For the last five years, the Mendel Balk Yachad Center in Teaneck has provided evening activities for participants — people with disabilities — and volunteers.
It sounds straightforward, right?
But real magic happens there.
The goal is to provide a homelike setting for participants, so that they can have fun, be with their friends, and enjoy an evening out. It gives their families a break — no matter how loving and caring and devoted you are, everyone needs an occasional break — and it gives the mainly teenage volunteers who flock to the center a chance to enjoy themselves and be surrounded by an atmosphere of acceptance that, we know from reports years later, stays with them for life.
On Monday, March 20, New Jersey Yachad will honor some of its many supporters and volunteers at a gala dinner at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood. (See below.)
The Balk Center is five years old now. It was created by Ariela Balk of Englewood in memory of her late husband, Mendel, and in support of her son Yoel.
Ms. Balk — who since has remarried, is now Ariela Balk Eshkenazi, has moved to Florida, and continues to support the center — “recognized a need for evening programs for individuals with developmental disabilities,” New Jersey Yachad’s director, Raquel Selevan, said. (Formally she’s Raquel, but in real life, she’s Rocky.)
(To back up, Yachad is a division of the Orthodox Union, and it’s international in scope. It works toward the inclusion of people with developmental disabilities into the larger Jewish world; its motto puts that goal simply and clearly. Why does Yachad do this work? “Because everyone belongs.”)
“Yoel is still a constant participant,” Larry Rein of West Orange said; Mr. Rein is Yachad’s senior development executive. “He’s here all day almost every day, at the Balk Center and also at our day program. He is a great, active participant, and an engaging fellow.
“The Balks have provided an environment that has been really advantageous.”
“It’s very helpful for families to have their children occupied with meaningful activities outside the home during afterschool or after-work hours,” Ms. Selevan said.
The center is open on Mondays through Thursdays from 4 to 7; it’s also open on Sunday mornings. Participants are divided into two groups by age; one is 21 and under, the other 22 and above. The youngest participant now is 12, and the oldest is in her late 40s. “People don’t age out of this program,” Ms. Selevan said.
The center is set up to be comfortable and appealing. “It looks like a home away from home; we have couches, we have round tables,” Ms. Selevan said. “It looks like someone’s living room.”
As for the programming, “We have a different special activity every evening, and the evenings include dinner,” Ms. Selevan said. “There’s music, Zumba (for the girls) and sports (for the guys).” There’s also the mishmar program. On Thursday evenings, any one of a number of local participating rabbis comes, teaches some Torah, maybe leads some singing, and creates an atmosphere that’s warm, intimate, and specifically Jewish. Both the Yachad participants and the volunteers particularly love this coed program, Ms. Selevan said.
Yachad provides transportation to the Balk Center from local schools and homes; many of the participants already are at the day programs at the Yachad offices, which include the center. And then Yachad takes participants back home when the program is over.
“So if you’re coming to the center, you are getting home at 7 to 7:30, and you are basically ready for bed,” Ms. Selevan said. “You’ve had a social, jam-packed evening, filled with meaningful experiences and friendship, enjoyment of the activity of the night, and you’re ready to wind down at home.”
About a dozen or so participants come every evening, she said. “Last year, we started a program in Passaic, with about 18 participants.” That’s once a week, on Wednesday nights. Some Balk Center participants go to school in Bergen County, so they go to the center in Teaneck, and then the center gives them transportation back home. Because the demographics in Passaic are somewhat different than in Bergen County, the programming there is single gender.
“We serve over 50 people a week, and it’s growing,” Ms. Selevan said. “We have been getting new referrals, new members.” One new participant lives two blocks from the center but just started going there recently. “Her mom raves about the program,” she said. “There are still people in the community who would benefit from it but still haven’t made it to us yet. That’s okay, but we feel like we are holding onto something hidden. A secret. How do we tell more people about it?”
Volunteers certainly know about it already. “We have about 100 volunteers,” Ms. Selevan said. Although most of them are high-school students, some are younger; many of them start around the time they become bar or bat mitzvah. “The local schools are infusing such good values, and we have a great turnout because of that,” she added.
Mr. Rein and Ms. Selevan talked about the volunteers and supporters who will be honored at the gala. Jeffrey Wilder and his son-in-law, Sean Charnow, “own hotels,” Ms. Selevan said. “They employ one of our participants,” and it’s been a wonderful situation for the employee, the employer, and Yachad, she said.
Yachad is honoring the Gorelick family, longtime Yachad supporters whose son is a participant.
It’s honoring a group of high-school seniors for their dedicated work as Yachad volunteers.
And it’s honoring Abbie Sophia of Teaneck with the women’s leadership award for the years of photographs she’s taken. She began photographing the Mendel Balk Center in 2018, just before it opened officially, and she’s been doing it ever since.
Her name really is Abbie Sophia Adamit, but she’s known professionally — and widely — as Abbie Sophia, so we’ll call her that too. She began her career as a social worker, not a photographer. She’s got a great eye and well-honed people skills, both of which inform and illuminate her work.
