they are part of a community that values that range of differences, that rewards understanding, they are likely to hold onto that understanding, and even to pass it on to their children.
So when students with special needs meet each other in school, at shul, in camp, in afterschool programs, on the bus, at each other’s homes, everything seems much more natural.
That doesn’t mean that people with special needs don’t need programming particularly geared to those needs. They do.
That’s what Yachad provides.
“We joke about New Jersey Yachad being in your backyard all day, every day,” Ms. Herrmann said. “There’s the vocational program from 9 to 4, and then the evening program from 4 to 7. And then there’s a Shabbaton for New Jersey participants about eight to 10 times a year.”
Yachad runs afterschool clubs, and it has started to work with synagogue youth groups, both in training the youth group leaders and in providing them with programming.
“Synagogues are looking for professionals to make them more accessible, so that their parents can come to shul,” Ms. Herrmann added. Often, when parents bring special-needs children to shul, they end up devoting themselves entirely to their children — and it’s easier, safer, and less frustrating to do that at home. Yachad is starting to work to change that.
And then there are Sundays. “We have partnerships with two New Jersey federations on multiple programs,” she said. “We’re working with the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey” — that’s our own federation — “on two projects. It gave us a grant to run 10 Sunday social programs for young adults.”
The other program Yachad is doing with the federation is the planned trip to Israel; it’s not easy for young and youngish adults with disabilities to travel to Israel without their families, but Yachad and the federation, as we described a few weeks ago, is working on it.
“One of the things that will be beautiful about the trip will be what happens when it’s over,” Ms. Herrmann said. The participants “will be able to make friends with other people who they wouldn’t have met otherwise, and that gives them the opportunity to broaden their horizons.”
On November 19, Yachad New Jersey will celebrate the year’s accomplishments at a melava malka that doubles as the year’s main fundraising gala. (See box for more information.) The honorees who will be feted that night “match up with our theme,” Ms. Herrmann said. That’s Yachad’s constant theme — “Because Everyone Belongs.”
Rabbi Ari and Deena Katz of Bergenfield, the guests of honor, are the owners and directors of Camp Mesorah. The popular upstate New York camp attracts large numbers of modern Orthodox kids, “and they have embraced Yachad,” Ms. Herrmann said. “They have embraced the community.” The camp has Yachad kids alongside their more mainstream peers. “Yachad always has enjoyed the things that Camp Mesorah offers,” Ms. Herrmann said. “Ari and Deena always talk about how their community is better because Yachad is part of it. They said that’s not the other way around.”
Yes, it’s easy to say that, but the Katzes live it. “Ari acknowledges Yachad kids at every event,” Ms. Herrmann said. “He gives them a spotlight. He makes them feel like a million dollars.”
And, she added, the Katzes did not come to Yachad because they had a child who needed its services. That is a time-honored and entirely valid to find your way there, of course, but, as so many Yachad enthusiasts have found, that’s not at all necessary.
The young leadership honorees are Shira and Scott Sheps. The couple, who live in Fair Lawn with their two young children, came to Yachad through Shira.
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in Edison, went to Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva, and “I had my first Yachad Shabbat when I was in eighth grade,” Ms. Sheps said. “It was a very powerful experience.
“It was all of us together, in an inclusion program. It was the first time that I had met anyone with special needs, and I was taken with how joyful and loving and fun and spirited it was,” she said. “I remember it as a really great experience.”
Trying to recapture that experience — and succeeding — Ms. Sheps worked with special needs students as a camp counselor while she was in Stern College, and then “I just started doing Yachad shabbatonim as often as I could,” she said.
Why? “People with special needs have this amazing capacity to reach beyond the kind of façade that people who do not have special needs put up to protect themselves from the world,” she said. “They have a purity and a sweetness that is unique to them, and it is beautiful.
“They are complicated. They have challenges — but everyone has challenges. And it is in the company of people with special needs that I have been able to achieve some of the purest moments of my life, with spirituality and love and joy.
“People with special needs just are,” she continued. “If they are sad, they are sad. If they are angry, they are angry. If they are joyful, their level of joy is cosmic. They are not guarded.
“If you make a friend who has special needs, you have a friend for life.”
Ms. Sheps earned a master’s degree in social work from Hunter College, and “I had the beautiful honor of being able to do my internship with Chani Herrmann,” she said. “It was 2010, 2011, and the operation was really small, based out of the NCSY office in Teaneck. Chani sat at a little desk, and the NSCY director sat at a little desk, and I sat between them on a couch.
