Yachad/NJCD, At Your Service!
The public school near Elizabeth Taibel’s home in Sugar Land, Texas, provides her with a personal aide, as well as with occupational, physical and speech therapies. It takes care of all of Elizabeth’s special needs, except for one—her Judaism.
Elizabeth, nine, came into the world with a serious birth defect. By the age of six, she had undergone two organ transplants and was struggling with significant developmental delays.
Elizabeth’s two siblings attend the Robert M. Beren Academy, an Orthodox day school in Houston. Neil, eleven, loves learning Chumash and Navi; Ashley, three, comes home each day proudly reciting her berachot out loud for her Ima. Neil used to ask his parents, “Why doesn’t Elizabeth go to Beren Academy too?”
He doesn’t need to ask that anymore.
In January 2009, Beren Academy introduced a mainstreaming program for Houston’s Jewish children with developmental disabilities. “For the past few years, as more parents have started to advocate for [Jewish educational options] for their children with special needs, there has also been a growing desire to include them within the Jewish community,” says Rabbi Ari Segal, principal.
Eager to respond to the call, Beren Academy administrators grappled with how to best serve this population. They even considered starting a self-contained school for the developmentally disabled but quickly realized they were aiming too high. “We were at a loss as to what to do for these families,” says Rabbi Segal. Familiar with the Orthodox Union’s Yachad/National Jewish Council for the Disabled, the school turned to Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, national director, for guidance.
At around the same time, the Houston-based Alexander Institute for Jewish Families with Special Needs, which aims to improve the lives of those with various disabilities, began looking into funding programs that provide Jewish educational services for those with special needs. They too called upon Yachad. Dr. Lichtman promptly flew to Houston, and met with parents, school professionals and staff at both the Alexander Institute and Beren Academy. “It made [the most] sense to work within the day school, to start an educational program,” he says. He assessed that, although the school lacked the resources to initiate a comprehensive program, it had the option of mainstreaming children with special needs into a weekly one-and-a-half-hour classroom experience with their peers. The idea received an immediate thumbs-up.
The Beren Academy program, supported by the Alexander Institute, caters to a handful of students ages nine to sixteen. Every Wednesday afternoon, children with special needs and their Beren Academy peers get together to learn about Judaism and about each other. Each class has a get-to-know-you social activity followed by a learning program about an upcoming holiday, parashat hashavuah or Pirkei Avot. To facilitate social interaction, the school slates the last half hour of the program for recreational activities such as art projects, sports or music. “We thought that, at the very least, [we should] create a place where [children with special needs] can come during the school day while the energy and excitement of the Jewish day school is still present and they can feel that they [really] belong,” says Dr. Shulamis Pollak, director of guidance at Beren Academy.
Dr. Pollak, whose sister, Tikvah, is a longtime Yachad member, has experienced Yachad’s achdut-inspiring power up close. Dr. Pollak has led sessions for parents and siblings at Yachad family Shabbatonim and directed Yachad’s Yad B’Yad tour, a summer program that mainstreams high school students with their developmentally disabled peers. Like his wife, Rabbi Avi Pollak, assistant principal of Beren Academy, learned about Yachad through his sister, Caryn, an active member for more than twenty-five years. Rabbi Pollak says the new program will follow the “Yachad model” of integration. “[The program is] built on friendship, where everyone participates in activities not as mentors and students but as chavrutot, learning together—side by side,” he says. “This [approach] maximizes everybody’s benefit and everybody’s gain.”
Ever since its inception in 1983, Yachad has helped Jewish communities open their hearts to the developmentally disabled. Sharing its expertise in bringing Jews with disabilities into the hub of Jewish life, Yachad works directly with local schools, agencies and families in Jewish communities around the country, providing innovative and cutting-edge programs wherever they are needed. Some of the communities that have called upon Yachad’s expertise include Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Toronto, Pittsburgh and Middlesex County, New Jersey. “This [collaboration] is what Yachad is all about,” says Dr. Lichtman.
Recently, members of the Dallas community contacted Yachad for its help in developing a plan to provide for its special needs population. “After starting a Yachad chapter, they saw the need for a broad community-wide initiative,” says Dr. Lichtman. “We plan on holding a parent/professional conference in May and we’re considering a day camp program. There are many possibilities. The key is to determine what will best benefit the community [as well as] facilitate growth and development over time,” says Dr. Lichtman.
In Denver, Lola Zussman, who runs Keshet of the Rockies, joined forces with other local groups to present “Disabilities Awareness Day.” They called on Dr. Lichtman, asking him to impress upon the community the value of welcoming the special needs population into the greater Denver community.
Zussman first reached out to Dr. Lichtman fifteen years ago, when her son, Ephraim, who has Down Syndrome, was a toddler, asking him to help create opportunities for children with special needs to participate in the joys of Jewish communal life. Dr. Lichtman visited Denver and worked with day school administrators to assist in enhancing the inclusion and instruction of the community’s children with special needs. Inspired and informed by the visit, Zussman and another parent with special needs children went on to form a grassroots group that advocates for children with special needs. Eventually, they established Keshet of the Rockies, an organization that mainstreams children with special needs into the Denver Jewish day schools. Keshet currently assists over eighty students in the Denver and Boulder area.
Sixteen years ago, as the first community to benefit from Yachad’s consultations, the Los Angeles Jewish community launched the Etta Israel Center. “At the start I told them: Let’s work together and focus on informal education,” says Dr. Lichtman. “Today, it’s a huge agency.” Offering an array of community-wide services to Jewish children and adults with special needs, the center provides shadows for children, resource room programs, summer day camp and supported-living residences for Jewish adults with developmental disabilities.
As more Jewish communities seek to integrate individuals with special needs, Yachad is at the ready, eager to assist in making inclusion a joyful reality.
“I hope this [new program at Beren Academy] leads to bigger things,” says Barry Muller, a junior at Beren Academy who recently participated in Yachad’s Yad B’Yad summer program. Excited about the new program at his school, he hopes his classmates will come to view the special visitors the way they have always viewed him—as a friend. “I think it could happen,” he says.
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.
For more information on how to develop programs that facilitate inclusion, or to access Yachad/NJCD programs and services, please contact Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman or Deborah Rockoff, director of national programs, at 212.613.8229 or e-mail NJCD@ou.org.