By Batya Rosner
On a given school day morning, sometimes as early as 6:00 a.m., Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Soloveichik will be on YouTube watching camp videos from his past three summers participating in Yachad’s camper program at Camp Morasha. For Naphtali, 17, who attends a private therapeutic school in his hometown of Chicago for those with autism, the impact of his few weeks integrated within a mainstream Jewish camp and the friendships formed, have developed his social skills and strengthened his Jewish identity.
“Naphtali would know he is Jewish without the Yachad Camp Morasha program because of our lifestyle, but this experience really makes him feel part of the Jewish people,” shared his father, Rabbi Moshe Soleveichik, Rosh Yeshivas Brisk (Chicago) and Rav of Kehilas Beth Sholom Ahavas Achim. “That is what inclusive means.”
Yachad member Naphtali Soloveichik (left) of Chicago participates in a pre-Shabbat activity at Camp Morasha, with counselors Ariel Bluman of Baltimore, Jason Klein of Monsey, NY, and Ariel Kirshenbaum of Woodmere, NY.
Yachad, the flagship agency of the Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NJCD), provides unique social, educational and recreational programs for children and young adults with learning, developmental and physical disabilities with the goal of their inclusion in the total life of the Jewish community.
With 17 opportunities for summer social development, ranging from trips to Israel to vocational and camper programs, Yachad/NJCD has become one of the largest providers of summer programs for Jewish individuals with disabilities. According to Jdata, an online forum for Jewish organizations to share information operated by Brandeis University and the Jim Joseph Foundation, Yachad serviced the second-highest number of campers with special needs in summer 2013.
“Since 2008, there has been tremendous growth in the number of individuals with a spectrum of disabilities being serviced in Yachad summer programs, from 190 five years ago, to 443 individuals from across the United States and Canada in summer 2013,” said Eli Hagler, National Yachad associate director.
“This is something beyond incredible.”
He also noted, “Yachad will continue adding new programs and services that additionally educate the community at large, championing the inclusion of those with special needs within the broad Jewish community.”
Yachad offers two opportunities for individuals with special needs to experience the Jewish homeland. Yachad Birthright—in conjunction with Israel Free Spirit, the OU’s Taglit-Birthright Israel program—is a free ten-day Israel experience tailored for individuals with special needs to accommodate physical handicaps, medical needs, etc. Yad B’Yad (YBY) (Hebrew for “hand in hand”) brings typical high school students together with Yachad members for a five-week Israel experience.
Yad B’Yad participants Ari Zucker of Livingston, NJ; Tzvi Burston of Los Angeles; Mayer Schein of Woodmere, NY; and Elisheva Katz of Baltimore.
“I went on YBY as a mainstream high schooler, and that’s why I’m here now,” noted Rebecca Schrag, MSW, referring to her current position as director of Yad B’Yad, in addition to her work as Yachad director of Community and School Programing. “Last year registration for Yad B’Yad was filled for the summer by early winter. The long waiting list showed us that there is a need to provide a second YBY session for summer 2014, which is currently in the works.”
For Nicki Taller’s son Max, who is on the autism spectrum, Yad B’Yad was a life changing experience. Mrs. Taller describes, “Max attended YBY as a student coming out of 10th grade, when all of his typical peers attending yeshiva day schools were also attending Israel summer programs. Living in a Torah-observant community, it was challenging for Max to socialize with teens from his public high school who generally aren’t, even though they are very respectful. For the first time in his life, he spent time developing friendships with frum friends his own age. And he kept up with them. Max is very social on Facebook, and he started going to sports games at local yeshivas. He adores that social interaction. He became much more independent and socially appropriate.”
Mrs. Taller also shared, “From his peers at Yachad, Max has taken an interest in putting on tefillin, davening, and saying divrei Torah; these are things I cannot force him to take upon himself. Now he can go into a shul to be part of a minyan, counted like everyone else. This year he’s learning in Israel, and taking Hebrew language classes in ulpan, just like everybody else. I’m incredibly indebted to Yachad.”
Yokie Fleishmann of Newton, MA enjoys a donkey ride during Yad B’Yad with Adina Singer of Woodmere, NY.
