The point of Yachad is inclusion.
Its primary focus is on people with developmental disabilities and special needs, both when they’re kids and then later, when they age out of school. It works hard to provide its clients with the therapy, life-skills training, Jewish immersion, and opportunities for play that help them lead fulfilled, happy lives.
It also has created a presence for itself in the Jewish community that has helped destigmatize disabilities. Now, working with special-needs kids has become an active good for their neurotypical peers, an earned badge that signifies that its holder genuinely has learned both giving and taking. And that’s because the idea that when you work with Yachad’s clients you get as much as you give, that you can learn as much as you can teach, isn’t a bromide to Yachad’s volunteers. It is, instead, a learned truth.
Needless to say, this last year has tested all of these truths, but the organization — an agency of the Orthodox Union that nonetheless is open to all Jews — has kept going.
On January 8, Yachad New Jersey will celebrate its supporters and their accomplishments at a gala dinner. (See below.)
“In about November of last year, we re-opened the Yachad center, although in a much smaller capacity,” Yachad New Jersey’s director, Raquel Selevan, said. That Teaneck-based state headquarters includes the Mendel Balk Yachad Center, which offers programming for its clients from afternoon into the evening on Mondays through Thursdays. In response to the pandemic, only staff and participants are invited; for now, volunteers can’t come.
Although it was a risk, Yachad’s staff felt that reopening was vitally important to its clients, to sense of community it gives them, as well as the invaluable opportunity to have fun. It’s also worked hard to retain its bonds with its volunteers, in part through the virtual and backyard work it’s done during the pandemic, when meeting in person inside was not safe.
Ms. Selevan began her work with Yachad when she was in high school; she lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but she went to high school at the Frisch Academy in Paramus. She learned about Yachad and inclusion at both places.
“I grew up at Lincoln Square Synagogue, which is a very inclusive place, with a lot of Yachad families and siblings,” she said. “At Lincoln Square everyone talks to everyone, and that is the environment that we try to create in terms of the relationships between our teen volunteers and the members. There are beautiful peer relationships.”
The friendships between volunteers and center members are not based on obligation and gratitude (to be clear, certainly those are two important, deeply honorable, religiously necessary, and often motivating emotions; it’s just that they don’t apply to genuine friendships). They’re not patronizing. They’re real. “We have an amazing group of volunteers, high schoolers who are now in Israel,” Ms. Selevan said. “We just had two sisters, participants in Yachad, who made aliyah with their parents. I watch the volunteers’ Instagrams, and they’re always posting with the sisters.
“These are natural friendships, that have substance and continuity. They have everything that you and I would want in a friendship, and you can see it grow.
“I had a conversation with a parent the other day, who was saying that they’re new to the community — not a participant, just a parent — and they said, ‘It’s so eye-opening to see that there are so many people with different challenges all around us.’ It’s so important that Yachad can be here to help serve the needs of everyone who could benefit from it.”
Yachad knows that the more you understand, the more your natural empathy can be boosted. “We offer sensitivity training for middle school and high school students,” Ms. Selevan said. “Yachad has been doing it nationally for a long time, and now we’re doing it locally. It gives students the tools they need to be more sensitive and understanding.”
Larry Rein of West Orange is Yachad’s senior development executive. Together, he and Ms. Selevan talked about what Yachad offers, and how it has navigated covid. (Of course, with the surge of omicron, more navigation is on its inevitable way.)
Before covid, many Yachad participants came to the Mendel Balk Center from Passaic; Yachad provided the transportation. Once covid hit, that became impossible. “So this year, we opened up a center in Passaic,” Mr. Rein said. That center’s programs are divided by gender as the yeshivish demographics of the group mandate. “We also have weekend programs, both in Bergen and in Passaic,” he continued. “They’re on Sundays, but we also have some Shabbes programs.”
