As my first work experience out of college, I was not sure what to expect from my first day at Yachad as a Joel Daner Yachad Communal Fellow. Growing up in Toronto, I had been a high school peer (volunteer) with Yachad, my sister went as a peer on Yad B’Yad, Yachad’s inclusive trip to Israel; in addition I worked at Camp Nesher in Pennsylvania, where Yachad has a summer program. However, as I was to discover, there was much to learn about the organization and the significant strides it has made over the past thirty years in furthering the Inclusion of individuals with disabilities within and beyond the Jewish community.
At the start of my fellowship, I had just graduated from Stern College of Yeshiva University with a degree in political science and was considering pursuing a joint degree in law and social work. I was interested in gaining relevant experience in both clinical and law/policy fields. Taking this into consideration, I was assigned to work on two main projects: Birthright and the Yachad Youth Leadership Council.
In conjunction with the Orthodox Union’s Israel Free Spirit department, Yachad provides Birthright trips for individuals with disabilities. I conducted the intakes for those applying for the trip, speaking directly to the applicants, their families and references in order to assess that the trip was suitable. Additionally, I had the fortune of staffing both the summer and winter trips. Each offered unique opportunities to work with a wonderful group of staff members and befriend a great group of participants. Traveling around Israel for ten days is a highlight in its own right, but doing so with such a talented, fun, and insightful group of people was an experience of a lifetime, and one where Inclusion was truly embraced.
In addition, I also served as the head of the Yachad Youth Leadership Council’s educational advocacy track. I liaised between Yachad and 24 mainstream high school students, working with the students as they planned a social media campaign, a lobbying trip to Albany, the capital of New York, and created educational material promoting Inclusion. I was inspired by how serious and passionate the high school students were about giving back to Yachad and ensuring that inclusive environments are the standard in the Jewish community. I also had the privilege of being involved in other projects at Yachad. For instance, I worked on a siddur that Yachad is creating for individuals with disabilities, and was a part of Hineinu, a cross-denominational task force within Jewish synagogue movements that shares best practices with regard to inclusiveness within each denomination. I also attended Jewish Disability Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C., where I lobbied members of the U.S. Congress, together with other leaders, professionals, and advocates in the disability field, to pass legislation that would further disability rights.
Each experience working at Yachad taught me lessons that I will carry throughout the rest of my professional career. Throughout my fellowship I felt as though my ideas were heard and taken seriously and was given the necessary support while working on a variety of projects. I have learned the value of paying attention to the details, have grown professionally, and have a greater understanding of what Inclusion means.
One of the best parts of working at Yachad has been the incredible staff that I am surrounded by. The ethos underscoring all of the staff is selflessness. Yachad staff members work to better the lives of others and unconditionally give of themselves, with dedication and commitment. More specifically, I have learned so much from my direct supervisor, Nicole Bodner, director of New York Yachad. She taught me what it means to think and work with intent and purpose, and I am deeply appreciative for her constant support and understanding throughout the entire year. I feel privileged to have worked with Batya Jacob, director of Yachad’s Educational Support Services and Yachad’s International Jewish Resource Center for Inclusion and Special Education, whose experience and thoughtfulness I admire and respect. I am grateful to Eli Hagler, director of the Daner Fellowship and associate director of Yachad, for his openness and for making me feel comfortable from the first day. I have deep respect and admiration for Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, international director of Yachad, who provided valuable professional guidance, and who leads the way in striving towards a more inclusive world.
I came to Yachad wanting to make a difference – and still do. Beginning this fall, I plan to pursue a career in social work at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work at the City University of New York, and then see where my professional career takes me. Reflecting on this year, one of the most valuable aspects has been a paradigm shift that I experienced – from me making a difference, to a difference or impact being made upon me. Although I have always been a learner and someone who seeks to both give and take from my surroundings, Yachad has taught me to be open to possibilities for growth that exist in various aspects of life.
About a year ago, I walked into the Yachad offices at OU headquarters in New York for the first time. I was getting a tour of the office and meeting the staff, including a few social work interns who stayed on during the summer months. They were asked if they had any advice for me, and they uniformly said, “Take advantage of every opportunity.” Now at the end of my fellowship, I feel satisfied in having acted on that advice, and would pass it on to the next cohort of Fellows. There are so many meaningful opportunities at Yachad – go out and grab them.