Together through life

Together through life

How Yachad helps the community stand with people with disabilities

Yachad participants Yaffa and Chaya Tziporah hang out with a staff member, Sara.
Yachad participants Yaffa and Chaya Tziporah hang out with a staff member, Sara.

From the outside, it looks like a regular office building, but once you go inside, you realize that although it’s not particularly new, the developers had been ahead of their time in their understanding of light.

There’s light everywhere in New Jersey Yachad’s new Teaneck offices, shining in through big windows that are placed on every possible wall. There’s nothing left in darkness.

Not only is that a beautiful physical reality — there are very few good things that sharp, clear, bright sunlight doesn’t improve — but it’s also a metaphor that’s so obvious that it goes almost entirely without saying. But let’s say it anyway.

For many years — basically for most of recorded history — people with special needs have been mocked, insulted, abused, and hidden. Although certainly many of them might have been valued by their families, because people are human and so love can grow even when it is discouraged, in general societies did not value people with special needs. They were considered to be not assets but liabilities.

That is beginning to change, and it seems fair to say that in the Jewish world, many Orthodox institutions have led the way in helping all of us to understand that none of us can dismiss anyone as unworthy. We are not allowed to do that.

There are many organizations that fight the stigma that families of special-needs children battle, just as other organizations fight other stigmas. In general, it seems, that as we understand more about the wide diversity of people, even within fairly small, self-contained cultures, increasingly we open to them.

Yachad participant Rivkah Gitstein and Yachad staff member Robin Tassler reunite after the summer. (Photos courtesy NJ Yachad)

That is all very general. To be more specific, in New Jersey, the Orthodox Union’s Yachad has provided children, teenagers, and adults with special needs with places where they can be themselves, and where other people can come to know them. It’s provided ways to demystify them, and that demystification — a function of sunlight — helps break the stigma.

(In that mission, Yachad is similar to the Sinai Schools, which provide many of the same people with extraordinarily tailored-to-each-student education during school hours. Yachad steps in on evenings and weekends, during the summer, and with people who have aged out of school. The two unrelated groups complement each other.)

Yachad, a national organization whose state headquarters in Teaneck covers all of New Jersey, provides programming for everyone with disabilities — not only Orthodox Jews but all Jews — and for that matter also for people lucky enough not to have disabilities. Starting with elementary school children, it brings people together, creating an inclusive community and modeling acceptance. It’s easy to say that things should work that way, but Yachad manages to do it for real.

Last year, New Jersey Yachad opened the Mendel Balk Community Center, which provides evening programming for people with and without disabilities throughout the state. (Mr. Balk, who died in 2016, joined his wife, Ariela, as the loving, supportive, and generous parents of Yoel, a 25-year-old who has been part of Yachad since he was a kid.) The program has proven to be so popular that it already has outgrown its space.

According to Chani Herrmann, New Jersey Yachad’s director, creator, and animating force, “We started the Balk Center in February 2017, and there’s been such tremendous growth in such a short time that it speaks to the need for evening programming, both for the people who use it and for their families.”

So Yachad is in the middle of moving out of the space it’s occupied for the last few years at the Jewish Center of Teaneck — the school housed there, Heichal HaTorah, a yeshiva high school for boys also is growing, and it too could use more space. Now it will have it. It’s moving to the light-filled building on Cedar Lane in Teaneck; other Orthodox Union agencies will use the rest of the space.

The new building is being redesigned specifically for Yachad; it will have a lounge, a kitchen, a media center, a quiet area that will give participants the time and space to center themselves, and classrooms where students can work on life and work skills.

NJ Yachad director Chani Herrmann celebrates with the bar mitzvah boy, Netanel Berkowitz, a Junior Yachad participant.

“My vision is that Yachad will be the coolest, most welcoming place to be,” Ms. Herrmann said. “That’s why it is so attractive not only to Yachad members but to community members as well, and especially to high school students.” The Balk Center is aimed specifically at 10-year-olds “all the way through adulthood, and its various groups and programs run from Monday through Thursday nights.” On Monday nights, it offers students from the Frisch School transportation from the Paramus high school to Teaneck; those students do not have special needs but enjoy the programming and their relationships with the other kids there. Eventually, Yachad will offer other schools that service as well. And as part of its status as the main office of a state-wide organization, Yachad draws special-needs students from around the state.

“We have participants who come from Middlesex County, from Metrowest, and they come on a daily basis,” Ms. Herrmann said. “I hear from the parents that one of the reasons they come all the way out here is that they feel we are unique in the services we offer, and they can’t get anything like what we offer closer to home. There are not that many places that start at 9 in the morning and end at 7 in the evening.

