In one week, the staff of Yachad was able to accomplish what normally takes months of planning. When recent events in Israel rerouted summer plans to the West Coast for 190 Yad B’Yad participants, the message was loud and clear that inclusion and friendship know no borders.
Hebrew for “hand in hand,” Yad B’Yad (YBY) is one of Yachad’s most popular summer programs, which brings typical high school students together with Yachad members for a four-week Israel experience.
“Yad B’Yad is much more than an itinerary–Yad B’Yad really could take place anywhere. We wanted it to be in Israel, we prayed for that, but it wasn’t meant to be,” noted Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, international director of Yachad, on a conference call to YBY parents.
Yachad/the National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NJCD), the flagship agency of the Orthodox Union, provides unique social, educational and recreational programs for individuals with learning, developmental and physical disabilities. Its goal is to promote their inclusion in the life of the Jewish community.
“In a world of sound bites and Instagram, it’s hard to grapple with what you experience here,” Dr. Lichtman shared with parents. “Young individuals who think one way come into contact with others who think another way. It’s hard for some to hear differently. And during these weeks together, we see them coming out of themselves, growing. Yad B’Yad is an opportunity for young people to come together, to learn together, to learn from one another; an opportunity for those who are quieter to find a voice and speak up. They learn not just about inclusion, but also just appreciating that we all have challenges just as we all have gifts. It’s all about perspective.”
For the first year, YBY created a second trip to accommodate the growing demand of interest. Registration for Yachad summer programs generally opens in late October and by early winter YBY tends to be filled up, noted Rebecca Schrag, MSW, director of Yad B’Yad programs and Yachad coordinator of High School Programming. Rebecca leads one bus, while the other is under the leadership of Ron Hirschhorn, program director of Junior Yachad.
To accommodate all physical needs of participants across Israel, inclusive activities are mapped out and reserved months and weeks in advance. The second trip was scheduled to leave a week after the first, with participants overlapping at various points but keeping each experience on their own itinerary.
Change of Plans
Yad B’Yad begins with an orientation and sensitivity training for the mainstream high school students to better understand the point of the trip and how to better understand the Yachad members; the entire group spends a Shabbat together to bond as a group before flying to their final destination. As orientation began for the first bus in early July, rocket fire in Israel began to escalate. At first Yachad staff chose to reschedule the flight dates to Israel, hoping the hostilities would quickly quiet down. Staff coordinated alternate plans for YBY participants to tour the greater New England area, with the hopes of flying to Israel a few days later.
As rockets continued to be launched toward central and southern parts of Israel, and ground forces entered Gaza, Dr. Lichtman, together with top professional and lay leadership of Yachad and Orthodox Union, ruled that the program would not be able to continue with original plans.
“While we were certainly concerned for safety issues, YBY is an inclusive touring program and the Israeli touring company didn’t think they could provide four weeks’ worth of activities to do up north,” noted Nechama Braun, administrator of Yachad summer programs. “Yad B’Yad is not a ‘sitting and learning’ program. Plus, the northern part of the country was quickly inundated with every other youth program in Israel at the time, in addition to Israeli senior citizens and recent olim. We wanted to still give our participants a top-quality experience.”
A mass effort was launched by all Yachad staff to figure out what to do in order to make alternate arrangements. Could tickets still be booked? Where could wheelchair accessible buses be found? Who could cater food? What options were available during the Three Weeks, the Nine Days and Tisha B’Av? Every bit of manpower at Yachad, from top leadership to interns, was vital to make Yad B’Yad 2014 successful. Some planned the Shabbatons, others oversaw the daily itineraries, others were in charge of researching activities, hotels, etc.
Challenges definitely existed. In the summer especially, the West Coast is a popular destination for conventions, concerts and general vacations, so finding hotels that could accommodate 45 rooms, along with space to eat and daven wasn’t a simple matter. Bus drivers are only able to drive 12 hours a day and be on call 14 hours a day. Each bus needed a sefer Torah to travel with, to be used for daily minyanim and Shabbat.
With YBY bus two program due to begin, the Israel option was officially aborted and switched to the West Coast.
A conference call was held with parents explaining the decision and how the YBY program was scheduled to proceed. Yachad offered a full refund to any participant who wished to opt out; not one did.
“All the planning in the world could not have foretold the ominous situation that Israel would have to endure this summer,” noted Michelle Sitzer, of Brooklyn, whose son Akiva attended YBY 2014. “Yet Yachad rose to the occasion and organized a magnificent trip, an amazing experience that my son will treasure forever.
“One of the primary reasons I come back to YBY is because of the attitudes and values the program instills,” shared Jacob Shamash, of Deal, NJ, and a second year YBY counselor together with his brother Saul. “Inclusion should be the goal for everyone. As a college student, I lack seeing inclusion on my campus. I love being recharged and bringing it back with me.”
In one week, Yachad staff rearranged the entire itinerary for a four week inclusive touring experience of the West Coast.
The Spirit Out West
From San Francisco to Las Vegas, Phoenix to San Diego and Los Angles, teens from across the United States have been experiencing America.
“I feel that every activity we do everyone is included in different ways, and our group is getting close every day,” shared high schooler Abby Stiefel of Teaneck, NJ. “It’s the people who matter.”
The YBY groups visited famous tourist experiences such as Disneyland, Warner Brothers’ Studios, the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance, Hoover Dam and the San Diego Zoo. Participants went tubing in Arizona’s Salt River; took jeep rides through Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon; visited Sunset Crater, a dormant volcano; and held a kumzitz at the Grand Canyon. They rode the Palm Springs Tramway and held a scavenger hunt at Newport Beach in California. They experienced Shabbat in the communities of Las Vegas, Scottsdale, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“I’m having so much fun on Yad B’Yad. One of my favorite experiences has been horseback riding,” said Ted Cohen, of Monsey, NY, a returning Yachad member on the program.
But more important than where they went and what they did, every activity was inclusive. Weekly emails are sent out to parents with various highlights contributed by participants.
Participant Merrill Brenner of Los Angeles, recently wrote, “On YBY, we learn when to lead, and when to step back and allow others to showcase their abilities and talents. This style of leadership is what identifies Yachad and Yad B’Yad as a one-of-a kind organization. For me, this was by far one of my most meaningful lessons. Although this YBY trip emphasizes growing as an individual and using these skills to become a better leader, our attention continues to look for opportunities to bring out the best in others.”
“I find myself amazed over and over again at how this program is running, and all at a moment’s notice,” wrote Tami Drapkin of Skokie, whose son Eitan is a first time participant. “If I’m feeling so grateful for this program, I can only imagine how the participants are feeling.”
Dr. Lichtman recently joined the YBY groups as he does every year. He shared with parents on another conference call, “Yachad is blessed with amazing staff,” emphasized Dr. Lichtman. “Rebecca and Ron, our young professionals leading each trip, are amazing professionals, highly competent, and doing a wonderful job. Working with all the counselors, they are not just taking care of participants but supporting and facilitating growth as a group.”
Pamela Shuman, of Milford, MA (outside of Boston), whose daughter Jessica is a new Yachad member on the program, agreed. “The level of care and love that was given to Jessica this past month is incredible and to be able to see Jessica smile and feel like part of a group is all that any parent wants,” she said.
Dr. Lichtman ended the call saying, “When your children come home, hopefully you will have time to see how much they have been positively affected. Ask them about the experience—not just where they went, but what moved them? What did they learn? I think you’ll be amazed at how much they will have grown over the past few weeks.”