A special group takes on special needs

A special group takes on special needs

Yachad participants find their place in the community

Friends gather around Zack Pollak of Passaic on Yachad’s Yad B’Yad Israel trip.

Chani Herrmann, director of New Jersey Yachad, is very clear on what makes her program special.

“It’s inclusion,” said Herrmann, who heads the local office of the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, an agency of the Orthodox Union. “Our mission is to promote the inclusion of individuals with special needs into the broader Jewish community.”

“And,” she added, “we want them to have fun.”

Yachad serves people with a range of developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, Down’s syndrome, neurological impairment, and learning disabilities.

“The reason we’re successful is because everyone finds their place and their comfort level,” Herrmann said.

“Sometimes, people say we’re the community’s best kept secret,” she added, stressing that her group serves people from all parts of the Jewish world.

Herrmann said that while New Jersey Yachad is part of a national initiative – and every state chapter is different – “I believe we are innovative. We’re the only chapter that’s serving whole families through support groups, sibling events, community conferences, and vocational services.”

Though it serves the whole state, New Jersey Yachad has been based in Bergen County for the past six years. This year, it is expanding its presence in Middlesex County as well; it hired two chapter coordinators who will be based there; they will offer support groups for parents and Sunday socialization programs and host the group’s second annual parent conference and resource fair.

Even though most programs so far have taken place in Bergen County, “We have individuals from all different areas involved with our programs,” Herrmann said.

Those programs include social and recreational events, social skills groups, sibling events, and most recently, vocational training.

“We’ve got mother support groups, father support groups, and counseling for siblings,” the New Jersey director said. Once a year, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, the organization brings together families from all over New Jersey to network with one another.

The New Jersey group also offers a Shabbaton program twice a month, providing respite for families “while their kids are having an incredible weekend of fun and inclusion,” Herrmann said.

That respite, she added, is very important. “That’s time they can spend with their other children and their spouse. It’s important for people to know about it.”

Elisabeth Kooijmans of Teaneck couldn’t agree more. Her daughter Hadassah is part of the Junior Yachad division.

“Hadassah loves going on a Yachad Shabbaton because it is 24 hours of nonstop entertainment, attention, and excitement,” Kooijmans said. “The monitors are very energetic, loving, and fun. For us, it is a moment to pay more attention to the siblings and a whole Shabbat not to have to be in a state of constant alert. The first Shabbat Hadassah went to a Yachad Shabbaton, we could use the same tablecloth for lunch as we had used the previous evening. I cannot remember the last time that happened, if ever.”

Amy Citron, also of Teaneck, is the mother of a child with autism. “I never imagined how much my son, who is severely autistic, would love his Yachad Shabbatons,” she said. “Meanwhile, my family can relax knowing how happy he is and reconnect with each other. These Shabbatons make a positive impact on our entire family and help to alleviate what can be a very stressful and alienating situation in our Orthodox lifestyle.”

For the past four years, Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck has hosted what it calls a Simchaton, when Yachad members and their advisors participate in the community’s Simchat Torah prayer services, meals, and dancing.

“Our shul is very proud of our deep relationship with Yachad,” Rabbi Shalom Baum said. “The Yachad members ignite and inspire our congregation.” Calling Yachad staff and volunteers “passionate and selfless in their dedication to the most special kids and adults of the Yachad program,” he said that “while we do what we can to help Yachad, they elevate our Simchat Torah in a deeply spiritual way.”

Baum said his daughter chose to spend this summer on Yachad’s Yad B’Yad program, a five-week Israel trip for 70 students – 35 students with special needs, 35 without.

“They learn about each other and their differences,” said Herrmann, pointing out that many participants, from both groups, have come from Bergen County.

“I am inspired to know that so many teenagers from our chinuch [Jewish education] system are engaged in such a meaningful program,” Baum said, adding that his daughter “is having a phenomenal experience seeing Israel with her new Yachad friends.”

Herrmann said that when it plans social and recreational events, Yachad does not run “self-contained programs. They’re not just for kids with special needs.”

Rather, she explained, her group typically is approached by some community organization, such as a school, that wants Yachad to be part of its event or Shabbaton.

Programs are targeted to three different age groups: Junior Yachad, for 8- to 15-year-olds; Senior Yachad, 16-25; and Rayim, for adults 26 and older.

