Allow me to tell you about a very special young lady named Navi. Navi is 23 years old. She is absolutely gorgeous. She is smart. She is funny. She has more friends than anyone I’ve ever known. She is sweet. She is warm. She is also sincerely religious, with a belief in Hashem that is wholehearted and firm; whatever adversity comes Navi’s way – and there has been plenty – her faith in a good and benevolent Creator has been absolutely unshakable. So what makes this Navi, this delicious young lady, so very special to me? Actually, it’s two things. First, Navi is a young woman with significant learning disabilities who has accomplished so much in her life despite these challenges. She is a young lady I am so very privileged and honored and humbled to know so well.
Second, and so much more important to me, I love Navi so very much; you see, Navi is also my daughter.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I had a few friends and acquaintances that had “special” siblings, with disabilities that spanned the gamut of the various physical and mental afflictions that kids can have. Some had Down’s Syndrome. Others had Cerebral Palsy. Some were deaf or blind. Many had various other forms of physical or mental afflictions, named or undiagnosed, which made them “different.” Yet, despite knowing of these kids, I never really knew them at all. Why? Because in those days, at best, these “different” kids were merely tolerated; they were there – yet, not really there. And, at worst, these kids were shut away in institutions where they just lived, survived really, fed and clothed, often heavily medicated, tranquilized, sedated – controlled.
Sometimes the family visited them, if only occasionally. Often they did not visit them at all. If they were lucky, maybe they got to come home for certain Shabbatonim and holidays – then again, maybe not.
So, yes, we knew these kids existed, but we were never given the chance to really meet them, to play with them, to speak with them, to know them at all. Mind you, I am not blaming only the Jewish world for this sad and unforgivable state of affairs. This was the way of most of the world at that time. We knew so little about how very capable so many of these “special” kids were; about their ability to study and to learn or how they would work, sometimes at mere menial tasks. Yet, they were often able to hold down and succeed at jobs, tasks and assignments of great sophistication, with a great deal of responsibility.
We just didn’t know. Worst of all, and most shameful, was our inability to grasp how these kids felt and how much love these kids had to share. We just didn’t know that their need to love and be loved was as great as that of “normal” kids – often even greater. So, at best, these kids were tolerated; more commonly they were ignored and, so very often, shamefully neglected and abused.
And what of the Jewishness of these “different” kids? Do you remember all the special Torah classes the yeshivot we attended had for kids with special needs? Of course you don’t, because there weren’t any.
How often did that kid in the wheelchair get to go up to the blackboard to fill in the answer to that difficult math problem, or raise their hand to answer the “Mi amar el mi” Parshat Hashavua question?
Never, because the kid in the wheelchair wasn’t in our Yeshiva classes. I guess, we were the disabled ones here. In our “blind eyes”, at the time, we didn’t feel these kids needed to be “Jewish” other than by the mere fact of their birth. Kashrut? Yeah, when they were at home, where it was easy, maybe. Torah learning? Nah, not important. Tefillin, Gemara, divrei Torah? Whom are you kidding? Jewish feelings, emotions, aspirations, desires, yearnings? No, we felt, these kids don’t feel like we “normal” kids. No they don’t need all that Jewish “stuff” as long as they didn’t embarrass the family in shul on Shabbat or on a holiday that seemed to be yiddishkeit enough?
Shame on us all! We should feel deep, burning, painful, forever hurtful, everlasting shame. Did it actually take that popular poster and bumper sticker to teach us that, “G-d doesn’t create junk!”
Today, however, thank G-d, we live in a very different world. We have come to recognize the value, and the potential, of ALL our kids and young adults. There are special education schools, programs and resource rooms dedicated to providing for their educational and emotional needs. And although it took the Jewish world far too long to catch up to the secular world of Special Ed, we’ve made tremendous progress, as well. We have dedicated Special Ed yeshivot now, with classes through high school. YU even has a Special Ed college tract. Other regular yeshivot, both the more right wing and the more modern, have Special Ed resource rooms and other excellent programs for kids with special needs. My precious Navi attended one of these Sunday morning programs, at the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County (HANC), our neighborhood yeshiva.
But now, these special needs kids and young adults have a very exclusive secret, one that, as I said earlier, actually saves Klal Yisrael – all of us – on a regular basis. And no, that is not an exaggeration whatsoever, as you will soon see. What is this secret?
You see, in the early 80’s, even with all this available Jewish special-ed “stuff,” something was still missing, something essential, something really important. Regular, “normal” Jewish kids had more than just their yeshivas and day schools to go to.
They had groups like NCSY and YU Seminar to provide them with the “Shabbaton experience”. The Conservative Day School kids had the same with groups like USY.
This very special concept allowed the “normal” kids to have a beautiful Jewish experience – emotional, educational and social – outside the confines of their schools. And not just on Shabbatot either, as we had summer programs, holiday programs and trip and travel programs, as well. But there was absolutely nothing like this for Jewish kids with special needs. It was as if these kids didn’t have the need or the right to experience Yiddishkeit in its totality – with social interaction, learning, dancing, singing, emoting, traveling, eating together as a family, etc. They were deprived of the total Jewish experience, life, joy, depth, emotions, learning and mitzvot – the whole package, as they say.
In 1983, all that changed, when a group called Yachad was founded by the OU, as an NCSY – type alternative for these delicious kids. Yachad has been a tremendous success, having literally exploded onto the scene, continually growing in numbers and popularity. It now has three age divisions, and has chapters all over the U.S. and Canada. There are community Shabbatonim, regional Shabbaton, family Shabbaton, summer travel programs, work/study programs (including in Israel), workshops for the Yachad members on subjects as diverse as job training, socialization skills, resume writing, leadership, etc.