“There was no other staff. Occasionally there were volunteers, and there was another intern part of the time, but basically it was just the two of us.
“Chani is an amazing role model. She taught me how to be a social worker. She taught me how to run an organization. She encouraged my creative side. She was the first person to encourage me creatively.”
As it turned out, there was a great deal to encourage. Shira Sheps is the founder of the Layers Project, which tells the complex, layered, far-from-straightforward, honest, challenging stories of young Orthodox women online, in a variety of media, in a beautifully designed site. (It’s at www.thelayersproject.online.)
She is also a photographer; it is her work that tells the stories of many Yachad participants — we’ve featured some of it in these pages — as well as many other stories, including some showcased on Layers.
She credits Chani Herrmann with unlocking those stories in her. “She said, ‘You are really talented,’ and she encouraged me,” Ms. Sheps said. “She gave me a lot of responsibility, and she trusted me.
“Chani never says no. If it is a good idea, she will say yes, and then find a way to do it. She taught me this way of interacting. She also taught me serious professionalism.”
In other words, Chani Herrmann taught Shira Sheps how to weave community; sometimes a special need is the absolute need to be creative, to take the way you see something, which is not at all like the way anybody else sees it, and find a way to share that vision.
Eventually, Ms. Sheps had to stop working with Yachad. Now she is back, in another capacity, as an artist and supporter. “I know a lot of people who did Yachad when we were younger — and then they grew up,” she said. Those friends never stopped supporting Yachad, but it became less of a daily force in their lives. But for her, “it has been not only a place that continued to give to me as a young adult, but also it has given to me as a professional, and as a person.
“It is a tremendous honor to be honored by Yachad,” she continued. “They nurtured me — they nurture each other — and it’s like family.
“My two kids come and play at Yachad. It is an unbelievable opportunity for my kids to learn the true meaning of chesed, and the importance of inclusion on every front. And it’s not just including people who look overtly different, because not everyone who is different looks different.
“No matter who it is, you should be loving and inclusive and kind,” Ms. Sheps concluded. “The people at Yachad do more for me than I possibly could do for them.
Although it is Shira who has been the family leader in the Sheps’s relationship with Yachad, the award is going to both spouses for very good reason, Ms. Herrmann said. “Scott is always there, supporting Shira,” she said. “He has been at her side from the beginning. You will never see her at an event without him. He is an active participant, and they are tremendous role models in the community, and beyond.
“People really look up to them,” she said.
The family honorees are the Tsadok family of Englewood, “Shlomo and Debbie, and their Avi, who has been a Yachad participant since he was 8,” Ms. Herrmann said. “He’s been with us for more than 25 years.”
“Avi has Down syndrome, he’s 34 years old, and he is very social,” Ms. Tsadok said. “He has been social since he was a little boy. Yachad offers him the opportunity to interact with other people, with his own peers and also with members of the regular population, in very positive and constructive ways.
“Without Yachad, I don’t think that there would be a vehicle for that,” she added.
“Yachad is just about the same age as Avi” — not the New Jersey chapter, that is, but the national organization, headquartered in Manhattan. “When he was 8, he started going to Shabbatons. We went to so many family Shabbatons together, with families and social workers and siblings. So my other three kids were exposed to other kids with special needs since they were very little. It is both very special and very wonderful.
“And as he has grown up, Yachad has grown and expanded. He went to Israel with Yachad — he might do it again this summer — and he goes to Camp Mesorah.
“We are so fortunate that Yachad now has a vocational program, and Avi participates in it. We are so fortunate that Yachad has the social program in the evening, and he participates in that too. Otherwise, he’d be sitting at home watching TV and being miserable.
“And Avi goes to the Sunday Yachad programs, and he works at camp over the summer. Without Yachad, he wouldn’t be doing any of that.”
Avi is thrilled about being honored, along with his parents, his mother added. “He is telling everyone about the gala. He is obsessed with birthdays. It’s not that he wants presents, it’s that he wants people to say happy birthday to him, so he gets to smile.”
At the gala, when he is honored, Avi Tsadok will have a lot to smile about.
Who: Yachad, the Orthodox Union’s organization for people with special needs
What: Holds a festive melava malka
Where: At Congregation Keter Torah, 600 Roemer Ave., Teaneck
Where: On Saturday, November 18, at 8 p.m.
Why: Honoring three families for their special dedication to Yachad
For more information and reservations: Go to Yachad.org/njgala2017 or call (201) 833-1349.