Music builds bridges

Music builds bridges

Yachad opens the new George Weinberger Music Studio

ON THE COVER:  Musician Jack Kasindorf, center, works with Yachad students as the new music studio opens. (New Jersey Yachad)
ON THE COVER: Musician Jack Kasindorf, center, works with Yachad students as the new music studio opens. (New Jersey Yachad)

Music is different from words.

Words can inspire, ennoble, engage, enrage — but only if you know what they mean, if they’re written in your language, if your background, intellect, and interests allow you to absorb them. You have to be ready for words, and you have to understand that everyone understands each one of them slightly differently.

And then there’s music.

You might have to grab words, but music grabs you.

The people who run Yachad, the Orthodox Union’s group for people with developmental disabilities — and for their families, and for the volunteers, and for the whole community, because Yachad is more a network than a sharply walled-off group — know that.

Yachad is an international organization, as is the OU; Raquel Selevan — Rocky — is the New Jersey region’s director, and Elinor Solomon is its assistant director. They oversee an initiative that offers afterschool and day programs for everyone ranging from high-school students to adults. Yachad teaches life skills. Its Teaneck building includes a simulated bedroom, so participants can learn how to tidy up after themselves and how to work in a hotel. It has a simulated supermarket, so participants can learn to make change, select items to buy, and then buy them. It has a simulated retail training space, and a simulated office; participants can learn to be both comfortable and useful there. It has a library — this one’s not a simulation, but a place where participants can find books to read, either alone or in a book club.

It also has the Mendel Balk Center, where participants and the volunteers who work with them can relax, unwind, make friends, learn, play, and generally have fun.

And now it also has a music studio.

Jack Kasindorf and Yachad participants make music together. (All photos courtesy New Jersey Yachad)

The George Weinberger Music Studio, which will be launched formally on January 6 at Yachad’s annual gala, is not a simulation, and it is not a toy. It is a room outfitted with serious musical equipment, from boxes with dials and levers that people who know how to use them understand and simply awe the rest of us. It has a piano. It has drums. And it has three electric guitars hanging on the walls that are surpassingly beautiful. They’re there to be played, and to be admired when they’re not being played.

Music always has been part of Yachad, Ms. Selevan said. “Yachad is 40 years old, and music has been important since the beginning. One of the most memorable moments for anyone who has ever experienced a Yachad Shabbaton is the singing and the ruach” — the spirit, the often physical feeling of pure joy, that can come, among other ways, from unself-conscious, all-in singing in a group with other people. “That’s always been part of what Yachad is.”

The New Jersey region’s move toward the studio began with a drum circle.

Jack Kasindorf was a student at Tenafly High School five years ago, when “I called Elinor, and we had a phone call about bringing a musical activity to Yachad. I am a very passionate musician” — he plays guitar and drums, he sings, and he picks up other instruments when it makes sense — “and it always was my dream to share the gift of music with everybody.” Neither he nor his parents had been nearly as involved in Yachad before this call as they are now, but “my parents are very well connected in the Jewish world, we had done some volunteer work there, and my mom connected me with Elinor.”

Because he and Yachad staff knew that “percussion can have extraordinary benefits for this population — a group of individuals with various abilities — we purchased some drums, and started the drum circle,” Mr. Kasindorf said.

“The first time I was at the drum circle, we played Bob Marley songs. One of the first ones was ‘Don’t worry about a thing, cause every little thing gonna be all right.’

“A participant started singing those words. Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.’ It was beautiful. And one of the most amazing things is that Rocky said that he had not spoken before. He was not verbal.”

But he sang the song.

“This inspires me to return again and again,” Mr. Kasindorf said. “It’s an extraordinary experience. This music program has contributed so much to the center. It’s an amazing community to begin with, but the power of music really does something to everybody. You see that people can become expressive through music, through nonverbal communication.

Jack Kasindorf, second from left, is at a drum circle with Yachad participants and volunteers.

“Often participants at the center who start singing and dancing hadn’t done so at the center before. It’s incredible.”

Yachad bought West African percussion instruments called djembes for the drum circle. “Djembe means ‘everybody gathers together in peace,’” Mr. Kasindorf said. At first, that happened in person; after the pandemic started, the drum circle moved online. Now, it’s back in person — it happens not in the studio but in the Mendel Balk Center, and draws between 15 and 30 participants, Ms. Selevan said.

Yachad offers participants both the chance to make music and music appreciation courses.

It’s been soft-launching the music studio. Recently, it released a video that the neo-chasidic folk-soul band Zusha made there. It shows professional musicians and Yachad participants making music together, and the joy radiates from the video so strongly that it nearly vibrates the screen. It’s not as if you can’t tell who’s a member of Yachad and who’s a member of Zusha. You can. And you should be able to — Zusha’s members are professional musicians. But you can see the possibilities that lie ahead for Yachad members too.

Another part of Yachad, its heart, is inclusion. Yachad means together; the group comes together as one. Everyone counts.

That’s what happens when everyone, no matter their abilities or disabilities, no matter their musical talents or tin ears, comes together to sing. “Kulanu yachad,” Zusha sang. We’re all together. Or were they singing “Kulanu Yachad”? We’re all Yachad? Or is it the same thing?

