Thursday, February 25, 2021

On Motzei Shabbat, January 9, Yachad New Jersey will host its annual gala, celebrating exceptional honorees and the entire Yachad community dedicated to enriching the lives of Jewish individuals with developmental disabilities. The event will take place virtually to maintain the safety of all participants, and while it might look different this year, it promises to be as meaningful as always.

At a time when so many of us are feeling isolated, Yachad has worked harder than ever to bring people together. New Jersey Director Raquel (Rocky) Selevan said despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, the organization has managed to grow its programming, finding creative ways to continue providing the community with the services they want and need.

Yachad, which is run by the Orthodox Union, is open to everyone who can benefit from it, whether as a member or as a volunteer. The special needs participants and the volunteers often develop close friendships, and even now with most in-person events cancelled or limited, these relationships continue to flourish through different platforms that Selevan and the dedicated Yachad staff have developed.

At The Mendel Balk Yachad Center on Cedar Lane, the hub for the Yachad community in and around Teaneck, programming pre-pandemic was taking place four afternoons and evenings a week. “In response to COVID-19 we immediately adjusted to virtual programming,” said Selevan, who sees a silver lining to the pandemic. With virtual programming, all regions of Yachad have access to more than 50 programs a week, allowing participants to register for whatever they like and connect with people throughout the country and in Israel. It’s called Yachad on Demand, and according to Selevan, it has opened up opportunities for members and volunteers to bond with an even greater network of people.

While virtual programs are an excellent resource, not everyone loves to Zoom. Selevan understands that and has therefore made sure to provide alternatives. “We started sending home project boxes that we use as a group virtually,” she said, “but for those who prefer not to Zoom, they have a tangible project that can be done independently as well.” Yachad recently distributed a Chanukah box that included Chanukah swag, divrei Torah, song sheets and family games meant to “bring home the festive cheer.”

On Monday nights, Yachad New Jersey partners with local schools in the area to host a virtual game night. The event is hosted by Yachad New Jersey but is open to participants on a regional level. For Selevan, it is the highlight of her week. “Game night has allowed us to involve the community with Yachad and have the community involve us,” she said, and added that communal connection is an essential part of the Yachad model.

Another new initiative she is excited about is the Shabbat program or Shabbos b’Yachad. Twice a month, participants are invited to an outdoor location where they can enjoy singing, learning and an opportunity to socialize with one another. The idea is to create a COVID-safe environment where members can join together and enjoy the Shabbat experience as they normally would at shabbatonim throughout the year.

The theme of this year’s gala embraces the beauty of a Yachad Shabbat. Throughout a typical year, Yachad hosts numerous shabbatonim, which have become an integral part of the communities’ annual calendar. “Yachad Families, volunteers and hosts all look forward to these shabbatonim,” said Selevan, “so we wanted to bring the experience home for them.”

Leading up the event, those who donated $180 or more received the Koren Yachad Siddur. Honoree Rabbi Dr. Benjy Leibowitz, together with his colleague Michael Adler, who has worked with Yachad in New York, wrote the translation/commentary, a project that involved rethinking the ordinary siddur layout and English contents. While the Hebrew text remained untouched, the siddur includes an English “conceptual translation” that began with a blank word document, a commentary focused on explaining major themes in the siddur, and new discreet visual aids to allow for easier navigation. The siddur, which was published by Koren Publishers and OU Press, is the basis to a new virtual learning program Yachad New Jersey is soon to launch.

Those who donated $360 or more received the siddur along with a Shabbat box that included wine, challah, a charcuterie board, dessert, a Havdalah card and a Yachad shabbaton song sheet.

The Motzei Shabbat gala will begin with an inspiring musical Havdalah and mini concert with Simcha Leiner followed by a special video tribute program to honor those who have made a difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities. There will also be special presentations to high school seniors who have demonstrated a strong commitment to Yachad by volunteering at ongoing programs at The Mendel Balk Yachad Center.

The organization will bestow its Women’s Leadership Award on “Coach Gila” Guzman, who for the past few years has been teaching healthy eating and cooking to the participants in Yachad’s adult day program. Guzman enjoys international renown for her popular private and group coaching programs. In addition to teaching nutrition and healthy cooking classes at Ma’ayanot High School for Girls in Teaneck, she is the in-house nutrition coach at Grand and Essex in Bergenfield and has her own line of “Coach Gila-approved” healthy takeout food at the store. She also serves as the nutritional specialist at Camp Mesorah, where she has worked with many of the Yachad participants who attend Yachad’s summer programs on its campus.

“I had the privilege to teach nutrition and cooking classes at Yachad for many years and can say that I left each class feeling inspired,” said Guzman. “While we chopped, stirred and cooked we not only talked about nutrition concepts but we talked about so much more. The participants greeted me with huge smiles, and we got right down to the business of sharing what was going on in our lives.”

Even as a teen, Guzman remembers being that person who always said hello and acknowledged those around her. “I recognized from early on that everyone wants to be included,” she said. “Teaching at Yachad has inspired me to continue raising awareness in my community that everyone matters; everyone has something meaningful to contribute. I may have been the teacher but I consider everyone, my co-workers and the participants, my dear friends.”

Rabbi and Shifra Leibowitz will receive the Young Leadership Award for their years of commitment to Yachad, most recently serving as co-directors of Yachad’s Morris Sandelbaum Fellowship Program. Previously, Rabbi Leibowitz has served as the boys’ head counselor for Camp Morasha Yachad and later as its director of vocational programming. He has also served as a coordinator in the senior division of Yachad New York, and has helped co-edit the Yachad Siddur, the first of its kind geared towards making tefillah more inclusive for those with disabilities.

“It is a true honor to be given the opportunity to help raise funds for an organization that is so important for the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Leibowitz. “Beyond the obvious impact Yachad has for participants and their families, providing a platform for social, vocational and religious success within the Jewish community, Yachad has been and continues to be transformative for our family and the Jewish community at large. Over the many years of involvement and speaking with hundreds of teenager and college-aged Yachad volunteers, it has been heartwarming and inspirational to witness the observable growth in sensitivity, maturity and responsibility of those involved with Yachad.”

Later in the evening, there will be a tribute to Donny Hain, z”l, a beloved and longtime Yachad participant who passed away this past spring. Hain grew up in Teaneck, and participated in Yachad shabbatonim, summer programs and the adult day program at The Mendel Balk Yachad Center.

“Our first exposure to Yachad was at a family shabbaton,” recalled Donny’s mother, Bunny Hain. “We immediately felt at home and met other families like us.” Through the years, Yachad provided invaluable support for the Hain family, with sibling groups and parent groups that brought them closer to others who had similar life experiences. Donny loved everything about Yachad and always received the chizuk he needed from the staff and volunteers who became like family to him. “Donny was never turned away,” said Hain and for that she is eternally grateful to the organization and its leadership.

The program will include a special dedication of The Donny Hain (z”l) Yachad Center Lounge at Yachad’s offices in Teaneck.

The gala will take place on January 9 at 8 p.m. To register or to donate, please go to www.yachad.org/njgala20.

By Andrea Nissel