A Life-Altering Experience

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21 Dec 2010

Yachad! It seems like there aren’t enough words to express how I feel about this organization or the impression it’s made on my life. For those of you who don’t know, Yachad runs Jewish community programming that enables special needs individuals to interact with mainstream teens in a way that might not ordinarily occur. It puts them at the center of attention and allows them to be themselves without fear of judgment or criticism from those who do not understand the daily challenges of living with cognitive, emotional or physical limitations.

My introduction to Yachad began at a difficult point in my own life. During this time, while feeling down, a friend took me aside for a heart-to-heart. When I said things like “life is just too hard” or “I can’t take it much longer”, he thought for a moment and answered, “I have an idea. Why don’t you come to a Yachad event, and see if it changes your perspective?” It took some persuasion on my friend’s part, but I finally agreed.

Shortly thereafter, I registered for my first Yachad Shabbaton. I arrived at shul that Friday feeling anxious, there were so many new faces! After going to our host homes, we returned for Mincha and Maariv. As soon as I began davening, I noticed a young man struggling to walk through the aisle in order to be a part of the shabbos prayers. It completely blew my mind that this kid (Josh) with cerebral palsy was exerting such extreme physical effort to be a part of what I regarded as a rather boring and monotonous event.

As davening came to a close, I again watched Josh struggling and decided to assist. It took a great deal of time, but with patience I was able to walk, talk and accompany Josh to his wheelchair. After finally arriving in the dining hall, I looked around and noticed all the Yachad participants had been integrated. They weren’t sitting at one isolated table amongst themselves, but were seated throughout the room and included in various conversations.

At one point during the meal, the Yeshiva students and support staff began singing. Suddenly, 50 people jumped out of their seats, grabbing hands to form a circle with Yachad members. In the end, all of us were joining hands, dancing in a circle, and singing at the top of our lungs. This was by far one of the best nights of my life.

After the meal concluded and Yachad participants had retired to guest homes, we stayed on and listened to an inspirational speaker who turned out to be Josh’s mother. She began her story by addressing the difficulties of raising a special needs child and relating the joy Josh brings his family. “Yachad is life-changing,” she said. “It brings together a group of young adults willing to socialize with and understand special needs kids, making them feel normal and included.” While she was speaking, I was thinking of Josh and how I’d been able to assist him that evening. I started to cry and felt deeply touched by Josh and his mother in a way I will never forget.

The next day, I arrived for shacharis and discovered my friend Shlomo learning with one of the Yachad members in the smaller bais medresh. As I approached and was greeted, Shlomo introduced his chavrusa, Jacob. Jacob has a great sense of humor and began regaling me with a list of suitable marriage partners for Shlomo. I was quite surprised as he went on to announce that Shlomo could marry a llama, a chicken, or a dinosaur. Pretty soon, Jacob had me coming up with suggestions like an airplane, a house, and as silly as it was, a girl! That brought a smile to his Jacob’s face.

After the meal and dancing , I partnered with a Yachad member named Baruch, setting off on a 20 minute trek just to hear Rabbi Shechter’s shiur. When we finally arrived, most of the seats had been taken, so we ended up on the stairs. Another teen noticed this, and immediately offered his seat to Baruch, a premier spot up front. As Rabbi Shechter gave shiur and spoke about the wonder of Yachad, I glanced in Baruch’s direction. The pleasure in his eyes, made me realize his unique capability to grow in great directions.

With shabbos was coming to a close, Baruch asked me to help him daven Mincha and Maariv. I agreed reluctantly because I’m not the most enthusiastic “davener” myself. I began by slowly pronouncing the words, but once I’d uttered those first few words, Baruch seemed able to read the rest by himself. At the end of each bracha, he would wait for me to say “Amen.” As time passed, I began wondering how Baruch could read so fast but still needed my help starting the bracha. Then I paused and listened carefully. What I heard was both astounding and touching: Baruch would take the first few words I read and repeat them over and over, running his finger above the lines. When he arrived at the last few words, he would struggle to pronounce them. He then looked up, waiting for my “Amen”. We continued in this fashion, making sure to say every single bracha, not skipping even one. I thought, “How could Baruch, who barely reads Hebrew, appreciate davening so much, while I, who can read Hebrew just fine, daven so indifferently?” Then it hit me: we don’t share the same perspective. Baruch sees the world passing by his eyes very slowly and appreciates each and every thing Hashem does for him, while I see life as a blur, appreciating nothing.

When it was time for Havdalah, we created a huge circle, everyone’s arms entangled with the person’s next to him. I looked around, seeing every Yachad member who had inspired me that shabbos. For the first time in my life, I was sad shabbos was ending. Yachad is a group of people that I plan to stay connected with for the rest of my life. I encourage everyone to give it a try, because it is truly a life-altering experience.

Epilogue: Yitzie Rosen’s essay, “A Life Altering Experience” first appeared in FYI, his high school newspaper. The essay was then submitted to Jewish Action Magazine. Nechama Carmel, Editor-In-Chief, felt the submission was worthy of Shabbat Shalom’s online publication. In a beautiful twist of fate, Shabbat Shalom’s editor turned out to be Josh’s mother.

Yitzie Rosen, originally from Savannah, Georgia, is currently a senior at Hebrew Theological’s Fasman Yeshiva High School in Skokie, Illinois.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.