‘As much as I taught, I learned’

‘As much as I taught, I learned’

As it prepares for its gala Saturday night, Yachad New Jersey staff and honorees look back

Netanel Berkowitz reacts to receving his Chanukah box from Yachad.
Netanel Berkowitz reacts to receving his Chanukah box from Yachad.

Things change. They remain the same. The world changes around us but the people in the world don’t change. At our best, we adapt.

Yachad is the Orthodox Union’s program for people with developmental disabilities and other learning challenges. Its motto is “Because Everyone Belongs,” and it lives out those words in visible and often extraordinary ways, making clear that just like everyone else, a person with special needs is a person. Not only a person with a full human range of needs, feelings, desires, and the ability to love and be loved, but also a person who can both offer and accept friendship. A person who can be fun.

Yachad New Jersey is one of national Yachad’s most active chapters, overseeing activities across the state from its offices in Teaneck. Before covid hit, those offices were busy all day long; it had vocational training programs during the day, activities for Yachad members and their neurotypical friends after school, and evening-long opportunities for friendship and relaxation at the Mendel Balk Center. It was — and will be again as soon as the vaccines that already have begun to be administered reach everyone who can get them — a place where assumptions about who is capable of what were surpassed routinely.

It’s harder to do that right now — but Yachad’s leadership didn’t see that increased level of difficulty as a reason to stop trying.

Now, as Yachad New Jersey prepares for its annual gala, which of course will be online this year (see box), its director, Raquel Selevan of Bergenfield, looks back — and forward.

“From the beginning, in March, we immediately transitioned much of our program into a virtual realm,” she said. “The Balk Center had a weekly virtual art Zoom program right away, on Monday nights. And then, as we realized that this wasn’t going to be a two-week thing, the calendar grew.”

Like many other organizations, Yachad New Jersey took advantage of one of the few advantages the pandemic offers — the ability to transcend geography. Nobody can be there in person, but almost anybody can be almost everywhere online. “Now we share a calendar with all of the Yachad regions throughout the United States, Canada, and Israel,” Ms. Selevan said. “We have over 50 programming options throughout the day, evenings, and weekends.”

Yachad used to run in-person programs every morning. The pandemic suspended them. But just because the possibility of actually being together went away, the need for a time to socialize at the beginning of the day did not. “We started the Breakfast Club, three mornings a week,” Ms. Selevan said. “That was in April, because a lot of the dayhab” — the vocational day programs — “were closed.” A program called Jewish Union Foundation, for people 21 and older, which met at Yachad’s offices, would run from 9 to 4; at 4, participants could go to the Balk Center. “That program was cut short, and we saw that we had participants who needed a morning program, so we started the Breakfast Club.

Yachad participants at the summer program PC20. (All photos courtesy Yachad NJ)

“It meets on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and we invited the Israeli region to join us. Because of the time difference, it’s their dinner club. There were some families there who had lived in New Jersey and made aliyah. Some of them knew each other from Yachad, and some from Yachad summer programs. It was a beautiful reunion.”

As for the content, “it has evolved majorly,” Ms. Selevan said. “We talk about current events, we talk about feelings, and we talk about gratitude. On Fridays, everyone shares something from the week that they’re grateful for.”

On Monday evenings, Yachad has game night, on Zoom. “We partner with local elementary and high schools — Kushner, Frisch, Ma’ayanot, TABC, Yavneh, Moriah, Noam,” Ms. Selevan said. “Monday nights are my favorites, because it is communal. It brings back the magic spark of Yachad, what Yachad is able to do in the community.

“A lot of the game nights are family oriented. We have participants and their families, and other students and their families, from different schools.

“It is almost hard to find the words to describe what happens, what we still are able to do. Despite being on Zoom, we still are able to make a difference.

“Even with these challenges, with the pandemic, great things can happen. A former staff member, who now is married with children, will be there, with the children.

“It brings people together.”

Some Yachad members have grown less intimated by Zoom, at times even at home on the platform. “Others need assistance from their aides or their parents,” Ms. Selevan said. “We have seen a huge learning curve, even amongst ourselves, in being able to adapt to the technology. It’s been amazing to watch participants who maybe weren’t comfortable with Zoom to be completely comfortable with it now.

