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, 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 10-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
“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.”
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.”
“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.
By Batya Rosner