Honoring Her Children, A Yachad Parent Runs For Glory

11 Feb 2015
Nicki Taller finished the ING Half Marathon in Miami.

After seeing some posts on Facebook a few months ago, I called my husband, David, and told him that I was thinking of running the Miami Lifetime Half-Marathon with Yachad. His first response was “You know you don’t run,” soon followed by “You are out of your mind,” and finally (sigh,) “Just let me know where and when.”

He’s a great guy. I explained to him with glee that we would finally be spending Shabbat on a Yachad Shabbaton—and didn’t that sound amazing!? He agreed that yes, it sounded great, but reminded me, “You know you don’t run, right?”

He was correct. I’m not runner. I’ve never been a runner. I’ve been a spinner, a karate-er, a kick boxer, a stepper, a tennis player, a weight lifter, a Zumba-er, but never a runner. I’d see runners at the gym and think, “God that looks boring.” Watch a race on TV? Not in my lifetime.

So how did I get here?

We have four children, three with special needs. About eight years ago, musing to a friend that I didn’t know what I was going to do with my oldest, Max, for the summer, she immediately encouraged, “You should send him on a Yachad summer program!”

Me: “What’s Yachad?”

Her: “Oh my, this amazing special needs organization that is part of the OU!”

Then came the kicker. “You should start sending him on some Shabbatons so they can get to know him and he can get used to being away.”

Wait a minute. Did she just say that I should send my baby…away for Shabbat…without me? Is she insane?

Well, she wasn’t. I sent him, and eight years, four involved children, and many programs later, here we are.

Let me briefly recount some of the many Yachad programs my children have participated in. Max, our almost 20-year-old, went away for that first weekend and never looked back. He hasn’t missed a Shabbaton since his first. He looks forward to the Leadership and Simchaton programs all year.

He was an inclusion camper at Yachad’s partnership with Morasha and Moshava, and has been a vocational participant at Moshava for the past two summers. Each of these programs has brought him new friends, experiences and memories. He has had countless advisors and shadows over the years—and I assure you he can name each and every one of them—and without fail, they are the most kind, patient, positive and happy people on the planet. He is accepted and cherished, not in spite of who he is, but because of who he is.

Our seventeen-year-old daughter, Ariana, took a slower route.

She begrudgingly went on one Shabbaton to prepare her for a summer at Moshava. Whereas Max gravitated to his peers from the start and loved all attention from them, Ariana was a bit more hesitant.

Well, five summers of Camp Moshava later, with shadows who are now family and a camp director who has a picture of Ariana in her living room, things are a bit different for her.

This brings me to my favorite program. Now let me just preface this by saying here that every Yachad program that we have ever participated in (and we’ve done a bunch) has been incredible, and every person involved in those programs has been amazing. There is however, one Yachad program that is very close to my heart: Yad B’Yad.

When the prospect of Yad B’Yad for Max was first brought to me, my reaction was similar to that of our first Shabbaton. Only this time the exclamation points in my head quadrupled: “You want me to send him where? For a month?”

However, when your observant children go to public school, friendships can be a challenge. The children and their parents have always been lovely, but when you don’t run in the same social circles, and Shabbat and kashrut come in to play, it’s very difficult for your child to make real friends. So a chance for Max to spend a month alongside Orthodox peers was not an opportunity I was going to pass up.

Nicki and Max prepare for the race.

Enter the summer of 2011: He left one child. He came home another.

Forget for a moment the incredible tours of Israel and the experiences there. My son came home with capital “F” friends.

Orthodox boys who live where we live were now calling Max and stopping by on a Shabbat to say hi. These are things that my friends’ kids had and took for granted, and now my son was part of that club. There is nothing like seeing the excitement in your son’s face when he has spent time with, or simply spoken to a friend.

It is what I’ve been wishing for him his whole life.

Then came the summer of 2014: Ariana’s turn.

Remember, Ariana is no Max. She tends to growl at people who annoy her (pretty much everyone). This is the girl who threw up her hands and screamed “Stay back!” when the girls at camp would greet her on the first day. Sadly, due to the tensions in Gaza last summer, Israel was not in the cards and Yad B’Yad rerouted to the West Coast.

Yet, once again, Yad B’Yad worked its magic and sent home a different girl.

My new Ariana may still growl from time to time, but she also texts her friends, meets them for pizza and bowling, goes to the movies and into the city with them. At first, the kids would contact her and try to convince her into joining them. These days, she calls them.

For her birthday in November, we made her a surprise party. Eighteen kids showed up. Some from as far as New Jersey (we live on Long Island). Eighteen kids came to be with my growly daughter on her birthday. If that isn’t magic, what is?

It goes without saying that there would be no magic without the staff.

Max and Ariana are as different as can be, yet the unbelievably incredible supervisors and counsellors managed to connect with them equally. They infused kindness, excitement and humor into every part of the summer. The staff is kind, eternally patient, finds the humor in everything, is ridiculously responsible, organized and prepared, giving and genuine. So much so, that this summer, I’m sending child number three on Yad B’Yad to enjoy the same benefits as Ariana.

Jake, Ariana’s twin, is my most sensitive, my most introverted child. God willing, he and Ariana will be joining the group this summer this time to Israel. I can’t wait to meet my new kids when they get home.

The Taller Family of Woodmere, from left: Mackenzie,
Max, Nicki, Jake, David and Ariana

My youngest, Mackenzie, is chomping to join the Yad B’Yad tour as a typical participant. Living with three special needs siblings, Mackenzie has witnessed first-hand what an amazing organization Yachad is, and gets involved at every opportunity.

Which brings us full circle.

So what in God’s name could ever have gotten me into padded socks, an unsightly headband, dripping sweat, on a treadmill four times a week, sometimes for more than two hours at a time? Me, the woman who was never going to run, who is now a runner?

One word—Yachad.