Abbie comes from Columbus, Ohio, where she grew up vaguely Orthodox; she and her twin sister, Annie Statman, belonged to NCSY, however. The Orthodox youth group — formally the National Council of Synagogue Youth — had Shabbatons in Columbus. That’s where she first encountered Yachad participants; NCSYers and Yachad kids were at the Shabbatons together.
Abbie moved to Manhattan to go to Stern College, Yeshiva University’s undergraduate women’s college; she volunteered with Shalva, an organization that helps parents of special-needs kids by giving them a well-earned break from them.
After college, Abbie went to YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, where her first internship was at an organization called YAI, for young adults with special needs. She continued to work with people with special needs and their families throughout her training and her short career as a social worker.
She did not have any particular interest in photography then, although she always had a good eye and an interest in art. It did not occur to her to take photos even for serious fun, much less as a profession.
But then, on New Year’s Eve, as the world went from 2008 to 2009 and she was in the middle of her senior year at Stern, Abbie Sophia took a cab, and sat down on what she thought was a seatbelt buckle, although it was an oddly shaped one. She put her hand on the seat to move the buckle — and, like Jack Horner, she pulled out something unexpected.
It was a camera. “Instead of falling into my lap, it fell under my lap,” she said.
“I tried to find the owner, but I couldn’t,” she continued. So she ended up with a camera. “It was a very nice point-and-shoot camera, with full-frame options.”
Then, logically enough, she started taking pictures.
“I went to Europe, backpacking,” she continued. “I took it around with me. I loved taking pictures. But I never took pictures of people — just trees and historic buildings.”
When she got back home, “Stern used to have a scholarship, where you’d get a fifth year of college free,” she said. “I got that scholarship, and I took classes in photography, and in Photoshop.”
She majored in English but added a minor. In art history. “I loved the art,” she said.
Before she started social work school, she married Achi Adamit, and soon they moved to Teaneck, where they now live with their three children — Eliav, 6 1/2, Halleli, 3 1/2, and Shefa, who is 1. She practiced social work, but she didn’t love it.
What she did love was taking pictures.
“And then a good family friend bought me a gift, a camera, a Canon Rebel T4I. And David Steinberg, who lived in the community then, encouraged me. He was a photographer — he’s actually a lawyer and a pharmacist who did photography on the side — and he was like, ‘You should take over from me.’
“He brought me on a photoshoot. That was my first time, and he paid me 60 bucks. It was great fun, it was so easy.”
It turns out that Abbie Sophia is very good at taking pictures. Part of it is talent, of course, but part of it is her training as a social worker, she said.
“You take pictures of people in beautiful settings, at simchas, but every photo has a real person behind it,” she said. “People might see a smiling face in a picture and think that they’re looking at a picture of a perfect life — but no one’s life is perfect.”
So being a photographer is like being a social worker in that you begin by realizing that you will not be shooting perfection, and that your job is to make your subject feel comfortable. “Every client is different,” Abbie said. “When I go to take pictures, people ask me what the rules are, and I say there are no rules. It depends on who you are and what you want.”
She began her career as a photographer “at a time when Facebook wasn’t limited as it is now,” she said; the algorithms that controlled who saw what were looser and less oriented toward profit. “So whenever you posted a picture then, everyone would see it, and it would make everyone happy. So it was satisfying pursuing your creative side.
“It’s such a good outlet for me,” she continued. Being a good photographer of people demands that you pay attention to them, that you see them for who they are, that you understand how to make them feel comfortable. “It’s so good being immersed in someone else’s situation instead of just being on my phone,” she said.
“And because everyone saw my work on Facebook, that got the word out fast. I never had to advertise.”
She feels it’s particularly important to be a woman photographing women and girls. “Most of the time, girls are self-conscious, and I get to help them feel their best,” she said. “It matters.”
It was not easy for Abbie to get pregnant; she used IVF, and she was public about it. “My sharing my fertility journey was an important part of my work,” she said. “I was helping the Teaneck community and the Instagram Jewish community. Now it is more common to share those stories, but it wasn’t then.”
Abbie Sophia’s photos are an important part of the Balk Center, Ms. Selevan and Mr. Rein said. “Abbie knows how to bring out the best in people,” Ms. Selevan said. “She’s very calm and at ease with our participants. She makes people feel comfortable in the way that she engages with them. The participants know her, and when she comes they say, ‘Are you going to take my picture?’
“She is innately talented at making people feel comfortable, and to give the vibe that she gives, that allows everyone to respond to her the way they do. She really is wonderful.”
Her photos hang on the walls and stand on the windowsills of the Balk Center, as they would in a living room — and as they do in many living rooms across the county and beyond. “We are constantly being surrounded by these pictures of ordinary daily moments, and we are reminded that this is daily life on a regular basis,” Ms. Selevan said.
“These are family pictures.”
And life at the Balk Center is very much family life.
Who: New Jersey Yachad
What: Holds its gala dinner in support of its programming
When: On Monday, March 20, at 7 p.m.
Where: At Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood
For more information and reservations: Go to yachad.org/newjersey/gala, google “New Jersey Yachad gala 2013,” or call (201) 499-7868.