The pandemic has changed the way we live, but it hasn’t changed what we need. In response, it’s demanded creativity and resolve in the way we try to meet those needs.
That’s general. To be specific, people living with developmental disabilities continue to need connection, friendship, and love, just as they did before — and just as their neurotypical peers do.
During normal times, Yachad, the Orthodox Union’s program for people with disabilities, which includes not only education and training but also the kinds of relationship-building that is clear in its name. (Yachad means together, and it’s about the way relationships ideally should be built and grow.)
Usually, both Yachad’s national office in Manhattan and its vibrant statewide New Jersey office, headquartered in Teaneck, run programs not only for people with special needs, but it also brings them together with high school students, as together they learn about each other and often develop long-term friendships that defy stereotypical assumptions.
People learn about each other by being together.
They can’t do that this year.
Yachad has dealt with that problem by running many programs online, as well as by instituting some in-person, socially distanced meetings when the weather was warm enough to permit them. But that’s not enough.
February was Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. To mark that, Yachad held an intense two-meeting online training seminar for high-school students. Because the one advantage the pandemic gives us is the ability to overcome the boundaries of space, participants came from around the tristate area, across the country, and beyond — three came from Vienna.
Yakira Begun is Yachad’s assistant director of informal education. She ran the program, which ran on Sundays and drew about 40 students, fairly evenly divided between girls and boys.
The goal is to help students “become more sensitive, aware people. We hope that high-school students involved in Yachad just are able to treat Yachad members, and people with different types of disabilities, as friends.”
During the first meeting, “we focused on better understanding what it means to live with a disability, and we did it by looking through the lens of someone who has one.” They listened to Pam Schuller, a comedian and advocate who has Tourette’s, a syndrome that often makes a person make involuntary noises and body movements in a way that can be profoundly disconcerting to people who have no understanding of what’s happening, or why. “She talked about her experiences growing up with Tourette’s and going to a mainstream high school,” Ms. Begun said. “The focus of her talk was what a peer or friend can do to form a genuine relationship with someone who has a disability.” As Ms. Schuller puts in online, “I am not anyone mitzvah’s project.”
And as Ms. Begun puts it, “we don’t want anyone to high school to feel like it’s their job or their responsibility to take care of someone else. Their responsibility is to be a friend. It’s to treat someone else as they’d like to be treated. It’s to find out what unites us.” If you do that, if you both acknowledge and look beyond the disability, you can find yourself in a genuine friendship, she said.
Ms. Schuller’s presentation was followed by a sensitivity training workshop, “which is where we mimic virtually what it feels like to live with different disabilities,” Ms. Begun said. “We use video clips or tasks that we ask people to do, and then we ask them to reflect on how it felt. Sometimes it’s a mind game or exercise, where we see that everyone’s brain processes information differently.”
Ms. Begun described something she calls the S test. “They’re asked to see how many Fs” — that’s the letter F — “they see in a box. Most people count three, based on how our minds work,” but in fact there are more. “It’s a powerful opener for sensitivity training,” she said. “Before they start the training, people think that it’s only important for someone who lives with a disability, but when we start with this test, we acknowledge that all of our brains process differently. I use it to remind students to stay open-minded and inclusive. That’s something we all can benefit from.”
In the workshop, the students went on to consider such different disabilities as speech impediments — “imagine if you are standing up to give a d’var Torah or some other kind of public speaking, and you have some sort of speech impediment,” Ms. Begun said — and autism, which “runs on a very wide spectrum.” It comes with a huge range of behaviors. And so “if you have met one person with autism — you have met one person with autism.” You cannot draw any other conclusions from that meeting — but you can help to cushion some fairly well-shared traits. “We can work to try to create environments that are more comfortable to people who are more sensitive to certain sensory-related stimuli,” she said.
“We like to end sensitivity training by talking about how important it is not to label someone based on their diagnoses. Our goal at Yachad is to make friends. It doesn’t matter what someone’s clinical diagnosis is. What matters is how we treat one another. What matters is what brings us together.”
The second meeting focused on “what it means to be an advocate, and how to use our voices to represent people who may sometimes feel like they don’t have a voice, or like their voice isn’t always equally represented,” Ms. Begun said. She brought in another guest speaker, Akiva Frischman, “who spoke to the group about what it means to advocate for change, and how individual people who are passionate about inclusion can make a difference both locally and on a more global scale.”
The program was new; she pulled aspects of it from other things she’d done before, Ms. Begun said, but just as the need to do it over Zoom was novel, so was the result.
Aliza Walzman of Hillside is a senior at Bruriah Girls High School in Elizabeth. She’s been involved with Yachad since the summer before 10th grade, when she went to Israel on the organization’s Yad B’Yad trip.
It was transformative, she said. “I was a changed person by the end of the summer. I have always loved giving to other people, but Yad B’Yad gave me the opportunity to see that I was giving more than I gave. That really changed me. I grew religiously and in maturity that summer.
“Since then, I have been as involved as I could be, but because I live in Hillside and a lot happened in Teaneck, it was hard. I didn’t drive yet. So I kept in touch with a couple of Yachad members, but it was hard.
“And then covid changed that. Everything was virtual. I did activities with Yachad multiple times a week, and I started running Yachad programs at my school.” Those programs, too, were online, run through Yachad’s Mendel Balk Center in Teaneck.
Aliza heads the Yachad committee at Bruriah, she added.
Although her involvement in Yachad is deep, “I still learned a lot” at the February programs, she said. “There’s always something new to learn.
“Yachad is such a special organization,” she concluded. “Anyone who can should donate time or money to it. It would be so appreciated.” She doesn’t have firm plans for her future yet, but “I would love to stay involved,” she said.
Yakira Schonbrun, who lives in White Plains, is a senior at the Frisch School in Paramus. She’s been involved with Yachad since she was in eighth grade; like Aliza, she was indelibly touched by a Yad B’Yad summer. “You travel around Israel with Yachad participants and mainstream participants,” she said. “We’re not Yachad participants’ counselors. We’re there to just to be their friends.
“Before that, I didn’t realize that you can really form a close friendship with someone who might be a little bit different from you. Different isn’t bad. One of my best friends is a Yachad person. It taught me to look at other people’s strengths.
“It’s not a bad thing that we’re all different.”
Once she got back from Israel, Yakira started going to afterschool programs at the Mendel Balk Center. Then covid happens. “Now I do some Zoom programs with Yachad, and I stay in touch with my friends from the Yachad center,” she said.
Pam Schuller’s presentation at the first Yachad workshop reminded Yakira that “people who have disabilities just want to be included. They don’t want a pity invite. They wanted to be included in the community.” And the second one “was more about what we can do.
“I came away feeling more educated about how we can make things more inclusive in shul or in school for people who might be different.
“You might not know who has a disability because you can’t always see it on the outside. And we heard a story about a person who was in a wheelchair because she had polio. She said that people thought she wasn’t smart because of her disability, even though her disability was just physical.”
Putting together all that they’ve learned, Aliza and Yakira both feel that there’s a great deal that they can do to advocate for people with disabilities. “You can start small,” Yakira said. “I try to get my friends involved with Yachad because I love it. Sometimes they say ‘It’s not for me. It’s not my type of thing.’ That’s because they feel uncomfortable.” But if they start slowly — start, say, by being more inclusive at lunch in school — “that can change everything.
“I understand that people can be uncomfortable, but you can make a difference just by befriending someone who might feel excluded,” she said. “Just try to be kind to one another.”