Yachad does it all together

Yachad does it all together

Program for inclusion grows as it brings people with and without special needs into one community

Natanel Sabo of Monsey and students from Frisch are at the Mendel Balk Yachad Center. (All photos by Abbie Sophia Photography)
Natanel Sabo of Monsey and students from Frisch are at the Mendel Balk Yachad Center. (All photos by Abbie Sophia Photography)

There’s something about Yachad that makes people keep coming back to it.

Yachad is the Orthodox Union-run organization that provides programs, services, advocacy, support, and love to people with disabilities and their families.

You would think that its work, while worthy, is unglamorous, and that its pull would be more to a volunteer’s obligation than to any inherent sense of pleasure it would provide. But if you were to think that, you’d be wrong.

Yachad means together, and that meaning runs deep. It’s about the sense of togetherness, of oneness, of unity in diversity, that pulls people in and keeps them in. They glory in it.

Yachad draws in volunteers when they are young, and the sense of community they get from it — and that’s community, mind you, not Lady Bountiful stuff; there is no condescension there, no poor them and wonderful us — lasts well past their young adulthood, into the rest of their lives. And not only does it help Yachad’s clients — its primary goal — it also helps the volunteers, and through them it changes and improves the whole community.

Yachad is an international organization; although most of its work is in the United States, it’s active in Israel and Canada — mainly Toronto — as well. One of its most active chapters is right here in New Jersey; it’s based in Teaneck, and it’s constantly growing.

Leora Verbit and Yachad participants work together at the day program.

So what does Yachad do?

It’s an organization that provides afterschool activities, vocational training, social opportunities, friendship, learning, and fun for people with special needs, from young children on up; it also demystifies and destigmatizes them for everyone else, and gives neurotypical people a chance to be comfortable around differences. And it often turns into a passion for the people who work there, both as volunteers and as professionals.

Take the new director of New Jersey Yachad, Raquel Selevan of Bergenfield. (She’s taken over from longtime director Chani Herrmann of Teaneck, who now is Yachad’s associate director of communal engagement.)

Raquel Selevan with her husband, Ari, and their sons Freddy and Tzvi.

Ms. Selevan grew up in Manhattan, but she crossed the Hudson for high school; she and her twin sister went to Frisch. That’s where she started working with Yachad, and she soon headed the school’s chapter. Her work with the group started for prosaic reasons; “there was an assistant principle who told me about the Yachad club, and said that I should be involved in something. And because I lived in the city, I didn’t do many after-school programs.” She and her sister had to take the bus, and that made it hard to stay after classes ended. But she had to do something to be part of the school community — and that something was Yachad.

“Then I went to the Yachad high school leadership Shabbaton,” she said, and that seems to have done it. It stuck. Being a leader and working with Yachad — they went together.

Ms. Selevan spent her gap year in Israel; she studied, but she also worked with people with special needs. When she returned, she studied psychology at Stern College; her summer jobs involved working with people with special needs, and at one point she was the program director of a vocational training program for Yachad.

After college, Ms. Selevan worked at NYU’s child study center. She became the assistant director of Camp Nesher, the Orthodox day camp that’s part of the New Jersey Y camps. “Nesher has a wonderful Yachad program — and that brought me back into the Yachad family.”

Ms. Selevan lives in Bergenfield; she and her husband have small children, and she’s bringing the two older ones into her world right away. She’s not waiting for high school. “The 2-year-old and the 4-year-old often come to programs with me,” she said. They love it.

And she has big plans for Yachad.

“We just moved into this building last year,” she said; it’s on Cedar Lane in Teaneck. “We are constantly looking at what needs to be done, and how we can do it. We look not only at how we can do things better, but also at what more we can do.

“Two years ago, Chani began the Mendel Balk Center,” named in loving memory of a longtime Yachad supporter. The center offers programming four afternoons and evenings a week, from 4:30 to 7, and it is staffed by volunteers, including many who are in high school and college. “But I, as somebody who moved into this community as a young professional, want everyone to be welcome here,” Ms. Selevan said. “I want everyone to feel welcome here. It is for everyone. It is about belonging. We are building community. This is a community center.”

Reut Peker teaches how to put together gift baskets at a training session for the Yachad day program.

But the Balk Center isn’t about just milling around after school in a nicely appointed, comfortable, big room. Participants come from school — many of them are students at the Sinai Schools, which like Yachad balances inclusivity and programming targeted at participants’ special, often individual needs.

So there is a lot going on. There are participants and volunteers; there are people of different ages, and the programming is divided into four age groups; there is programming based on interests as well as on age and needs. And there are participants from all over; Yachad picks students up at many of the local day schools, including Frisch, Ma’ayanot, and Naaleh, and it brings them home in the evening. It also picks participants up from as far away as Highland Park and Hillside, and some others get rides from Elizabeth and Passaic.