One of the new programs that the Mendel Balk Center offers is a Thursday night shiur led by a local rabbi. The idea came from Adam Chill of Teaneck, whose son Sam is a participant. “We moved to Teaneck about 14 months ago from New Rochelle,” Mr. Chill said. “My younger son has special needs; he has been at Sinai at TABC for six years, and he’s been going to the Balk Center in the afternoons and evenings.”
Mr. Chill thinks that the center does important work both for its participants and for their parents, who need the respite from their special-needs children to be able to decompress and focus on their other children and each other. He finds the program wonderful, but he is disturbed by what he sees as its lack of recognition in the community, which is “shockingly less knowledgeable about Mendel Balk than it should be,” he said.
“So I thought what better way could there be to introduce the community to the center, considering that we have so many shuls and so many rabbis in the neighborhood, who are so warm and so willing to help — why not have a mishmar,” an evening learning session?
“I thought that we could have a different rabbi from the community come in to talk with the kids, to do some learning, to do some singing, maybe have some cholent, so that the rabbis can get to know them more and to integrate them into the neighborhood.
“It goes both ways,” he continued. “The rabbis can meet the kids in the community, and it’s a great opportunity to expand the reach of the Mendel Balk Center.
“Everyone knows Yachad — or at least everyone thinks they know Yachad. Everyone thinks they know what it’s doing. ‘Oh, yeah, my kid went to a Yachad Shabbat.’”
But it’s so much more even than that, Mr. Chill said.
The program so far is only a few weeks old. Mr. Chill saw one of sessions, which was led by Rabbi Elliot Schrier of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun. “It was great!” Mr. Chill said. “It’s not a long time. It’s just an hour. But it means so much to the kids. Rabbi Schrier went around the room, asking them who they are, what shul they go to. These kids love that. They love to meet the rabbis in the community. They feel like there is someone important there to talk to them.”
To some extent, Mr. Chill felt the same thing. He’s a relatively new parent at Yachad; he had an idea, he presented it to Yachad, and Yachad implemented it. The flexibility, the willingness to try something new, and the love behind it all impressed him greatly.
Batya Jacob, who will be honored with Yachad’s Keter Shem Tov award, is a longtime member of Yachad’s staff; her work makes clear the breadth of the diversity and inclusion that Yachad embodies. Just as the developmentally disabled deserve respect, care, and thoughtful help, so do the deaf; Ms. Jacob started what is probably the country’s only hearing aid gemach. (A gemach takes donations — still-working, still-useful objects that their original owners neither need nor want — and give them to people who do need and can use them.)
Ms. Jacob now is a development executive for Yachad New Jersey, but long before that, she was an audiologist, and then she got a master’s degree in Jewish education. “I was very determined to make sure that every Jewish child could go to a Jewish school, even if that child had a challenge. I felt that before I had children; I felt that even before I met my husband.”
She’s the mother of five children. The youngest two are twins, and one of them “was born hearing-impaired,” she said.
“I was trained to look at babies, and my son has a twin sister, so even in the hospital when they were born, I would be nursing the two babies, and when my husband would walk in, my daughter would look up and my son wouldn’t. At first, the doctors said that I was crazy, but my daughter has normal hearing and he has profound hearing loss.” But she knew that she was right.
“My son got his first hearing aid in 1989, when he was five weeks old,” Ms. Jacob said. “He had a box that was on his chest, with wires that went up to devices that went up to his early. We literally had to tape them onto his ears. That evolved to big behind-the-ear hearing aids, and now his hearing aids just look like Bluetooth. You almost don’t see them.”
Because the intervention was so early, Ms. Jacob’s son speaks so clearly that if you didn’t know about his deafness, you’d have no idea, she said. “I am a big proponent of early intervention, and so is my son.
“And I know that I am a much better audiologist, a much better parent, a much better non-social-worker social worker, because I know what it is like to live with a child who struggles, who is atypical, and what it is like to help that child become typical, when the world doesn’t’ always want to let them.”