Yosef Taubes packages giveaway bags for the Yachad NJ Challah Bake.

“We have a calendar that we send out every week that has all our Zoom events on it, and the calendar is hyperlinked. A lot of our participants know how to go to the calendar and click on the link. We’ve also been using a text messaging platform called Remind, and we send a Remind between 10 and 15 minutes before a program will start, with a direct link, so it’s just a click.”

Not all families have access to Zoom. “We have provided devices to families that needed it,” Ms. Selevan said.

Some of Yachad’s programs remained in-person.

Over the summer, Yachad members could join Project Community, the brainchild of the OU’s new executive vice president, Rabbi Moshe Hauer, Ms. Selevan said. It was a way to have in-person summer programs both within and across the OU.

“We were able to run a summer program we called PC 2020,” she said. “It was a summer camp. We ran it in pods of 12 or less, including participants, staff, and high school volunteers from our fellowship program. We ran it at Keter Torah in Teaneck.”

The campers’ ages ranged from 10 to mid-30s; the pods were arranged by age.

Other Yachad members were able to have one-to-one meetings through a program called “Backyard Buddies.” “We wanted to be able to do something for all families, no matter what they were comfortable with,” Ms. Selevan said. “Different families are comfortable with different programs. In this one, we sent a staff member to a Yachad member’s home, and they would sit outside, masked and socially distant. We provided knapsacks with different types of games, and a jump-rope. The staffer would have a weekly hourlong visit with whoever signed up for the program, because we saw how vitally important contact is.” There were Backyard Buddies who made house calls in Bergen, Passaic, and Middlesex counties.

“We pushed the program through till the fall, until it became too cold, and also it was getting dark outside earlier,” Ms. Selevan said.

Staff member Moshe Stuart and Tani Sabo spend time together at PC20 this summer.

There also was a program for Shabbat afternoons. “It started in the summer, and met at public parks close to shuls,” she said. “As it started to get colder, and also as schools started to open, as there was a shift in the world, we started to think of other ways to connect with our participants that weren’t necessarily on Zoom or in person.

“People were Zoomed out.”

The result of that desire for a third kind of programming was mailing supplies that members could use to create things. “We did a mailing for Sukkot, and again for Thanksgiving,” Ms. Selevan said. The supplies included cards that members could design, draw, and then send. “It was beautiful. And in our most recent box, for Chanukah, we included a present, a wooden Chanukiah to paint, a program for every night, and activities, games, a d’var Torah, and song sheets.

“Everyone who is a member got one.” Recipients live in Bergen, Essex, Union, Passaic, and Middlesex counties, she added.

Things are changing again, though. “Thank God, more and more of our members are able to go to work, if they have jobs. Their places of work have reopened. Different programs have re-opened for in-person programs.”

As a result, the Breakfast Club has become a bit less necessary, and so a bit less well-attended, although it remains a basic part of Yachad’s programming.

The Mendel Balk Center has re-opened, albeit cautiously. “One group comes in from 4 to 6, and another from 4:30 to 6:30.” That means that the number of people who come anywhere at all near each other — always masked and maintaining social distance — is minimized. “When they get here, we take their temperatures and fill out health forms. We are being extremely careful.”

But the need was too real to ignore. “We had parents calling us, telling us how much their child missed the center. We knew that we needed to make it happen, so we did. We hope to continue to go upward from here, in terms of being able to bring back different parts of the program.

Yachad’s Zoom Chanukah party featured entertainers to delight participants.

“We do whatever we can to provide a normal time for our participants at the center.”

But some aspects of the evening inevitably are different. Although one of the center’s hallmarks was the way special-needs and neurotypical people spent comfortable time together, now the center is open only to Yachad members. So few people can be there safely that those spaces must go to the people who can benefit most from it.

One sad difference that cannot change is that one of the center’s most visible and enthusiastic members, Donny Hain died this spring. “He was involved since the very beginning of Yachad,” Ms. Selevan said. “He went on Shabbatons, he went to the Yachad summer program. After he graduated from high school, his father would drive him to Brooklyn for the JUF program until they opened a day program in New Jersey.