“We offer day services for people 21 and older, who have aged out of the school system. There, our focus is on skill building — both independent living skills and job-related programs. We also offer training in skills for working in retail stores — shelving and pricing.

“We have many schools in the community reaching out to do programs with us, both during the day and in the evening.” Some of the programs are for sensitivity training; “we had a group recently from Frisch who came over, and we introduced them to what we do, and then our students and the Frisch students worked together to make educational interactive packages,” another one of Yachad’s projects.

Eitan Hiller, a student at Teaneck High School, with Moshe Rosenberg and Avi Tsadok, participants in the Yachad Day Program and the Mendel Balk Center.

The way that Yachad attracts everyone — students with special needs and their neurotypical peers — is a basic part of its model. “Yachad’s mission always has been inclusion, and as an organization we think about inclusion in all the things we do,” Ms. Herrmann said. “Inclusion sometimes means different things to different people, and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to look just one way. But as an organization, we can educate people about having an inclusive perspective, and then they can go on to become adults who can change the world.”

What does that mean?

“Inclusion goes both ways for everyone,” Ms. Herrmann said. She’s a prime example of that. She first became involved with Yachad when she was about 10, in the late 1980s, in Queens. There was something about it that resonated deeply in her; she’s worked with it, first as a volunteer, then as a professional, living in Teaneck, overseeing the operation in New Jersey, ever since. And it’s multigenerational; her daughter, Atara, a junior at the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, “grew up in Yachad,” Ms. Herrmann said. “She and her friends have been members of the Balk Center since it opened. She and her friends come every week.”

And then it got even deeper. “Atara spent a summer with Yachad. She was part of a trip to Israel that has people with and without special needs spend five weeks together,” and now she’s even more deeply engaged.

“Yachad is not a one-time event,” Ms. Herrmann said. “It’s about looking deeper inside, and thinking about what people with special needs have to offer to our community, and what their abilities are.

“It’s about fostering meaningful connections and lasting friendships.”

It’s not all unicorns frolicking, though. Yachad recognizes reality; it is responsive to communal needs. “Last year, when we first started the center, it was geared to young adults,” Ms. Herrmann said. “We responded to the needs in the community by expanding the center, so now, twice a week, we have programs for younger children.

“I recently ran into one of the mothers; her son, who is 13, comes in twice a week. She said, ‘I want to tell you that he loves coming to the center, but even more than his enjoying it, it has changed our family dynamics at home.

“‘Now, from 4 to 7, I’m able to help my other children with their homework. I can sit with them, uninterrupted, and know that he is having a wonderful time engaging with his peers.’

“And we also were insistent that we’d provide transportation home,” Ms. Herrmann continued. “We said that if we are going to do this, if we provide parents with time to do things that they couldn’t do if their kid weren’t at the center, then we also should drive them home. Driving multiple carpools is tiring and time-consuming. So while the most important part of the center is the programming we provide, we can do an equally good job of caring for the parents, and of showing them we understand that things can be hard sometimes.”

To that end, she said, “We just received a gift from a donor for more sibling-related programs. We will start one that will be geared to kids from 7 to 13, with a huge emphasis on fun. Just fun. Just for the siblings.”

Racheli Israeli is the Balk Center’s director, among many other responsibilities. “Racheli also grew up in Yachad,” Ms. Herrmann said; Ms. Israeli confirmed that the group had a strong grip on her imagination and heart since her childhood in Monsey. “Even when I was in high school, I worked at Yachad,” she said. “I have a brother with disabilities, so I have been part of the community for a very long time. As a kid, I went to Shabbatons with my family — I think I probably was about 8 then — and I went to sib workshops. I started getting involved myself when I was about 14. So I have seen it from a personal perspective as well as a professional one.”

NJ Yachad’s program director, Racheli Israeli, leads a group at the Balk Center.

It most likely influenced her professional choices; Ms. Israeli is finishing up her social work degree at YU’s Wurzweiler School. She lives in Bergenfield now; her husband works at Frisch, and her job at Yachad has grown from part- to extremely full time.

“We really want to cater to the whole family,” she said. “And to the whole community. We want to address the needs of siblings and parents and have community-wide events.

“When Yachad first was founded in 1983, inclusion wasn’t so big,” Ms. Israeli continued. “We recently celebrated our 35th anniversary.” Back then, the word wasn’t in vogue; now, she said, “it’s become a buzzword. And it is has always been part of our mission.

“We also really want people to know that we serve people from all backgrounds. Our mission is inclusion of everyone, regardless of their level of Jewish observance. When we are all together, doing meaningful programs, forging connections, those things are just not important.