When she began at Yachad, Ms. Jacob was the head of its Our Way program for the deaf and hard of hearing; eventually, “I moved into the Yachad part of Yachad, and became its educational support person,” she said. She specialized in helping “teachers and educators learn how to take your atypical students and include them in the mainstream.” She worked with cutting-edge educational theories and programs, and they were “cutting edge not just for Jewish educators,” she said. Instead, she was helping to bring these ways of thinking into the Jewish world.
She developed Yachad’s sensitivity workshops. “It’s a hands-on workshop to help students and educators learn about what it is to experience a challenge or a disability,” she said. “We bring them to different schools, camps, and other venues.
One challenge is to read a paragraph laid out so that it looks as it might to someone with dyslexia, with “some letters turned around, some words running together,” and other kinds of eye-defying changes.
“I remember my first sensitivity training,” Ms. Selevan said. “We had rubber bands on our hands, so we couldn’t stretch them, and we had to eat a bowl of cereal like that. Not clasping — that’s about fine motor skills.
“We had one participant build a house with Legos while other students were shining lights and feeding her Jello and running sandpaper — gently! — over her hands. That was the sensory bombardment that people with autism can’t filter out.”
There would be tables at these workshops, and each table would have one of these sensory challenges. “Then we would all get together, and in the feedback, we’d usually not only have classmates who said they recognized the behavior, but also some who said that they recognized it in themselves. These were neurotypical students.
“The teachers would say they understand more about what their students are feeling, and the students can better understand how to interact socially and emotionally with each other, in school or shul or camp.
“It’s easy to say that we are going to include everybody, but what does that really mean?”
Ms. Jacob began to create the workshops in 2005, when “we realized that students and teachers need it,” she said. “You can’t just lecture. I did a lot with informal and experiential education.”
She tells a story about a student who went to the workshop with the rest of his fifth-grade class. “I see that that boy doesn’t participate. He’s a little bit off. And we assigned him to a group of four, and when he went to the autism table, you could see that it made him uncomfortable.
“At the end of the workshop, I said to the group, ‘Do you want to talk about your experiences?’ And this kid raised his hand, and he said, ‘All those other guys in my groups, when you went to that autism table, you were able to walk away from it. But I can’t.
“‘What you walked away from at that autism table — that is how I live every day of my life, and I can’t walk away from it. You can walk away from it and laugh. I can’t.’
“And the principal said to me, ‘”We never heard him say anything like that before. We never understood what he was going through.’ And the principal apologized to me, and I said, ‘Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to him.’
“I am sure that every staff person has stories just like this one. Moments just like this one. That’s why we are here. Every one of us is here because of what Yachad has changed in us.”
Ms. Jacob also started and ran Yachad’s Birthright Israel programs, starting around 2000.
“We had a young woman who had autism, and was pretty nonverbal,” she said. “She had only about four or five words in her vocabulary. I really petitioned to take her on the Birthright trip.” Understandably, no one else was convinced that she would get anything from the trip; Ms. Jacob finally won and got her on one of the last trips for which she would have been eligible. She was 25, and the trip was available only to people 26 and younger.
Although she staffed many Birthright trips, Ms. Jacob was not on this one. “So 10 days later, I was waiting for the group at JFK, and all of a sudden I hear them paging me by name. ‘Batya Jacob. Batya Jacob. Please come to the security desk.’
“They said, ‘We need you to come to the luggage carousel. We have someone who will not leave the carousel until you get there.’
“I didn’t have my passport with me, and my legal name, Barbara, is on my driver’s license, so I didn’t even have ID, but they said okay, and I walked in with the TSA guy, and there is this young woman, sitting on the carousel, with tears rolling down her face, saying “Batya. I need Batya.’”
And then this young woman with the five-word vocabulary said “I have to go back to Israel. Batya will get me back to Israel. If I don’t go back to Israel now, I will never get back to Israel again.’