“Donny was everybody’s friend. I met him when I went on a high school leadership Shabbaton; I remember him coming up to me and saying ‘My name is Donny Hain. What’s yours?’ I would see him at many Shabbatons.

“And then, on my first day here” — Ms. Selevan started as director about a year and a half ago; she’d been active in Yachad as a volunteer since she founded the Yachad club at Frisch when she was a student there — “He said, ‘Hi! I’m Donny.’ You know how that first day of work, you’re not sure of your place? So I was sitting at my desk, and Donny and his aide came around the corner. That’s when I finally felt comfortable. I said, ‘Hi, Donny. I know who you are!’

“Donny loved the Mendel Balk Yachad Center. He loved singing and dancing there. He loved his friends there. We’re dedicating the Donny Hain z’l Yachad Center Lounge there in his memory; I think it’s really beautiful that he is forever going to be part of the center.

“I feel bad for our participants. They were such good friends with Donny. It’s always hard to lose a friend, and that’s particularly true during covid, when we are not all together. But he was really unbelievably special, and I hope that the joy that he brought to our programming still will be there now.”

Yachad’s gala — which is a major part of its annual fundraising efforts — necessarily will be different this year, but still its creators are making it as inspirational as possible. “We will include a Havdalah with Simcha Leiner, along with a special video, and we will also honor 15 high school seniors who have taken leadership roles in the Mendel Balk Yachad Center or as Yachad club heads in their schools,” Ms. Selevan said. “It is an honor to honor them.

Gila Guzman

“And we will have a tribute to Donny Hain.”

Gila Guzman of Teaneck, who will receive the women’s leadership award, taught Yachad students how to make snacks and feel comfortable in a kitchen. She did that for five years, she said; although her own schedule made it necessary for her to stop, she hopes that it’s just a temporary halt. She fell into the position, which was perfect for her, she later realized, almost by pure chance. “I went to a breakfast where one of my friends was being honored, and I met someone there who knew that I used to be an attorney and went back to school, even though I had five kids, to go into nutrition,” she said. “She said ‘Oh! We need this!’ And I said, ‘Oh wow, this sounds fantastic!’”

At her interview, she realized that she was interested in the idea of teaching Yachad participants to cook. One extra challenge was that safety and prudence dictated that the cooking would have to be done without using any flame. That meant absolutely no heating element except for a microwave.

“It got my creative juices flowing,” Ms. Guzman said.

“So we met once a week. Sometimes I got creative, like making a vegetable tuna melt in the microwave. It wasn’t even as much a tuna melt as it was a tuna burger. Tuna and egg, with cheese on top. Delicious. Other things were simple, like fruit kabob.

“The goal was not to teach how to make meals, but to help them take ownership and the responsibility of feeding themselves. That comes with really enjoying handling food, touching it, being in the kitchen, kitchen hygiene, washing your hands, wearing gloves, sneezing, touching your nose, and then washing your hands again.

“I also spent a lot of time teaching knife safety,” she added.

As part of their life-skills acquisition, class members often helped with shopping for ingredients. Ms. Guzman didn’t accompany the students on that mission, but she did talk about what they’d bought at the beginning of each class. “I would go over every ingredient,” she said. “They learned to read labels. They learned that every ingredient could come in a healthier version. Sometimes we didn’t choose the healthier version, and they learned that it is part of a healthy lifestyle. You have to be balanced, and that doesn’t mean eating healthy 24/7. Learning about choices is very important.”

Yachad’s PC20 featured both indoor and outdoor activities.

Before her work at Yachad, Ms. Guzman did not have any training in working with developmentally disabled people. “At my interview, I was asked if I thought I could do it, and I said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’”

As it turned out, yes she could. “It came to me intuitively, that these are regular people, learning skills that I teach to everyone.

“I don’t think I speak to them at a different level, or teach at a different level,” she continued. “Teaching is more about the connection with your students. When you have a good connection, when they touch you, when they are open to learning, that’s how you teach.”

As many Yachad staff and volunteers say, with clearly heartfelt emotion, “this was a beautiful thing,” Ms. Guzman said. “What started as me teaching what is a balanced meal turned into the participants sharing their lives with me. The rooms that we met in changed, but it always was a safe space. We shared what we were doing on the weekend, or at night, what we were looking forward to, what else was going on in their lives.

