Yachad/Jewish Home work together on vocational curriculum
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Yachad/Jewish Home work together on vocational curriculum

Federation grant will enable people with special needs to gain ‘competitive advantage’ by obtaining a certificate

Sunni Herman, left, Chani Herrmann, and Eve Yudelson
Sunni Herman, left, Chani Herrmann, and Eve Yudelson

While the Jewish Home Family already enjoys a strong relationship with Yachad, the two groups’ new joint venture — offering vocational training to people with special needs — will take that partnership to a new level, Sunni Herman, the Jewish Home’s executive vice-president, said.

With a grant from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, the two organizations are banding together to offer a certificate program giving people with special needs the skills they require to obtain paid employment.

It all began when Chani Herrmann, the director of New Jersey Yachad — a project of the Orthodox Union that promotes inclusion for children and adults with disabilities in the broader Jewish community— and Sunni Herman connected at a program run by the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program. (We note that the two women, who are not related, have confusingly similar last names. That’s why we’re using their first names here.) One of the program’s goals is to bring professionals working in different corners of the community into a more cohesive, unified group.

“Bergen County is an extraordinary Jewish community in terms of connecting different Jewish organizations, looking out for different populations,” the Jewish Home’s Sunni Herman said. “Volunteers from Yachad work with the activities department at the Jewish Home, and help with rehab and with dietary services. Chani and I spoke about what we could do beyond the volunteer experience to elevate it to the next level.”

“The Berrie Program made a huge impact on me,” Yachad’s Chani Herrmann said. “It opened up doors to meeting other professionals, and the structure of the program allowed for us to get to know each other in a meaningful way. Meeting Sunni was the first step in this new partnership. We did not know at the time that this would be something that would bring our two organizations together in a way that helps facilitate inclusion in the workplace for young men and women with special needs.”

Drawing on a concept put forth by Maimonides — neatly summed up in the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” — Sunni likened the new certificate program to “teaching someone to fish.

“We at the Jewish Home have a practice of hiring individuals with special needs,” she said. “We look to see their educational background and experience to see how they’ll fit. We thought, wouldn’t it be great to create some sort of certificate program for people in the dietary and housekeeping departments? They would then have a competitive advantage to be hired in these areas.”

At the time, she said, the federation was putting out requests for proposals “and there’s a category specifically for Jewish continuity and engagement for special needs individuals.” The idea of the certificate program was warmly embraced.

The project will target “young adults with an array of abilities and help them become job-ready,” said Eve Yudelson, Yachad’s New Jersey’s director of vocational programs, which now works with people from 20 to 50 years old. “It’s very exciting.” Among other services, her department offers one-to-one on-site job coaching “to help them hit the ground running,” equine-assisted learning activities to help people “bridge the gap” between themselves and others, internships both at nonprofit organizations and small local businesses, and “travel training,” to help members cope with transportation arrangements.

“We’re working toward 100 percent paid employment,” Ms. Yudelson said. The partnership with the Jewish Home may have been born locally, “but it will have legs everywhere,” giving participants a grounding in both customer service and interpersonal skills. In other words, Yachad, “which is dedicated to inclusion in every part of Jewish life,” now will take its efforts one step further, helping young adults with special needs transition to adult life.

The certificate program will take place over 12 weeks, including both classes and hands-on experience. Ms. Yudelson envisions offering these classes three times a year, with a maximum of five students in each cohort. She stressed that while the goal is for students to learn the “hands-on core competencies” one needs in the housekeeping or customer service industries, more important than getting the certificate is gaining the knowledge. “Those who struggle can always go into the next cohort and keep trying,” she said.

While the venture is still in the planning stages, “we’re planning a program so good it should be able to work for any job,” she continued. “Getting a certificate will mean something outside of the Jewish Home.” Or it might lead to a job at the Jewish Home itself. To help give Yachad members the social skills they need to be valued workers, the organization also has created additional social events that provide more opportunities for inclusion and friendship.

Yachad is writing the curriculum for the pilot certificate program with input from the Jewish Home. For special needs people “looking to enter the working world, we can help them gain skills,” Ms. Yudelson said, adding that her vocational program also helps them “develop coping mechanisms and negotiate the world around them. It’s part of transitioning.”

“Yachad staff are shadowing our managers in dietary and housekeeping to see how we provide orientation and special training for competencies,” Sunni said. “They will develop a specific curriculum, objectively looking at work flow, processes, how to use equipment, as well as the social aspect. How do housekeepers interact with residents, with families? How do dietary staff interact — both the technical and social aspects?”

She noted that the Yachad staff will do the teaching, but Jewish Home staff will be guest lecturers. For example, the human resources director will talk about the facility’s orientation procedure and the director of social services will address customer service and working with people with dementia. “It’s very important to give people a chance to succeed, to give them the tools to succeed,” she said.

New Jersey Yachad works with approximately 200 families with children — 7 years old and up — who have a wide range of special needs, Chani Herrmann said. Services include parent support groups, sibling programs, parent seminars, inclusive weekend retreats (Shabbatons), family retreats, social skills groups, afterschool programming, and the growing vocational services department. Yachad also offers a free Birthright trip to Israel and a wide range of inclusive summer programs.

The group has chapters in Bergen and Middlesex counties, although it serves people from across the state. As an agency of the OU, “we rely on their support as well as on communal fundraising to provide the level of services that we do,” she said. “Our vocational services department does receive some government funding for those who qualify.”

The certificate program will begin the week after Labor Day and will take place on Wednesdays. “We hope it will end with a certification celebration,” Ms. Yudelson said. “It feels like the right program at the right time. It’s exciting to be part of it.”

For more information on the certificate program, call New Jersey Yachad, (201) 833-1349, or email Eve Yudelson at yudelson@ou.org.

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