No matter the age, no matter the disability, taking care of needs and creating a feeling of belonging
By Ilan Preskovsky
Established in 1983 as a reaction to the fact that special needs children were left out of the social recreational programmes that most Jewish children enjoyed, Yachad – the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, an agency of the Orthodox Union – is a US-based, global organisation that has since expanded its sights considerably, but has always worked around the simple, if hardly easy, goal of “addressing the needs of all Jewish individuals with disabilities and ensuring their inclusion in every aspect of Jewish life”.
Certain aspects of Yachad bear more than a passing resemblance to some of our own much beloved chesed organisations, but what impresses most about this particular organisation is the sheer scope of the services it offers for Jewish children and adults with special needs. With a focus on providing for the specific needs of Jews with disabilities and in integrating them into their wider Jewish community, Yachad provides services that include, but are certainly not limited to: counselling services for individuals and families, parental and sibling support groups, day rehabilitation programmes, weekend getaways, summer camps, special needs yeshivas, and even Birthright trips to Israel.
Specifically, as a direct response to why the organisation was originally founded, Yachad is dedicated to giving Jews with disabilities the chance for normalcy by participating in events that are not normally accessible to them. Not only does this allow adults and children with disabilities from Jewish communities across America to enjoy the life-changing benefits of something like a Birthright tour to Israel or some time in a Yeshiva, while having their particular needs catered for throughout, but simpler things like dating are dealt with head-on through courses offered by Yachad on inter-personal relationships.
By the same token, Yachad understands the need to address the often complicated, even volatile relationships that occur between individuals with special-needs and their immediate family, through counselling that offers support for the families themselves, teaching them how to best deal with the particular card they have been dealt, as well as courses that are engineered around teaching the individual living with a disability and their so-called “neurotypical” families to communicate better, with the latter, in particular, gaining insights in how to relate to someone close to them who deviates from what is considered the norm.
In terms of communal integration – beyond the family or immediate social system – Yachad is no less impressive, as it works both in providing their participants with skills and abilities to join the wider community and, perhaps most ingenious of all, they work extensively to ensure that communities are set up to be as inclusive as possible for people with special needs. As such, while they provide services such as social skills development, job placement, and vocational training on the one hand, they also lobby for pro-disability legislation on local, state, and federal levels, work with universities and schools to develop leadership programmes, and generally create an inclusive, pro-disability environment in communities throughout the US, Israel, and Canada.
Needless to say, “disability” is a rather broad term, even if applied purely to mental or emotional disorders and differences, so the way that Yachad deals with each individual varies from case to case, but, on a more general level, they work with three different age groups, each requiring massively different care, opportunities, and integration courses. The three different groups are Junior Yachad (aged 8 to 15), Senior Yachad (aged 16 to 25), and Rayim Yachad (aged 26 and above), and though there is some overlap, the three groups are distinct enough that the programmes and services that Yachad offers them are created to cater to the often wildly different needs of these age groups.
As a non-profit organisation, Yachad works largely off donations, crowd-sourcing funding, personal solicitations, and fund raising through events like Team Yachad Marathons. Yachad caters primarily to the needs of Jews with disabilities throughout North America, but also has a truly global reach in terms of resources – be it financial or practical. The organisation is run through a combination of volunteers and paid experts in various fields to ensure that it has both the financial stability and the man/brain power to become only more and more effective as “the only Jewish organisation whose mission is inclusion, the benefit that accrues to everyone in Jewish communities” across America. For more information, visit: https://www.yachad.org/