Torah learning programs are available and there are activities at places like Good Sports. There are also workshops available for parents, on issues as diverse as housing for special needs kids, dating and marriage, school programs, legal and governmental programs, job training, advocacy for kids with disabilities, etc. The list of all that Yachad does and makes available for its members and their families goes on and on.
But let me tell you a bit about what recent event specifically motivated me to write this article about Yachad and its special secret. It is why I say over and over again, without any hesitation or exaggeration, that this group saves all of Klal Yisrael on a regular basis from all sorts of problems, challenges and adversity. A few weeks ago, we went to the Yachad family Shabbaton, an annual event that brings together Yachad kids, young adults, advisors, and their parents and siblings. And every year, no matter where it is held, it is warm, wonderful, spirited, exciting, awe-inspiring, spiritual and educational. The list goes on far longer than any page could hold.
This Shabbaton gives me “chizuk” that lasts all year long. But, in actuality, it’s so much more powerful than that. Rabbi Yissochar Frand once stated on one of his mussar tapes that the most powerful davening experience he ever had was hearing the Shema, recited out loud, en masse, by the special needs kids in Camp Simcha a few years ago. Why? Because it was the most heartfelt, innocent, and therefore powerful tefillah that Rav Frand had ever heard or felt.
So, here’s Yachad’s first secret of saving all of Klal Yisrael on a consistent basis. You see, to commit an aveirah (a sin), requires intent; it requires the ability to know what the wrong is that you’re about to do, and doing it anyway. Now, mind you, these Yachad kids are not perfect by any means.
They can be mischievous, they can misbehave, they can sometimes be difficult to keep “in line”, so to speak, but for them to sin? To commit a purposeful, premeditated act of defiance against Hashem’s laws and to purposely ignore or defy the word of G-d? No, my dear friends, these kids are not possibly capable of that. Although we know that there always are exceptions to every rule, in general, these “special” kids, these absolutely delicious young men and women, are incapable of sinning. Knowing what we believe to be sincere tefilot (prayers), can change a decree of Hashem, what then do the tefilot of these kids accomplish? What tremendous powers must they possess? They are the tefilot from the hearts and minds of pure “gitte neshamas”, the most innocent, sin-free Jews on the planet. Pure souls. If we believe that our tefilot can change a decree of Hashem, save a life, heal the afflicted or ensure a parnassah, how much greaten is the power of the tefilot and the mitzvot of these pure souls? And not just Shma recited publicly at a family Shabbaton, but what about daily tefilot, mitzvot, entreaties to Hashem to save his beloved Klal Yisrael? I am quite certain that Klal Yisrael does not have any stronger weapons in our arsenal than the prayers and mitzvot of our Yachad kids and young adults.
Lastly, there is one additional part of this great secret. We know that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of sin’at chinam and will be rebuilt by ahavat chinam. Following all that we, as a people, have been through for centuries, all the adversity, all the difficult times, all the great losses – haven’t we yet learned this lesson? Think about it. Do your kids have much to do with other types of frum Jews? If you are of the modern Orthodox persuasion, when’s the last time you had a Chasiddishe kid over for a Shabbat meal? If you are a Satmar Chassid, when’s the last time you went to a shiur at a Young Israel, or at 770 Eastern Parkway? No, as a community, l’tzaarenu harav, we have not yet learned this most important lesson at all. Internecine strife in the Jewish community all too prevalent; there is far too much cynicism, complete lack of trust, and, at times, outright dislike of those whose observance differs.
This is never the case at the annual family Shabbaton. Since disabilities among Jews do not discriminate for or against your particular style of frumkeit, or your Chassidishe, centrist, Litvish, Chareidi, modern, or Sephardic backgrounds, this lovely event brings together so many different types of Jews that, under normal circumstances, would have little or nothing to do with each other, (let alone come together for an entire Shabbat experience). It’s not just some forced situation, where people reluctantly spend a few days together. There is a true atmosphere of ahavat chinam being experienced. Satmar types attend a Daf Yomi shiur with Lubavitchers; Young Israel types dance with Agudists. We all daven, sing and dance, eat and bench, and study together. And if my memory of the many family Shabbatonim I have attended serves me well, I don’t remember any particular harm coming to anyone because of this togetherness. If anything, we come to learn about each other, to respect each other, to feel more comfortable with one another, and to see how our differences pale beside what we truly have in common with each other.
Such is the great power of this wonderful group called Yachad. After all, it’s not such a coincidence that it is called “Yachad”, “together.”
Let me end with a small prayer, a little Bakasha from Hashem. May He allow the prayers and mitzvot of our pure-hearted little tzadikkim, our sweet-souled “special” kids, enter through the Heavenly gates and keep saving Klal Yisrael from whatever adversity we would have to otherwise suffer. And may Hashem recognize the true ahavat chinam that Yachad brings about each year, among those of us blessed with special kids and young adults like my delicious Navi.
And for those of you that Hashem has blessed with the resources to be able to give a bit of tzedakah this year, may you always remember Yachad and the OU. You will be contributing to the saving of us all. Amen.
The edited version that previously appeared incorrectly referred to the author as Navi’s mother. In fact, the author (Dr. Normy Gold) is Navi’s loving father. We regret any discomfort this or other discrepancies between the two versions may have caused.
Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Press
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.