Stateside, Yachad offers a number of camp experiences within inclusive environments at camps on the east coast: Camps Morasha, Nesher, Shoshanim and Moshava in the Poconos of Pennsylvania; and Camp Mesorah in the Catskills of New York. Last summer, Yachad expanded to oversee existing camp programs for youth with special needs, Chaverim (for boys) at Camp Magen Avraham and Kesher (for girls) at Camp Sternberg, brother and sister camps located in the Catskills.
Many of these camps also provide opportunities for adult Yachad members to have summer jobs, working either four or the full eight weeks of the camp season, at sleep-away camps Lavi, Mesorah, Morasha, Moshava; or day camps such as Moshava Ba’ir in Paramus, NJ or Moshava Ba’ir Toronto. With the guidance of a job coach, vocational workers are given assignments based upon interest and skill level. Yachad also provides social programming for all vocational staff.
“The hard work and dedication of Yachad camp program directors, who include speech therapists, social workers, and special educators, has significantly contributed to the growth of the size and quality our programs,” stated Joe Goldfarb P.h.D., Yachad director of summer programs. “We’re very proud of all of our staff who make our programs work so well.”
The Yachad camper program allows Yachad members to sleep in designated Yachad bunks, with activities throughout the day included with the mainstream camp. The Yachad shadow camper program places Yachad members within mainstream bunks, accompanied by their own shadow counselor.
“All The World’s A Stage”
When Yachad’s newest camper program began at Camp Shoshanim last summer, one of the Yachad members wanted to participate in its production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” The play was cast with different scenes, and one of the lead characters was played by different individuals in each scene to give opportunities for many more girls to be in the play. “Our Yachad member was expected to be on time to practices and had to memorize lines. She would be there an hour to an hour-and-a-half each day just like the other girls,” described Esther Katz, director of Camp Shoshanim.
According to Naphtali Soloveichik’s mother, Debra, the minute he gets off the bus from Yachad Morasha, he’s already planning the next summer—and his eyes are set for Yachad Birthright in 2014. In past springs, Naphtali would call other campers to inquire if they would be returning to Morasha. One of Naphtali’s closest friends from camp lives in Detroit. According to Naphtali’s mother, the two friends have spoken on the phone every day (even after Shabbat) since 2011. “Being autistic, getting on the phone wasn’t something Naphtali did before he went to camp—it’s much harder to speak with someone who isn’t face-to-face,” she noted.
This past summer, Camp Morasha hosted a marathon called “Morasha Runs B’Yachad” in which Yachad and mainstream campers, along with Morasha staff, participated to raise funds for the camp. Yachad member Zev Diamond of Brooklyn was invited to give a pep talk before the marathon. “Everyone had tears in their eyes,” shared Morasha’s Director Jeremy Joszef. “The outpouring of support really exemplified to everyone how special the Yachad program is, and how special it is to have Yachad members at our camp.” Much of the funds went towards a state of the art health center to benefit the entire camp, including the Yachad members in Morasha.
Aaron Kaminas of Queens and Daniel Kreiser of Toronto at Camp Morasha.
Camps Mesorah and Moshava are homes to Yachad’s unique shadow camper program.
“When my mainstream kids are asking specifically to be put in the bunk with a particular Yachad member, there is the particular inclusion we are looking for and I love it,” shared Channah Spiegelman, Rosh Moshava, Camp Moshava.
For Ariana Taller, 16, of Woodmere, NY, whose personality is naturally reserved, the Yachad shadow “gave her a sense of security, that she doesn’t have to get overwhelmed,” her mother Nicki shared. “She knows that if she does, she knows she can ask for help, and that is huge. Over the years, her shadows have embraced her and gotten her involved. The environment was very open, very welcoming to Ariana and she was included in everything. Ariana trusted that should she choose to branch out, her shadow will step back—they don’t hover over her. Yet if there are times Ariana isn’t interested in participating in the mainstream activities, she and her shadow can do something tailored to Ariana’s interests.”
“Wherever the placement within a Yachad Summer Program, everyone feels like that is their home,” reflected Nechama Braun, administrator of Yachad Summer Programs. “Whether a Yachad member or mainstream student, participants learn a tremendous amount about sensitivity; about friendships; about being part of a community; about reaching out to others; about giving to others; and at the end of the day everyone takes away a lot.”
Registration for Yachad Summer Programs 2014 is now open at www.yachad.org.