Karen Levi and her daughter Isabel, 21, attended their first Yachad Family Shabbaton. These are Karen’s reflections on the weekend.
We embarked on our trip to Connecticut with trepidation. Not being an Orthodox Jew, I was afraid of being shunned, stared at, and not accepted. I was going to a Shabbaton for my 21-year-old daughter Isabel, who has special needs. I had found some great programs for her, run by Yachad. After many phone calls to individuals in Baltimore and New York, we applied for a vocational program in a summer camp for typical kids and a Birthright trip to Israel. She was accepted into both programs, but the professionals wanted to see Isabel “in action,” as it were. So, after much thought and a deep breath, I made the arrangements to attend the Yachad Shabbaton in Stamford, Connecticut, in May 2014.
When we walked into the hotel, there was a cheerful atmosphere, much like any other reunion or special weekend for an organization. There were excited teenagers and young children running about, sometimes chased by their parents. I knew I was in the right place when I saw a boy with Down Syndrome, dressed in traditional garb, i.e. dark pants, white shirt, prominent black hat, side curls. Now, the reader needs to bear with me here. I only use a few Yiddish words, such as “schlepp,” “schvitz,” etc. And I use Hebrew when talking about our holidays and rituals, but that’s it. Therefore, it’s side curls, hat, maybe yarmulke and tzitzit.
So Isabel and I received our registration materials and started in on our weekend. First, we went swimming, women only. I explained everything to Isabel, and she seemed fine with the new experiences, including women and men’s swim times. Then, it was Friday night Shabbat services and meeting Isabel’s “advisor,” a mentor, of sorts, with typical skills. The two young women hit it off, both a bit shy. Isabel takes a while to warm up and does better without me in sight, so I stepped back. Then Shabbat dinner, and, by this time, Isabel was exhausted and somewhat overwhelmed by the crowds and noise. So the Yachad staff, eager to make us feel at home, found a quiet table. Isabel had challah rolls for dinner and excused herself to go upstairs to our room. She is on the Autism spectrum and needs quiet time. She had enough, and I know to respect her needs. I enjoyed speaking to several professionals who work for Yachad.
The next day, Shabbat, we each went our separate ways—I to adult sessions and she to Yachad Senior activities with her mentor, Shani. I was thrilled to find out that Isabel went through the entire day, until about 3 p.m., with her peers, in various activities. I enjoyed the sessions I attended, and each one was too short which is a good sign. I was not bored; I was fascinated. As a retired speech pathologist and the parent of two children in their twenties, I have heard it all. So, this is a compliment of the highest order.
I was most impressed by the professionalism, empathy, and knowledge of the presenters. Of course, there are differences between me and most of the other parents. I live my life by different values and “rules.” However, the commonality among all of the adults was far stronger and important. We are all parents of children, young adults and adults with special needs. We all feel similar stress, worry, anxiety, fear, regret, and grief. We all deal with similar disappointments with friends and family regarding the acceptance of our children. We all want the best for our children, and we will fight to our last breath for them.
On Saturday afternoon, Isabel and I took a walk and rejoined the activities in the evening. I was astounded when Isabel asked to go to a magic show at 10 p.m. She volunteered to be a helper for the magician and was on stage. What more could a parent ask for in that situation? I was beaming.
We left Sunday morning to catch a train, taking our foil-wrapped snacks with us. I laughed when I saw the foil wrap at breakfast. It is so sensible to encourage people to take snacks, instead of clandestinely wrapping food in napkins, for the journey home.
My daughter and I left the hotel, smiling, self-confident, and pleased. I felt I had experienced an event which changed my opinions and pre-conceived notions. When I left the hotel on Sunday, I felt that the individuals I met — parents, siblings, volunteers, and professionals – are people who really care. Isabel gave the Shabbaton an accolade, of sorts. She said, “That wasn’t so bad. I’ll miss the challah rolls, Shani, and the magician.” Not that we don’t have challah in Maryland. I got some looks when I wore pants. But, no one shunned me or screamed at me. And I probably stared as much as the others looked at me. We are all curious about differences. In that way, we never grow up.