Friday, June 02, 2023

As a therapist who specializes in working with young adults with learning differences, I know first-hand the challenges that they can face in finding community and professional success. Difficulties reading social cues and understanding workplace norms, as well as knowing if, how, and when to disclose are also prevalent. Needless to say, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem can accompany these challenges. Jewish young adults have a variety of communities available to them, including Moshe House and Mesorah, Jewish communal spaces where they can celebrate Shabbat, establish friendships and generally connect with their Jewish identity, with the former including a residential component. However, for those with learning differences, there may be challenges in establishing social connections within these groups, ultimately leading to a greater likelihood of dropping out and losing connection with one’s Jewish identity. As a therapist, there are certain steps I take to help these individuals develop social skills, thrive at work and successfully connect to others within the Jewish community. I argue that it is critical that young adults with learning differences within the Jewish community receive the support they need, not only for finding social and professional success, but also for maintaining a connection within the Jewish community.

Before describing my work with young adults, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that there have been considerable improvements in inclusion and support for children and adolescents with learning differences in the Jewish community, including among the Modern Orthodox. The Jewish social worker and educator Howard Blas acknowledged a greater variety of special education options for these families, specifically mentioning the Yeshiva Education for Special Students (YESS) (Blas, 2009). The Shefah School in Manhattan also has an excellent reputation. Blas also stated that summer camps are becoming more inclusive, such as the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah, an immersion experience for campers with special needs. However, the question is what happens when these individuals become young adults, when they lose the supports that they have become accustomed to? How do they remain connected to the Jewish community? A competent therapist who is also aware of the importance of Jewish identity in the young person can also make a significant difference.

In describing the possible benefits of therapy, I would like to illustrate an example from my practice. I worked with a young man on the autism spectrum who had recently graduated from college, but felt incredibly isolated due to the fact that he was continuing to live with his family, had few friends and was unable to maintain employment. I validated his frustration regarding his situation, but also began to explore with him different strategies for finding a job and creating more friendships. I felt that I had tried everything to help him, including heling him to meet people in the secular community and taking advantage of different job training programs. However, when it became clear that these strategies were not working, I began to take a different approach by considering how I could help him integrate into the Jewish community in New York City. Although he described feeling somewhat anxious in social situations, he did describe feeling more relaxed in predominantly Jewish spaces.

I engaged him in thinking about an upcoming trip to Israel that was being planned by his synagogue, during which he explored with the other participants where he would like to visit in the country. My therapy consisted of developing a few different strategies for establishing friendships, including role-playing strategies that included reading body language and identifying pauses that would allow him to join a conversation. We also worked on how he could best share his interests with those around him, such as by asking questions about their interests to see if there was common ground. During the planning process of the trip to Israel, he explored with the other participants where he would like to visit in the country and why. By the end of the program, he was able to identify a minimum of three new friends before his trip, which I praised him for. I was glad to see him reconnect with the Jewish community. It bears mentioning that once he was able to find a job, he was able to apply some of the social skills he had learned to better connect with his colleagues, as well as to develop an organizational system. Interestingly enough, he also reported that his contacts in this Jewish organization did help him in finding a job as well.

Young adulthood involves significant changes in one’s life circumstances. For Jewish young adults, a variety of different organizations are available that provide a sense of community and at times, even professional connections and opportunities. However, for young adults with learning differences these resources can be a challenge to access. Therefore, effective psychotherapy and coaching that is sensitive to the Jewish identity of this young individual and helps him or her to reintegrate into the Jewish community, is an essential service that can make a significant difference in the lives of many young adults. Please feel free to call me if you would like to find out more about my services.

By Benjamin Meyer

Benjamin Meyer, LCSW, is a bilingual psychotherapist and coach with years of experience helping young adults with learning differences adapt to employment and social demands post-college. He has specialized in Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD), a condition that consists of a discrepancy between strong verbal and weaker visual spatial skills and he was selected as an ambassador for the NVLD project. He also works with individuals on the autism spectrum and has published multiple articles regarding the needs of young adults with learning differences. As a Jewish young adult, he is aware of the importance of finding and connecting with Jewish community and he would like to help others do the same. His office is located at 786 Grange Road, Teaneck, NJ 07666, and he can also be contacted at [email protected] and 347-768-3909. He offers a complimentary 15-minute phone conversation for those interested in his services.

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