“I’m very blessed in that I get to be part of this,” Ms. Selevan said. “There is something about being in an environment where we all can learn something new. Participants, volunteers, staff — we are all in it together.

“Volunteers often say that volunteering with Yachad inspires them. We always hear from volunteers that they get more than they give.”

The keyboard, which Yachad members and volunteers play, is in the new George Weinberger Music Studio.

One of the many advantages of working with Yachad “is that there is no embarrassment. Sometimes the songs we sing are silly. There’s a feeling of being part of something that is fun and exciting that helps us all lower the barriers of self-consciousness. That’s at the core of our program.”

Participants often make music with whatever’s on hand,” Ms. Selevan added. It doesn’t have to be a formal musical instrument — almost anything can make music. Participants have shaken boxes of salt for percussion, or used school supplies as drumsticks. And of course there are the percussion instruments attached to their arms; they snap their fingers, clap their hands, or bang on tables. “We use everyday items to make music together,” she said.

The drum circle meets once a week, the popular DJ who calls himself Digital Dov — he’s also called by his actual name, Dov Katz — teaches music appreciation once a week too.

The center also offers non-musical activities. There’s a weekly mishmar program, for Jewish learning and experiences, taught by local rabbis, along with games, sports, and dinner.

And now there’s the music studio.

Its namesake is George Weinberger; it was created in his honor by his niece, Ronit Rubinoff of Teaneck, and her husband, Dan.

Mr. Weinberger, who was born in Hungary in 1955, to parents who survived the Holocaust, moved to the United States when he was 9 years old, with his parents, brother, and two sisters, Ms. Rubinoff said. One of those sisters is her mother, Anne Klein.

Mr. Weinberger wasn’t very verbal, Ms. Rubinoff said, but it was clear that “music seemed to lift the barriers for him. So the music room seemed to be an appropriate way to honor his memory.

Yachad members, staff, and volunteers make music together.

“I’ve always learned that when people pass away, when they’re in the next world, the people close to them, their relatives, are the legs that they stand on in this world.” So she and her family are George’s legs.

“So for George, we want to take that music that he enjoyed and help people communicate through it. We want to let them feel alive through music. They might be limited in how they can relate to each other, but music transcends that.”

Although she couldn’t talk to Mr. Weinberger very much, he always was a presence, Ms. Rubinoff said. “So I feel that this is a way to keep his memory alive and his soul soaring. I can feel his presence when people use the room, or when they interact with each other through music.

“With Yachad, you might not be able to engage in a conversation with someone, but all of a sudden you’re singing together, and there’s no difference between you, and it’s beautiful.

“Music transcends the differences. Everybody is able to enjoy or feel moved by music. Everyone has the ability to communicate through music.”

The George Weinberger Studio was painstakingly crafted by Daniel Shatzkes and Evan Grazi of Harmony Studios in Brooklyn, Mr. Kasindorf said. “They did a beautiful job.

“Now we are bringing participants into this studio and teaching them how to play all sorts of instruments  — guitar, piano, drums — and also they’re singing. And there’s a computer that gives us the ability to write songs. A participant can write his own song. We worked with Dan and Evan to set it up that way. A few participants want to record their own songs, with a positive message about being together. About Yachad.

“It was an incredible experience having Zusha come in. Now many Jewish musicians are hearing the story and want to be involved.”

Zusha’s Shlomo Gaisin and a Yachad participant sit together.

Just as Yachad changes members’ lives, it’s changed his, Mr. Kasindorf said. He just graduated from Baruch College, where he majored in psychology. “I saw it as a bridge into this kind of work, music therapy,” he said.

“It’s beautiful, how everything fell into place,” he continued. “Who could have imagined that it would happen like this? When I started here, I wasn’t thinking about what kind of job I’d want. I wasn’t thinking about my career. But the chance to work with these amazing people, to work with this music program…

“They give me a lot of room. We can bring in special guests. Participants love meeting people. They love musicians. And the way the program is structured, the studio allows us to have time with individual participants before we all come together.”

He described the drum circle. “We typically start with a drum roll,” he said. “That’s everyone banging together, letting our energy out. And then we start. Participants always request songs. It’s amazing how many songs they know.

“We have Frisch students coming every week as volunteers.” He’s talking about the Frisch School in Paramus. “Last week, we had students from middle school. They sang. It was so much fun! We had 70 people together, which was awesome.

“Often on Shabbatons we will get together after Shabbat ends for a drum circle. It is a beautiful thing. Everything comes together.”

Mr. Kasindorf is not Orthodox. That does not make him any less welcome than he would have been were he Orthodox. “Everyone walks in there and is greeted beautifully,” he said. “Everyone is welcome.”

And that inclusion, that sense of Yachad, makes it all even more wonderful.

“Magic happens at the drum circles,” Mr. Kasindorf said. “It is transformational. You have to come in with so much energy to do this work, but it doesn’t drain me. It leaves me with more creative energy.”

And more of an opportunity to make music b’Yachad.

Who and What: Yachad New Jersey Gala

When: Saturday Night, January 6, at 8

Where: Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck


Who is being honored:

Yachad Family Award: The Adler family

Women’s Leadership Award: Leah Soclof

Young Leadership/Alumni Award: Racheli and Rabbi Andrew Israeli

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