The program is open to the entire Jewish community, Ms. Selevan said. It’s run by the Orthodox Union, but it is open to everyone who can benefit from it, whether as a member or as a volunteer.

Marcel Cohen joins participants at Yachad’s day program.

The special needs participants and the volunteers develop close relationships with each other. Those friendships develop naturally, as all real friendships do, and they last over time. Ms. Selevan said that a local typically developing boy who comes one evening a week invited one of the special-needs participants to his bar mitzvah, just as he invited his other friends. “It is a real friendship,” she said; the participant’s parents were touched, but the other boy’s parents thought it was just normal. The way things should be.

“Nobody asked him to do it,” she added. “He asked his mom, and his mom messaged for the contact information. And then his mother said that’s why he came. To meet new people and make new friendships.

“And he did.”

But the Yachad offices and the Balk Center are not empty until school ends. Yachad’s day program, for people 21 and over, who have aged out of school, runs from 9:30 to 4.

Leora Verbit is the vocational coordinator who runs the day program. “We have 16 participants now,” Ms. Verbit says. “They learn office skills, retail skills, carpentry, and they’re also learning how to assemble gift baskets.” To that end, there are rooms in Yachad’s offices that house a formidable range of carpentry tools (yes, everyone is very careful, and not everyone gets to use those tools, she reassures), and another that is set up like an office. In that room, participants can learn the kinds of skills that are appropriate for them — some people can file, some can’t; some can use the computers, others can’t.

Chani Herrmann, left, and Leora Verbit flank longtime Yachad participant Donny Hain.

These rooms teach pre-vocational skills; Yachad also helps participants get jobs, and counselors teach them the vocational skills that their own specific new jobs will demand.

One Sunday a month, New Jersey Yachad offers its older participants Sunday Socials; a chance to practice social skills while having fun. And of course it runs Shabbatonim and programs at summer camps.

“We moved into the building a year ago, and everyone was in awe of how big the space was,” Ms. Selevan said. “And already we are filling it up. We even discussed having to use the training center for the dance night, because we need space.

“New Jersey Yachad is growing because we always are looking for what else we can do,” she continued. “We’re providing transportation to new areas, reaching out to parents and asking about their needs. We have a mothers’ support group, and a separate fathers’ support group. We know that different parents need different kinds of support.

Volunteers surround Yachad participant
Chaya Zipporah Jachter at the Mendel Balk Yachad Center.

“I think that New Jersey Yachad has grown to the point that we know that if people come to us with a need, we can answer it. Parents said that we need a program for our kids in the evening, and here we are, four years later, with the Balk Center. It is amazing to know that parents feel comfortable coming to us with their needs, and we can turn it into reality.”

Yachad also works with teachers; it is very definitely not a school — it is less formal and less formally curriculum-driven — but the more seamless it can make the transition from school to the Balk Center, or to any of its other programs, the more it can help students with the skills they will need both in school and in life, the more the students will flourish, and the stronger the community will be.

“We work on behaviors and skills,” Ms. Selevan said. “Our focus is on making relationships and on having fun; on making sure that both the participants and the volunteers have fun.”

Kayla Blumenfeld

Kayla Blumenfeld of Teaneck is the Mendel Balk Center’s program director. She went to Frisch for high school, like Ms. Selevan, and like Ms. Selevan she first started to work with Yachad there. She went to college at Stern — she graduated this May — and began her serious work with the organization during her freshman year there. She became an adviser for a Shabbaton, “and then one Shabbaton turned into two, turned into three… I went to a lot of them that year.

“Then I became a coordinator, and then the assistant program director of junior Yachad in New York. And now this is my first new full-time position.”

She’s also worked for Yachad at summer camp, she added. “Being a counselor doesn’t only impact the kids,” she said. “It impacts you too.

“You are there at camp the whole time. You learn that you have to put other people’s needs before your own. It is a big responsibility, and you learn a lot about what you are capable of.”

Ms. Blumenfeld enjoyed working with Yachad from the beginning because “it is a good way to spend time with your friends, and also do something that is meaningful.”

The idea that volunteers who have entirely ordinary needs might gain as much from Yachad as the special needs members with whom they interact might seem more gauzily aspirational than true, but there’s an easy way to prove that it’s real, Ms. Selevan said. “I challenge readers to come here and see for themselves,” she said. “To volunteer here. To made Yachad their hands-on cause.

“When you come here even for one evening, when you come into the center and you are greeted by participants, and you greet them, there is a certain atmosphere that gives you a feeling that what you are doing is rewarding.”

Ms. Herrmann also has spent most of her life with Yachad. She’s thrilled by its growth.

Netanel Berkowitz works with Marina Ulis of STEM NJ at the Mendel Balk Yachad Center.

