For many Jewish young adults, a gap year in Israel is a rite of passage. It can be a critical part of their personal growth and engagement with the Jewish people. Some people prefer to do service opportunities like MASA Israel and others like to do more study. It’s customary, especially among Orthodox populations, to mark the transition from high school to college with a year studying in a yeshiva in the Holy Land. But until visionary founding director Elana Goldscheider partnered with Ohr Torah Stone to found Darkaynu in 2003, there was no program specifically geared to helping students with disabilities access this vital experience.

Darkaynu gives students with disabilities an Israel gap-year trip of a lifetime while enabling its participants to be included in a larger community of non-disabled young adults. As a disability rights activist who is committed to both the Jewish community and Israel, I have long stressed the importance of recognizing that people living with disabilities are equal to everyone in the eyes of G-d. But too often, that is not reflected in our religious communities and institutions, with too many still not taking the extra step to include people living with special needs in their institutions and programs. Thus, I think many can learn from Darkaynu.

Run by the Ohr Torah Stone (OTS) network, the Elaine and Norm Brodsky Darkaynu Program brings Jewish students living with disabilities to Israel for a gap-year experience of religious study. In the men’s and women’s sessions, located in separate locations in Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, Darkaynu students live on the same campus and share many activities with their mainstreamed peers. Avi Ganz, the director of Yeshivat Darkaynu for young men, described the program’s approach as “side-streaming.” “Our students live in the same dormitories as other students and can experience the excitement of being on a campus with many other young people, but we develop a modified gap-year experience to meet their specific needs,” he explains.

Most days for Darkaynu students are spent doing a mix of text and religious study, acquiring new life skills, volunteering in the area and receiving vocational training. These students also take regular field trips around Israel, forming happy memories and meaningful friendships that will long remind them of their time abroad. For many participants, it’s the first time they’re separated from their families for an extended period. Thus, Darkaynu pairs them with adoptive families during their stays in Israel, hosting the student for weekly dinners and the occasional Shabbat and providing emotional support.

“Many of the students really bond with their adoptive families, and will continue to exchange letters and phone calls with them for years to come. It’s a great way of connecting our students with some extra support, and helping them make concrete connections in Israel,” Ganz said.

Ganz, who has been working with people with disabilities in both the U.S. and Israel for close to 20 years, says that the Jewish values of tzedakah and tikkun olam are what inform his and Ohr Torah Stone’s work on Darkaynu. “The word darkaynu means ‘our way,'” says Ganz, “and our program’s name subtly implies that our students and all people with disabilities can do what typical people can do – but often do so in their own, unique way.”

“Jewish groups around the globe are remarkably accepting of individuals with disabilities, but they are not always inclusive,” he explained further. “There is a propensity toward giving to, instead of sharing with and learning from people with disabilities, and at Darkaynu we do just that. Students give back to their communities at weekly chesed activities, study relevant and meaningful Torah with their Darkaynu peers as well as with their mainstream daily study partners. This results in a campus community which reaps the real-time reward of an inclusive society.”

How can you get involved? Well, if you are a young adult with a disability or have a son or daughter living with a disability who also enjoys Jewish study, check out the program. Maybe it works for your child and your family. If the program is not for you or your family member,  you can still cheer on people with disabilities as they participate in the Jerusalem Marathon.

At RespectAbility, we are constantly looking to elevate the work of groups that raise awareness of and increase access for people living with the disabilities. We can all learn from each other’s success. Ohr Torah Stone’s Darkaynu is the real deal, and one that other institutions and initiatives in our community could stand to emulate.

For students with disabilities, gap year should be like that of others: a gap between high school and college. However, not enough students with disabilities are going to college. Indeed, today only 7% of students with disabilities complete college, which limits their career capabilities. Many more colleges now offer strong supports for students with a wide range of disabilities. You can learn more about the options from the following:

  • National Center for College Students with Disabilities(NCCSD) is a federally funded project under the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Disability Rights, Education Activism and Mentoring (DREAM) is a national organization for and by college students with disabilities. DREAM advocated for disability culture, community and pride, and hopes to serve as an online virtual disability cultural center for students who want to connect with other students. They are supported by sponsoring organization National Center for College Students with Disabilities (NCCSD) and based at the Association on Higher Education And Disability (AHEAD).
  •  Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) is a professional membership organization for individuals involved in the development of policy and in the provision of quality services to meet the needs of persons with disabilities involved in all areas of higher education.
  • Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability (CPED) is a national leader in promoting access to postsecondary education for students with disabilities. Their work combines research-based evidence and professional training to inform the field and advance postsecondary education opportunities for students.
  • Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) is dedicated to empowering people with disabilities through technology and education. It promotes awareness and accessibility-in both the classroom and the workplace-to maximize the potential of individuals with disabilities and make our communities more vibrant, diverse and inclusive.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the president of www.RespectAbility.org<http://www.RespectABility.org>, a nonprofit organization fighting to end stigmas and advance opportunities for people with disabilities. Dyslexic herself, she also knows what it means to be the proud parent of a child with multiple disabilities.