“It’s real inclusion,” Herrmann said. “The junior group partners with junior high school students or youth groups in the community; seniors partner with high school students; and Rayim partners with universities or young adult communities.”

While trained professionals – social workers, special educators, and psychologists – oversee all Yachad programs, the group has attracted many volunteers as well.

“College students volunteer by the hundreds,” Herrmann said. But whether volunteer or professional, the role of those people who accompany Yachad members to social events “is to bring everyone together as participants, so that they learn from one another and have a good time.”

One of a kind

Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, Yachad’s national director, based in the OU’s New York headquarters, says there are two ways to look at life.

“We look at it as the glass half full,” he said. “Without minimizing individuals’ disabilities, we focus on their abilities. We’re all created in the image of God, and each and every one of us has abilities.”

As his organization grows – in its 25th year, Yachad is now serving nearly 10,000 individuals and families in the United States and Canada – it is facing a new challenge.

“We are trying to balance care, compassion, and love for the individual and family with a professional attitude,” he said. “Neither on their own is sufficient.” To be loving without knowing what to do or how to do it “doesn’t cut it,” he added.

“As you grow, that becomes more of a challenge,” he said.

Still, he said, he remains extremely proud of the group’s accomplishments.

“When we started, there was little out there” for people with special needs, he said. “While there is still a lot to be done, we brought the issue of disabilities, of inclusion, to the community.”

And, he said, “We continue to be the only national organization serving the Jewish community in the area of special needs and the only agency to facilitate inclusion. We’ve come a long way in sensitizing the community to the obligation and benefits of inclusion.”

He is also proud that in an increasingly polarized world, “where everything becomes denominational,” Yachad has been a unifying force.

“There are few places left where Jews of all stripes can come together – and do come together – respectfully and joyfully. I wish there more places where we could say this.”

Lichtman pointed out that at Yachad Shabbatonim, “You see some boys who are clearly chasidish and some who may have just put on a kippah, or you may see a girl wearing pants. Everything is okay.”

The Yachad director said the organization is looking toward the future and wants to take inclusion to the next level.

“We’re trying to get to places we aren’t already and do something with the local community wherever it may be,” he said. Having created North American Inclusion Month several years ago to accomplish this goal – partnering with local groups on projects such as sensitivity training workshops, scholars in residence, and so on – the organization will use this year’s February event to launch a new initiative.

“This year, our focus will be to try to have every synagogue create an inclusion committee,” Lichtman said. “While we probably won’t get all of them, we hope to enlist hundreds across the country. We’ll help as a resource. Their task will be to think about and hopefully implement strategies to promote inclusion in their synagogue.”

‘Hands-on’ vocational training

New Jersey Yachad increasingly is committed to vocational training, Chani Herrmann said.

Though the special needs organization already had vocational programs in six summer camps – and this year more than 225 Yachad participants are attending these camps both as campers and as workers in training – this summer the group added a day camp to its roster.

“I was there yesterday,” Herrmann said; she had just made a visit to Camp Moshava Ba’ir, housed at the Frisch School in Paramus. Camp season began June 25 and will end Aug. 17.

“This is our first day camp,” she said. “We have job coaches on site with the Yachad participants to train them to do different jobs.”

Some, she said, are assisting in art or dance classes. Others are helping the sports staff, and still other Yachad trainees are helping to serve lunch and snacks.

“They’re really hands-on within the camp,” she said. “I went to visit yesterday and I was blown away. I spoke to the person who runs the sports program and she said this is so good for the camp, for the Yachad participants, for everybody.”

The Yachad trainees, she said, “know that they’re part of the camp. It’s been beautiful – a great display of inclusion.”

Herrmann pointed out that New Jersey Yachad is now a qualified provider of self-directed day services through the state’s Division of Developmental Disabilities. This means that the agency can be selected by disabled high school graduates who receive state funding to pay for professional services.

“We will provide these services all year long,” she said, adding that Yachad will focus on job skills – resume writing, interview techniques, computer training -providing hands-on work experience guided by job coaches.

“We haven’t even advertised, and we already have five individuals signed up for this,” she said. “Our plan is to start small, do well, then grow.”

While some employers, such as bookseller J. Levine in New York, have stepped forward to give the Yachad workers a try, “We’re currently looking for partners in the community to offer this opportunity to Yachad participants,” said Herrmann. “We’re reaching out to people we believe understand our mission and will be willing to give them a chance to be successful.”

