It wasn’t my typical Friday afternoon. That is, it didn’t include the usual hustle and bustle of rushing back to my Manhattan apartment to whip up a last-minute side dish for a Shabbat meal or running to catch three subway trains to my family in Queens. But one recent Friday afternoon, I ditched my usual NYC subway commute for a van heading for the beautiful and welcoming suburbs of East Brunswick, New Jersey for the Rayim Yachad Shabbaton. Our final destination: Young Israel of East Brunswick where our group dropped off our suitcases and were “suited up” with our free give-a-way: Yachad emblazoned garment bags! The symbolic significance behind the bags couldn’t have been more appropriate for what Yachad’s mission is all about: acceptance and inclusion for people coming in all different kinds of packages.
My first experience being involved in Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NJCD), was serving as a counselor last summer in its junior division in Camp Shoshanim for girls ages eight to fourteen. This time, being at my very first Shabbaton with Yachad, I was an adviser with the Rayim division for adults ages 26 and above with developmental disabilities. What is unique about the Rayim Yachad program is that it enables its participants to be given independence and to promote self-advocacy as well as providing inclusive programming with peers in communities around the New York-New Jersey Tri-State area.
Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, international director of Yachad/NJCD, explains, “Rayim is our adult division which interacts with synagogue communities and college campuses. Our Rayim members are adults who wish to interact with adult peers about friends, family, jobs, and the other every day and special facets of life which we all experience. When a community hosts a Rayim Shabbaton they have an unbelievable opportunity to step out of the everyday and gain perspective on life. Rayim Yachad members are each unique individuals –loud, quiet, funny, serious… as a group. However, they portray for each of us, in real time, the ability to overcome serious challenge, real faith in God, and perhaps, most of all, that our ability to interact with one another and the nature of those interactions are truly what life is all about.”
Rabbi Jay Weinstein, mora d’asra of Young Israel of East Brunswick, shared, “Each year when we host the Rayim Shabbaton, it’s a wonderful opportunity for our community. To be inclusive to the special needs community not only helps individuals with specials needs but truly uplifts all who are involved.”
Rabbi Weinstein, who also holds a master’s degree in special education from Columbia University, announced the Young Israel of East Brunswick participation in Hineinu, Yachad’s synagogue initiative which aims to further inclusion of people with natural variations in abilities across the Jewish denominational spectrum. Yachad and the Orthodox Union share this initiative with three other synagogue denominations in this newly established program.
“Our Rayim Yachad Shabbatons provide amazing opportunities for all involved,” said Michael Adler, program director for Rayim Yachad. “For our Yachad members it is a great social opportunity with their peers and our host communities. Our staff and volunteers get the opportunity to form lasting bonds with our members while having a great time. Host communities facilitate true inclusion, incorporating everyone into all aspects of Shabbos, from meals to participating in shul. It is truly a win-win for all involved and we are so fortunate that there are so many communities which would like to host us; the only problem we have is that there are not enough Shabboses in a year for us to visit all the communities that would like to have us.”
Upon arrival I was first introduced to Suri, a spunky and sweet Rayim Yachad participant in her thirties, with who I would be spending Shabbos with as her adviser. Living in Brooklyn in a group setting, she seldom has opportunities to meet other people close to her age. Ever positive, Suri keeps busy as an assistant secretary in a Jewish day school and reading and commenting on the news. Deeply passionate and well-informed on a variety of topics, whether it was the latest current events or benefits of social security, her deepest aspiration is to become an advocate for the disabled.
Being at the Shabbaton, I saw first-hand how Yachad and the East Brunswick community together instilled messages of inclusion, acceptance, and self-advocacy with opportunities given to participants to shine – whether it was a Yachad member giving the dvar torah in shul after Kabbalat Shabbat, or witnessing Suri giving encouragement to a mother of a child with Down Syndrome by sharing her own story. “You’ve got to be grateful for what you have,” she said. The mother smiled appreciatively, her eyes welling up in tears.
Suri commented to me, “I always appreciate the opportunities I have to go on Yachad Shabbatons. It gives opportunities to go away and spend Shabbos in different communities and meet new people. I was especially impressed with the community in East Brunswick and how welcoming and friendly the families are.”
The Yachad Shabbaton gave everyone the opportunity to build friendships in an inclusive positive environment with interactive activities, games, and joyous singing during the meals. East Brunswick families hosted Yachad in their homes Friday night and were also welcome to join Rayim Yachad at the Shabbat lunch meal at the shul. Everyone around the table of our host’s Friday night meal were impressed by Suri’s sharp-witted sense of humor and her positive attitude.
Said Debbie Schaulewicz of East Brunwick, a coordinator of the Shabbaton, “It’s been a great experience to be a part of Yachad. As we got to know the mentors and participants, our lives have been greatly enriched as we danced together, sang together, and participated in activities together.”
On Motza’ei Shabbat, the Young Israel of East Brunswick hosted a Melave Malka activity of picture frame making, dancing, and ice cream. It was a truly a delicious and sweet conclusion to the Shabbaton’s weekend of inclusion.
Atara Arbesfeld is the assistant to the director of public relations at the Orthodox Union. A native New Yorker, she is a graduate of Yeshiva University’s Stern College, where she majored in English Communications.