Part Psychologist, Part Activist – All Heart

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Jeffrey Lichtman

One could call Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, National Director of the OU’s Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities, a visionary; a man with a clear eye on the future. But as soon as he sees what could be, he gets right to the task and transforms his vision into reality – and the future quickly becomes a thing of the present. So, what does one call this tireless dynamo? Indispensable!

For over 15 years, Dr. Lichtman has watched the department flourish, as he initiated dynamic programs to mainstream children and young adults with developmental disabilities into the Jewish community. Under his innovative direction, Yachad expanded to three different age divisions and chapters across the U.S. and Canada, opened IVDU, a girls’ high school, a vocational services department, a department of school and educational services, and instituted crucial social skills classes for young adults. Yachad’s family Shabbaton retreats currently boast 500 delighted participants. Yachad/NJCD has become the only national resource center for information, referral, and resources beyond direct services to facilitate inclusion of the Jewish developmentally disabled population. “We believe as much as people have disabilities, they also have abilities,” says Dr. Lichtman. That primary focus continues to drive the program and its director successfully and innovatively forward.

Dr. Lichtman grew up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, NY and, although his family was not observant, he attended yeshiva throughout his youth. “My parents share a strong Jewish identity,” he says. “I very much took to Yahadut, despite some initial social discomfort.” By the time he was 10, he was shomer mitzvot (religiously observant). “My parents agreed to keep a kosher home and have ever since.” He attributes his positive feelings for observant Judaism to his grandparents, who kept close to tradition, and to an attentive rebbe at HILI (Hebrew Institute of Long Island), the day school he attended through high school in Far Rockaway, NY, who facilitated a spiritually indelible year of learning in Israel. “That sealed the deal,” says Dr. Lichtman. “I’m very appreciative that my parents had the foresight to send me to yeshiva. I remember how they both volunteered their time in the schools. There’s no question that these experiences influenced my life decisions.”

Helping Others Help Themselves

Dr. Lichtman wanted most of all to make a difference in the lives of others, to help them become their optimal selves. He knew the work ahead required the proper preparation. And so he prepared. Dr. Lichtman holds a bachelors degree in psychology and education from Yeshiva University. He also received smicha from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, a master’s degree in special education from New York University, a second master’s degree and doctorate in school psychology from St. John’s University, and was awarded a doctoral degree in educational administration from Yeshiva University.

At the beginning of his professional career, Dr. Lichtman felt drawn to working with children in general and to special education, in both the secular and Torah curricula. “Very often the areas merge or overlap happily,” he says. This versatile professional found a way to employ his talents and interests simultaneously as a school psychologist, teacher of limudei kodesh and psychology in various schools, assistant professor at the City University of New York, and principal of the yeshiva day school in Syracuse, NY. As principal, he initiated a resource room, as well as a gifted and talented program.

Dr. Lichtman’s role as Yachad/NJCD director not only utilizes his varied strengths and talents, but also his ideals. “It affords me the ability to spread out and put a lot of different services into motion,” he says. “Hopefully they meet the needs that are out there.” Every job presents its challenges and Dr. Lichtman finds fundraising his biggest and least liked task. Primarily because it takes him away from what he enjoys the most – addressing the important work at hand. “The opportunity to respond to this population’s needs creatively has been very exciting for me,” he says. “My approach is if something needs to be done – just do it!” Another aspect topping his most valued part of the job list is working individually and directly with families and staff. “My most meaningful times are working one on one with individual families,” he says “It’s what keeps me connected.”

Every summer, the director strengthens this connection full time, visiting Yachad’s various camp programs in the mountains, which include a range of summer experiences for youth and adults with developmental disabilities in a mainstreamed environment. “It keeps me fresh and in tune with what’s going on in a more hands-on way.”

Reaching Out in Buenos Aires

In 2004, the OU received a letter from Rabbi Daniel Oppenheimer of Buenos Aires, requesting its professional expertise to enhance the concept of psychological counseling within the Jewish community. He asked the OU to send someone to help launch a new mental health center, Neshama, to speak to educators, psychologist, the community, and various yeshiva day schools throughout the area. The OU considered Dr. Lichtman the most appropriate messenger.

Accompanied by a translator, Dr. Lichtman delivered public lectures, addressing such pertinent topics as How to Stimulate the Aptitudes of All Children; The Educator’s Role in Development of the Child’s Potential; and Psychology and Halacha. “I was able to give the community a much broader understanding of psychology,” says Dr. Lichtman. “I explained how counseling is nothing to be ashamed of and can help significantly in ways that are totally in sync with Judaism.” He says he would like to develop a summer program of young American psychologists traveling to Argentina to work with the community and its professionals.

