Recently, I was privileged to participate in an inspiring, unforgettable and first of its kind Shabbaton. On February 23-24, 2018, the inaugural Shabbaton for Chicago Yachad’s “GO b’Yachad” chapter was hosted by the West Rogers Park community of Chicago and Congregation Shaarei Tzedek Mishkan Yair.

Yachad is an organization dedicated to bringing inclusion into the Jewish community by providing social and recreational opportunities for children, teens and adults with special needs. Coeducational activities take place during the week, in addition to Shabbatonim which are often hosted by the community. The participants include those with special needs (the Yachad members), as well as mainstream children and teenager, ranging in age from sixth grade through high school.

“This taught us that inclusivity is often more than meets the eye.”

“Yachad’s programming has traditionally been co-ed, as that seemed to be the logical way to be the most inclusive and mirrored a ‘real world’ experience. However, there were some segments of the Jewish community – applicable to our mainstream peers as well as our Yachad members – who did not participate because of this very reason. This taught us that inclusivity is often more than meets the eye, and with the support and encouragement of some of our High School Advisory board members, GO b’Yachad was born,” explains Elliot Cohen, director of Chicago Yachad.

Yachad members and peers at GO b’Yachad’s kickoff event. Courtesy of Yachad Chicago.

GO b’Yachad, a female-only program is a newly founded initiative of Chicago Yachad. The program aims to provide an opportunity to girls who do not wish to participate in coeducational activities (although all girls from the community are welcome). The Yachad members who have disabilities and their typically developing peers participate together in recreational activities and Shabbatonim, which provide opportunities to meet new people, make friends and have fun in a fully inclusive environment.

Spending time with special needs teens and adults gave me a better understanding of how important the Shabbatonim and opportunities for inclusion are to the members.

For the inaugural Shabbaton, special needs members included 10 teens and young women who have previously participated in Chicago Yachad, along with one new member. One young woman even came in from Milwaukee, especially for this Shabbaton! Peers included 20 teenage girls, many of them new to Yachad, from Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov High School and Ida Crown Jewish Academy.

This Shabbaton had a Disney theme that was incorporated into many games throughout the day. Some games included: “Fee Fi Fo Fum,” a “guess-who” game with Disney characters, identifying lyrics from a Disney song and singing it and singing Disney songs as “music” to play musical chairs. There were also many traditional Yachad Shabbaton activities, which were enjoyed by all. At an Oneg (gathering) on Friday night, while enjoying delicious snacks, girls took turns suggesting Jewish songs to sing—and even a Disney song or two. On Shabbat afternoon, after having menucha (rest) “b’yachad” at the shul, everyone walked to the home of a family in the community to enjoy Shalosh Seudot (third meal), which culminated with more inspirational singing and Havdalah in the moving “Yachad style.”

Spending time with special needs teens and adults gave me a better understanding of how important the Shabbatonim and opportunities for inclusion are to the members. Not to mention the rewarding feeling I had after participating in a Yachad Shabbaton. I felt elated on Saturday night when I overheard Yachad members ask, “When is the next Shabbaton?” and “Is the Shabbaton over already?!”

After this incredible Shabbaton, both the Yachad members and peers left inspired. Why was this Shabbaton so special, besides for it being the inaugural GO b’Yachad Shabbaton? I think, and many others have acquiesced, that the ruach (spirit) was exceptional. I hope that this extraordinary ruach will continue in many more Shabbatonim to come.

Meira Tova Cohen is a sophomore at Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov High School in Chicago, IL.

Author Note: A special thanks to Chicago Yachad Director Elliot Cohen and former Program Coordinator Molly Rissien for organizing the Shabbaton and for assistance with some details for this article.