Feedback from employers has been positive, she said, noting that the J. Levine trainee went on to become a paid employee.

“Employers are not only giving back but they’re receiving,” Herrmann said. “Our participants have a lot to give. If we can help them find their strengths, they can do a good job and serve a company well. It’s win-win.”

A successful summer

By all accounts, Yachad participants are thriving at Moshava Ba’ir.

“I saw a young woman there who has been working with us for the last year on vocational skills,” Herrmann said. “The times I spent with her she was quiet and reserved. When I saw her, three weeks into camp, she was a confident young woman, happy and social. She was interacting with staff and taking chances.

“When people feel they are being productive, it makes a world of difference. People with special needs should be included for their sake and for others’ sake. We have to give them the opportunity.”

Ariella Silver, the camp’s vocational program director, said the seven young adults she is supervising there – from all over Bergen County – each come with individual goals based on their own vocational development during the year.

Silver, who has coordinated Yachad special programs for many years and now is working on a doctorate in psychology, said job skills training includes “how to act, what to do after you complete an activity, how to communicate, and how to effectively interact with younger children and work on their level.” Participants also learn to ask for help and accept constructive criticism.

She offers her students one-on-one coaching, though sometimes Yachad participants function without a job coach “to increase their sense of independence and give them a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

The feedback from the camp has been “amazing,” she said. “The camp is so welcoming and on board with our mission and goals for the summer. We weren’t sure what we were walking into, but I’m more and more impressed.”

Silver recalled a recent encounter with specialty staff from cooking and art.

“They were just hanging out, sharing stories, and getting to know one another,” she said. “The third person with them was one of my ladies.

“One young lady in our program came up to me last week and said ‘I bet I know more of the counselors’ names than you do,'” Silver said. “This was one bet that I was thrilled that I lost. She had been working all summer on introducing herself to the other staff members in camp, and now she can greet nearly everyone by name. In return, the staff knows her and gladly includes her in their conversations and breaks in the staff lounge.”

The Yachad participants “are tremendously enjoying the summer,” she said. “Three that have left [to join the Yad B’Yad program] said they want to do it again.”

Her students love both the camp and Yachad, she said, adding that at least four of the summer trainees will continue their vocational development with Yachad during the year.

Elissa Richter of Teaneck, who teaches pre-k at Yeshiva Noam in Paramus during the school year and early childhood art at the camp during the summer, said that her Yachad assistants come to her before the start of each class.

“I explain what we’ll be doing,” Richter said. “I may give them a job, like gluing, or they’ll pass out bowls or set up tables.” She added that she can really use the help.

“They’ve been great,” she said, noting that she has learned the particular strengths and needs of her Yachad assistants from the job coaches. Some of them, for example, need more guidance in talking to and engaging other people.

“I try to address that,” she said. “They may need to be more talkative or learn to follow directions. I try to gear it to that. It helps that the job coach explains it.”

“The campers treat them normally,” she added. “They look at them as my assistants.”

Annette, who lives in Fort Lee, is one of Richter’s helpers. She clearly is enjoying her experience at camp.

She cited not only “new and exciting activities” but her own progress as well.

“The specialty staff were very impressed with the way I was helping the children. I feel my overall work ethic has improved,” she said, adding that “the little kids are sweet and eager to learn. They are at an innocent age and we should be less jaded and enjoy things as they do.”

According to Herrmann, parents are pleased as well.

Keith Dickter of Elizabeth, whose daughter Dorit is working at the camp and joining Yachad’s vocational program full time in September, said he is “amazed that Dorit is having such a great time helping the campers while at the same time learning so much from her job coaches.”

Dorit echoes her father’s enthusiasm. She told Silver that she is now introducing herself more to the campers.

“I noticed that I am doing better,” she said. “This program has helped me grow a lot. I enjoy going to camp and working hard.”

Dorit is especially appreciative of the help offered by the job coaches, who, she said, are “always here to help us improve our skills.”

Herrmann said she hopes the summer trainees will make connections in the community and learn what it means to be a worker. She is also hopeful that this experience will help them find paying jobs, or at least provide additional networking opportunities.

“Our job is to prepare them for work,” she said. “They won’t be in this program forever.”

For more information about New Jersey Yachad’s programs and services, email Chani Herrmann at herrmann@ou.org. For more information about Yachad’s eight different inclusive summer programs, email Nechama Braun at braunn@ou.org.

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