Guaranteed Time with Abba

Outside of his work at the OU, his focus shifts onto his family. “I make it a point to make time for my children,” he says. “It is my exclusive and treasured job to get them out each morning; that’s guaranteed time with Abba,” he says. “I’ve shlepped them along on Shabbatonim and my visits to the summer programs; we’ve also had a lot of the Yachad kids over to our home. They’ve grown up with Yachad and it’s been a very positive influence. I think it’s helped to make them better human beings.” His oldest daughter, graduating from Barnard, recently decided to consider switching her major from law to medicine. “It’s a reflection of her acknowledging her need to give,” says her father. He believes it’s a direct result of her exposure to his work at the OU.

Aside from psychology, Dr. Lichtman and his 15-year-old son (who aspires to go into the psychology field) share a penchant for fantasy books, including Harry Potter and The Sword and Truth series. “It’s one of the ways we bond.” In Dr. Lichtman’s role as chairman of the board of education at his children’s school, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, NJ, Yachad’s able director plays a significant part in enhancing his own children’s education as well.

He credits his wife, Helen, the director of psychological services at Kiryas Yoel, a public school serving the Satmar Chassidic community in Monroe, NY, for her generous and constant support throughout his years serving the community and the demands on his time and energy that it requires. “She’s really the one who has allowed me to do this,” he says. Dr. Lichtman reports that his youngest child, a daughter, has from the start shown an uncanny intuitive understanding of people. Call it nature, nurture or a combination of the two, the Lichtman home represents a veritable prep school for tapping one’s unique capabilities and channeling them into the noblest endeavor – helping others.

Taking Yachad From Strength to Strength

Viewing success as an ongoing, ever-improving process, Dr. Lichtman continues to expand and develop Yachad’s programs. Fifteen years ago, he transformed the popular Yachad summer trip to Israel into a thriving mainstreaming project. Initially, the program took a group of Yachad members on a summer tour of Israel. The new and improved program, Yad B’Yad (hand-in-hand) teams Yachad members with their high school teenage peers, and together they enjoy this unique tour that features invigorating day trips exploring the Land, archeological digs, visiting an Israeli Army base, special Shabbat programs and more. The program’s popularity increases with each fun-filled summer. “This summer, for the first time, Yad B’Yad Israel will be providing a second bus,” says Dr. Lichtman. “The demand on the part of high schools that want to participate has been that enormous. It’s become one of the sought-after summer programs to Israel. We’ve had to turn away applicants.”

Five years ago, Dr. Lichtman realized, in order to reach the department’s goal of helping people with disabilities experience solid inclusion within the community – so that they can access a fuller Jewish life – they need, above all, to attain sufficient social skills. “It’s all about social skills,” he says. “We would have much greater difficulty finding a job for someone with a high IQ who is socially inappropriate than with someone with Downs Syndrome who has good social skills.”

The Relationship Building Courses (RBC) began in response to a number of older Yachad members expressing an interest in getting married. “My response was, good, but we need to teach them the social skills implicit within dating and marriage,” says Dr. Lichtman. “First they have to understand what friendship is about; how to start a conversation; how to interrupt a conversation appropriately; and how to deal with frustration. Before one gets to an intimate relationship, he needs to learn the foundational social skills needed for human interaction. Picture this scenario. Two friends are sitting on the bus together on their way to a Yachad Shabbaton. They arrive at the Shabbaton and one expects the other to sit with him at the seudot (festive meals), the oneg Shabbat and throughout the event, but all the while his friend is meeting others leaving him hurt and frustrated. His inclination might be to go over and shout ‘I hate you!'”

Confident that these young men and women were capable of learning more acceptable social behavior, he and his staff promptly developed a curriculum to teach foundational skills in human interaction – within diverse public and private life situations. “We took a step back and developed a list of modules and topics based on our experience with this population, focusing on the areas where they displayed the most difficulty,” says Dr. Lichtman. The RBC curriculum inculcates its essential concepts and skills in a clear, concrete and effective way, so that these young adults could more successfully integrate into and participate in Jewish communal life – at shul, shiurim (lectures), and simchot (celebrative events). Thanks to Yachad/NJCD innovative efforts and the industrious leadership of its director, the RBC/Chat Group students are forming successful friendships, finding gratifying employment, and experiencing themselves as integral members of the Jewish community.

Dr. Lichtman considers himself a fortunate man. His work at the OU has given him the perfect vehicle to use his God-given talents as an educator, psychologist, director, and do-it-now visionary, towards the benefit of a community that truly needs them and continues to thrive because of them. The OU considers itself pretty fortunate too.

Bayla Sheva Brenner is Senior Writer in the Communications and Marketing Department at the OU.

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