“It was so much more than a cooking class. I started as a teacher, but in a very real way I ended up as a student. I treasured those hours in my week, because as much as I taught, I learned.

Ms. Guzman is the longtime nutritional coach at Camp Mesorah in upstate New York; Yachad runs a program for participants there. “On one of my off days, I took my son, who was 6 at the time, and we went blueberry picking. The whole camp was there; we picked blueberries together, we laughed, we ran through the fields, we ended up with buckets and buckets of blueberries.

“The very next day, I made blueberry yogurt parfaits with the Yachad students. It was a superb farm-to-table lesson, and we just happened to be together because we connected on so many levels. It was so much fun. We wanted to be together, just like you would hang out with any friends. We wanted to hang out together.”

Ms. Guzman has a message for the community. “I think that often people don’t want to accept the fact there is so much need around us,” she said. “I hope that we will all look around us and see it.

Donny Hain was a beloved member of Yachad.

“We are all so very busy, but I think it is important to look around, see a need, and fill it. It is a matter of looking around, and seeing what needs fit in with our ability to fill it. For me, Yachad is a way of giving back to our community.”

And if you do that, Ms. Guzman said, “you will get as much as you give.”

Yachad is honoring Shifra and Rabbi Dr. Benjy Leibowitz of Fair Lawn with the Young Leadership award. The two both grew up in Teaneck, where their fathers were on the board of Congregation Rinat Yisrael. But although they are just about the same age today, the three years that separate them made them seem as if they were much farther apart in age back then. They didn’t know each other then.

Now, Rabbi Leibowitz works as a psychologist in the Tenafly public schools, and he has a private practice in Springfield. Ms. Leibowitz is a speech therapist; she works in the Irvington public school system.

Rabbi Leibowitz’s first taste of Yachad came in 2007, when he was starting at Yeshiva University, fresh off his two gap years in Israel. He went on a Shabbaton, and then he spent a summer with Yachad in Israel, where he was paired with Donny Hain. He loved it, and it turned out that he had a talent for working with Yachad participants. “I had a really powerful experience, and I found it to be not just enjoyable and personally gratifying, but also meaningful,” he said. “I was finding my niche.”

In 2009, he was the head counselor for the boys’ Yachad division in Camp Morasha; from there, he became the vocational director. During that time, he got married; “Shifra got very entrenched at Morasha,” he said. “Together we ran the Morris Sandlebaum Fellowship Program at Morasha. That’s a training program for Yachad’s youngest staff members, post 11th grade. It’s like jump-starting them, teaching them the skills they need to be creative, sensitive counselors.”

Eventually, he became a full-time Yachad staff member, but later he went back to school; he’d earned his undergraduate degree from Yeshiva College, smicha from RIETS, and a master’s degree in education from Azrieli — all parts of YU — but eventually he left Yachad to work toward a doctorate in psychology at Rutgers.

“But even when I left the office, they kept me involved,” Rabbi Leibowitz said. “I wrote a siddur that was published by OU Press and Koren, geared for individuals with special needs.”

Ms. Leibowitz’s connections with Yachad have been less formal, but still they’re deep. “I saw what Benjy was doing, I went to Shabbatons, I worked at Morasha as a spinning instructor, and as specialty staff I had my meals with Yachad participants. As the wife of someone who is heavily involved, I am also heavily involved. We bring our kids” — that’s a 6-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a 2-year-old, and another one on the way — “to everything. I don’t have a title, but we are part of the Yachad community.”

“Shifra is being very humble, but she is a very well-known person in the Yachad community,” her husband said. “Some people are more bystanders, but Shifra is front and center. She knows everyone. She talks to everyone. She is definitely more than just a friend of Yachad.”

“We reference things like inclusion all the time with our kids,” Ms. Leibowitz said. “We always reference how Abba works with Yachad members. It helps develop sensitivity in our kids. Our 2-year-old doesn’t really understand yet, but the 6-year-old and the 4-year-old are very comfortable. We think it’s very important to be continuously involved, not just for ourselves but also for our kids.”

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