“Having been involved with Yachad since I was a kid, I’ve watched it grow from a small organization, providing a few Shabbatons a year, to an agency that now provides programs and services on a daily basis,” she said. “New Jersey Yachad is excited to be celebrating and honoring individuals who have demonstrated a commitment to our community and to the overall organization at our upcoming gala. For me, it is exciting to see the next generation of students getting involved. With volunteers from the local schools coming every week to the Yachad Center, I have been privileged to see my own children now be a part of the inclusion and incredible kindness that takes place there.”

Ken and Mindy Saibel are the guests of honor at this year’s gala dinner. (See box.)

Mr. Saibel (who local readers might know through his longtime position at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey) is Yachad’s associate director and its director of institutional investment, a job he’s held for 7 1/2 years. It’s unusual for an organization to honor its employees in such a way, but Mr. Saibel’s ties to Yachad go far beyond his professional work there.

Ken and Mindy Saibel with their grandchildren Noah Saibel, Judah Israeli, and Maya Gartenberg.

Ken and Mindy Saibel live in West Orange, and for 10 years Mr. Saibel was the youth director at his synagogue, Ahavas Achim B’nai Jacob & David. (That’s “AABJD, the alphabet shul,” he said.) “During that time, there were a number of Shabbatons there.” But that was just the beginning.

“About 10 years ago, my daughter, Jen, became very involved in Yachad,” he said. “And then she started working on Yad B’Yad, our summer trip to Israel.” That program takes “typically developing post 10th-graders, mainly going into 11th grade but some into 12th, and Yachad participants of about the same age, to Israel for five weeks together.

“They do everything like anyone on any other program does, and it is inclusive. Twenty-four hours a day. It is an amazing program, and Jen was counselor.”

The program is 20 years old now, and Jen Saibel is its director.

The Saibels have three other children; their youngest, Eliana, is 14. “She’s literally grown up with Yachad, and she’s now participating in its high school leadership program at Frisch,” Ken Saibel said. His middle daughter, Atara, has been involved, and his son, Jason, not only has been a volunteer, but joined his father running for Yachad in the Miami marathon. All three of the older children are married and have young children, who are likely to become the next generation of Yachad volunteers.

The Saibels feel so deeply about Yachad that they have decided to give it a sefer Torah. It will be the group’s first scroll of its own; until now, it’s hard to borrow one for the Shabbatonim, and to use at its camp programs. The Torah is dedicated to the memory of Mindy’s mother, Debby Cohen, who died about a year and a half ago.

“My mother-in-law was someone who really loved Torah,” Mr. Saibel said. “She didn’t grow up religious, but she learned to love Torah. She would study the weekly parsha, even when she was ill.” He and his wife have chosen to honor that dedication — and to help Yachad at the same time.

When he’s asked for stories about his work as a volunteer for Yachad, Mr. Saibel does not hesitate. He’s got a story ready. It’s about a Shabbaton in West Orange.

“My daughter had asked my wife and I if we would consider hosting the group on Shabbat afternoon, and we said of course we would.

“A few days before, my wife asked our daughter how many people would be coming, so she could prepare.” She’d expected maybe a dozen or so. But no. “Our daughter said about 100. My wife starting baking immediately.” Neither of them were entirely unworried about hosting that many people. “Our house is a modest size,” Mr. Saibel said.

But it was a beautiful early July day. The Saibels “set up different areas, and we made sure to have the exact same food in all of the areas. So that worked.

“But what for me was the most beautiful thing was that the group had met for the very first time on Friday afternoon, and unless one of the Yachad members had an obvious physical disability, by Saturday afternoon you couldn’t tell who was who. Everyone sat on the grass in the backyard, enjoying each other’s company.

“It gave me such a sense of pride, and such a sense of fulfillment. I have been in the Jewish community for many years, and I have never experienced anything like that before.”

That sense of comfort, of pleasure, of relaxing together on a Shabbat afternoon, because of all the hard work that had gone into making that possible; the community that was forged right there, sitting on that lawn — that’s what Yachad does. That’s the work, that’s the realism, and that’s the reward, all sitting there on the green summertime grass.

That’s what community is.

Who: New Jersey Yachad   What: Has its gala

When: Saturday night, January 4, at 8 

Where: Congregation Keter Torah, 600 Roemer Ave.,  Teaneck

Honoring: Mindy and Ken Saibel as guests of honor, Jeff and Ilana Gdanski with the Keter Shem Tov award, Rachel Cyrulnik with the Women’s Leadership award, and Moshe, Dena, Tamar, Zev, Noam, and Eyal Kinderlehrer with the Yachad Family award. It also will honor high school seniors with the first annual Mendel Balk Yachad Center awards.

For more information: Go to Yachad’s main website, www.yachad.org, to New Jersey Yachad’s site, yachad.org/newjersey, or to the gala page, yachad.org/newjersey/gala; call (201) 499-7868 or email NJYachad@ou.org.

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