“I sat on the floor with her, and I said, ‘I will talk to your parents, and we will get you back to Israel. I promise you. But now we have to go to customs.’
“We got her through customs, and the next year she went back to Israel on a Yachad trip. And she is now an active member of Yachad.
“She now talks in sentences. That was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had. That trip to Israel literally changed her life.”
Throughout all these other intense programs, Ms. Jacob never dropped her concern for the deaf community. “We have a PowerPoint program — it’s visual — about Megillat Esther,” she said. That scroll is read on Purim, one of the few Jewish celebrations — Chanukah is the other — that do not forbid any acts of work or creation. Those are holidays when creativity with electronics is fine, even welcome. “We took the megillah, with the Hebrew and English side by side, and projected it. We have it in over 75 places around the world.
“It was even used on an undisclosed army base in Afghanistan, where there were soldiers who didn’t read Hebrew.”
And then, maybe six or seven years ago — covid time is fluid, Ms. Jacob agreed — “we started the hearing aid gemach. It is our best kept secret” — but she hopes that over time it will become less so.
There is a need for the gemach because “hearing aids generally are not covered by any medical insurance,” Ms. Jacob said. “The way they wrote the law, they are considered optional prosthetic devices, so they are not covered. And they generally cost between $1,000 and $6,000 an ear. This is not easy for a typical person to pay for.
“We have worked with other organizations to lobby Congress to change it, but the medical lobbies don’t want it,” she continued. “Medicare Advantage is starting to cover it, but you have to be at least 65. And some school districts will cover hearing aids, but they say that they belong to the school district, so kids put them in when they get to school, they make them give them back at the end of the day, and they send the kids home deaf.
It is not as easy to run a gemach for hearing aids as it is for, say, baby clothing.
There’s a process that most patients have to go through for new ones. “Typically, you go to an ENT to make sure the ear is healthy, and that you can get a hearing aid for it,” Ms. Jacob said. There are some conditions that a hearing aid would not help. “You have to get that medical clearance, and then you go to an audiologist or a hearing aid dealer and get fitted. Then typically you’d have a trial period, usually 30 to 45 days, to see if it gives a benefit.”
Hearing aid technology keeps evolving and improving, so many people frequently upgrade their devices.
The gemach began with a call for donated hearing aids, and built up a supply. People who need the devices get in touch with the gemach; they’re asked to send clearance from their doctors and audiograms. “I spend some time talking to the person, and I try to match to the best of my ability what they need with what we have in stock. I usually will send two types of hearing aids that they can try. They can bring them to local hearing aid dealers or audiologists. We have a list of dealers and audiologists in different parts of the country who have volunteered to work with us.”
The gemach’s work is entirely free to the user; the dealers’ and audiologists’ work is not necessarily. “But if they have to pay for a fitting change, it still is a few hundred dollars instead of thousands of dollars. And we say that anything that doesn’t work, send back to us. They can keep the one that works for as long as it works.
“We have about 75 sets of hearing aids out right now, and we are in need of donations or more hearing aids,” she continued. “We are getting one or two calls a week now. We are trying to fit as many as possible, but we definitely can use more hearing aids.”
It seems like a leap to go from people with disabilities to distributing hearing aids, but that’s not really true, Ms. Jacob said.
“Yachad’s mission is to help everyone in the Jewish community belong to the community, despite any disabilities or challenges that they might have. And it’s just as important to connect people with hearing issues so they can be part of the Jewish community as anyone with any other disability. This hearing aid gemach helps those individuals connect to their community.”
And that — helping people with a wide range of disabilities connect to the Jewish community, nonjudgmentally, experientially, sensitively, with heart and soul — is exactly what Yachad does.
Who: Yachad New Jersey
What: Celebrates the end of a hard year and the beginning of a new one at its gala dinner
When: On January 8 at 8 p.m.
Where: At Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck
To learn more, register, or donate: Go to www.yachad.org/newjersey/gala