July 16, 2024
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Reflections on Yachad’s Year-Round Inclusion Activities

Summer. It’s August 2014. My husband and I are awaiting the return flight of Yad B’Yad (YBY) Trip One. Newark Airport at any time, but especially in the summer, is a strange place to be. It occurs to me that there is a certain level of “airport accepted rudeness” that may very well earn one a black eye if practiced in the real world. Pushing and shoving are the status quo. It’s a “me first” mentality, and if you can’t keep up with the pack, you had better get out of the way. There are important business meetings to make, or loving families to get back to. Maybe a family is finally taking that long-awaited vacation. Whatever the reason, everyone is in a hurry, and everyone seems a little anxious.

We are waiting for Jacob, our 16-year-old son, to return from a four-week trip. This is our family’s first experience with Yachad, and so we are a little anxious ourselves. A month is a long time, and we don’t know what to expect. We begin to see teenagers trickle through the crowd. I don’t see Jacob, so I continue to roam through the crowd. I hear one man comment, “Oh great, a camp trip,” as he realizes that the number of teens wearing YBY shirts is growing rapidly. I am watching for more irritated looks, but they don’t come.

Instead, there are smiles, then pointing, and even some tears. The YBYers are singing. They are hugging each other and taking countless photos. I spot one group, singing and giggling loudly, in what seems to be a huddle. I wave to my husband, directing him to where this group has planted themselves. I know this is the spot we are meant to end up in. The group grows larger and the singing louder, but we find our way to the center of the circle, and to Jacob. We watch, unnoticed for a few minutes, as camper after camper bends down to hug Jacob. When he finally does notice us, he is beaming. It’s as if he is 10 feet tall, instead of in his wheelchair, the reason everyone has to bend down.

The pace and the attitude in the airport feel different. Bystanders are staring, no longer in a hurry. They are mesmerized by this group of teenagers and young adults. They see typical and special needs participants of one program and they have questions. They are impressed, and they should be. Special needs programs are amazing to watch. Jacob has participated in many over the years. But because this is not our “first time to the rodeo,” we think we know what to expect. All these sobbing teens will take Jacob’s contact information. They may even call once or twice. But that will be the end of it. Maybe he will see them again next summer, or maybe he won’t. We will likely never learn their names. They are kids getting in their school “chesed (acts of kindness) hours” over the summer, now caught up in the emotions of camp ending.

I am not sure how to define my emotions of the moment. I am thrilled Jacob had a good time, but heartbroken over the good times he will miss out on as these kids have their reunions and gatherings in days to come. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We could never have imagined what lay ahead for Jacob and this group.

We should have been tipped off by the fact that his cell phone buzzed, rang, tweeted and made every other sound possible, nonstop, from the moment we pulled into our driveway. While those days between summer ending and school starting were a blur, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty, that at least one of my kids (Jacob!) was busy every single day. It was almost as if Jacob hadn’t come back from his trip at all! What had changed was that our family started growing…

We knew and loved Yitzi long before YBY; now, over a year later, we are proud to count Jonathan, Avi, Meir, Yossi, Zach, Talia, Tamar and Kayla, and even non-“Teaneckers” Jake, Harrison, Zev, Matthew Eitan and Rafi as family. These names are mentioned more often than most others in our home!

They are still hanging out together almost every Shabbat, often picking Jacob up after dinner on Friday night and bringing him home long after we are sleeping. That means, in addition to helping him get access to wherever they are hanging out, they are helping him get ready for and into bed. Shabbat day may be lunch together, or chilling in the afternoon. They hang out after school as well, sometimes it’s dinner in Los Angeles via FaceTime or Jacob cheering on his friends’ various sports teams. Many of them go to Teen Minyan together. They hit the bowling alley or the movie theater, and lately they have decided to start a workout campaign at the park. Basically, Jacob is just one of the crowd.

To any person reading this, these activities may sound mediocre at best. Let me explain two things: First, when you are a kid and your time is filled with activities such as these, it means you are part of a social group and have friends. Second, when you are even the slightest bit “different,” you often are not included in these mundane activities. Nothing hurts a child, or parent, more than being left out. Exclusion. That’s why Yachad’s message of inclusion is so crucial.

Winter. One of the highlights of our time so far with Yachad came last winter. Jacob has forged amazing bonds with YBY staff members. He is especially close with Jonathan, who asked Jacob to compete alongside him with Team Yachad in last year’s Miami Half-Marathon. Our family joined Yachad for Shabbat, and my husband, Hillel, ran as well. It was truly a memorable experience to have shared with Jacob and many of his YBY friends. It was an unbelievable opportunity for our family to be able to work on a tzedakah (charity) project together, for a cause that we all could relate to. We were especially lucky to be able to hear this year’s Yachad Joel Daner Fellow, Amanda Parker of Englewood, speak over Shabbat. That was something we will always be grateful for. Jacob didn’t have to train too hard—although we tried to keep him from eating too many hot dogs—we didn’t want Jon to have too much weight to push!

Our younger boys were less than thrilled about waking up so early on the big day, and it was not so easy to wait the many long hours on the sidelines while the runners worked so hard. Jonathan had told us many times that he wanted Jacob to cross the finish line on his own two feet. Living with Jacob, and not seeing him even use a walker in years, made us wary of this plan.

As Jacob’s friends crossed the finish line, we saw them whispering with the marathon officials and then sitting down on the sidelines. Hours seemed to drag by. Finally, Jon and Jacob were in sight. Suddenly, Jacob’s crew were up and making their way to him. As they neared the finish line, Jon stopped the stroller. Jacob was now up and on his feet. Hillel was at his side, and his friends and the entire crowd at the finish line were yelling and clapping all around him. From the sidelines, Jacob’s brothers and I were screaming “GO JACOB!!!!” And there he went. Across the finish line. On his own two feet…with many extra helping hands, kulanu b’yachad—we are all together as one!

Debby Adler writes from Teaneck.

By Debby Adler

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