“We are an agency of the Orthodox Union, but we also welcome people who are not Orthodox. Our goal is to provide inclusion in the Jewish community.”

In fact, Ms. Israeli added, “we had a lot of Yachad members who attend public schools. Parents reach out to us because they want their children to be in the Jewish community. They want them to have the opportunity to have Jewish experiences that they might not be able to have in other places.”

Yad B’Yad participants from Maayanot High School celebrate their friend Julia’s birthday.

The Balk Center has programming four nights a week, three hours every night, including dinner. Overall, Ms. Israeli said, “we run about 315 programs a year. We have about 135 nights a year. And we try to run a smooth program.”

The center also offers Sunday programs about once a month. “It’s a relationship-building course, where we sit around the table in a therapeutic environment, and then we have lunch together, and then go together for an activity out in the community.” It’s run by licensed social workers, she added, and it’s open to people 18 and older. “We also have extra events throughout the year,” she continued. “We have to fill up our calendar. We want to have their social lives full of fun and wholesome things.” Those events include an upcoming Chanukah party with Hillel Yeshiva in Deal and activities with NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth group.

Back at home, the Balk Center is open to everyone, but the programming is aimed at specific subgroups. And it’s structured. “There are aspects of it that are free for socializing and relaxing, but it’s structured,” Ms. Israeli said. “Our kids need structure. And remember that we are not babysitting. Our primary goal is socialization,” but the center also teaches skills. “Every Monday night we have two amazing teachers who come to teach STEM,” she continued; STEM is science, technology, engineering, and math. “They come every week with prepared lessons, with different options for different people with different needs. They present very interactive and engaging science-based programs.

“It’s not at all a traditional science program, but it’s very experiential. A lot of it is based on teamwork, on how we can do it as a group.” In other words, the STEM teachers provide not only content information but also, and perhaps more importantly, opportunity and encouragement and modeling for working together.

As with much of the center’s programming, it’s divided by age. On Monday nights, for example, “we have one STEM session for our younger division, and the older division is doing something else at the same time. And then we swap,” Ms. Israeli said.

“We have three age groups four nights a week,” she continued. “The program initially was opened to fill a void because there wasn’t a place to socialize. Our vision is to create a buzzing place, where people can come in and out. We are not only providing resources for special-needs populations, but also for the community at large. Chani” — that’s Ms. Herrmann — “brings all four of her kids. Her youngest, Yakov, is in fourth grade.” And by doing so, Ms. Herrmann is repeating the pattern that she first learned in her family, when she realized the value of diversity and inclusion, and how closely they are related to love; about how you do not have to have special needs yourself to understand the value of people who do.

“I think that Chani’s family is the prototype, where all the kids are fully integrated,” Ms. Israeli said. “Our dream is to really be that for so many families, and we hope to really use this space to do this for the community.

“We are always trying to find ways to grow and to be there for the community.”

At the barbecue at the Balk Center’s opening day, community members
Daniel Herrmann and Joey Shatkes stand shoulder to shoulder with Yoel Balk
and Avi Tsadok.

One of the challenges Yachad faces is that the level of thought, care, and opportunity it offers, and the many highly trained staff members it takes to implement those opportunities, all costs money. A great deal of money. “We have to have a lot of staff because we have to provide a safe and fun environment,” Ms. Herrmann said. “And we hire the best people to staff those programs.

“And we charge very little to parents. We don’t want financial cost ever to be the reason that they don’t take advantage of the programs they need. We know that our parents have many additional costs that typical families don’t have. So we rely on the community to help us; we have the big gala, and I am always asking people in the community to help us.” (See box for more information on the gala.)

Both Ms. Herrmann and Ms. Israeli love their work, and talk about it with passion and conviction. “The Balk Center has the most amazing energy,” Ms. Israeli said. “Our group of members and peers is bursting with love and warmth. If you look in during center hours, you feel the positive energy. There are so many jokes. Everyone is always laughing. It is always so inclusive.”

“We have seen both children and young adults change during their time with us,” Ms. Herrmann added. “We have seen people who were having difficulties with socialization becoming much more social, becoming much more outgoing, participating more and more.

“What is unique about this program is that it is ongoing. It is not once a year. It is not once a month. It is every day. You are involved with it on a daily basis. The potential for growth is huge, if you have a social group to be with. You can fight isolation.

“Families can count on us to be there,” she said. “We are consistent.”

There’s more information about New Jersey Yachad at

Who: New Jersey Yachad
What: Celebrates at its gala Melava Malka
When: On Saturday, December 1, at 8 p.m.
Where: At Congregation Keter Torah at 600 Roemer Ave., Teaneck
For reservations or more information: Go to

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