Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah partners with The National Jewish Council for Disabilities and the Orthodox Union to house the first Yachad chapter in the Greater Washington area. The kick off of the new Yachad chapter took place at Beth Sholom’s annual Disabilities Awareness Shabbaton February 24th-25th.
Maharat Dasi Fruchter, the assistant spiritual leader, in a letter to Shabbaton attendees explained Yachad’s mission. She said, “Yachad…ensures those with diverse abilities (have) their rightful place within the Jewish Community, while helping to educate and advocate for a greater understanding, acceptance, outreach and a pro-disability attitude…”
Yachad trains shuls to to develop structures where everyone – regardless of ability – is part of the fabric of the community rather than having separate programs, as the tagline for Yachad declares, “Because everyone belongs.” All area shuls and communities were invited to attend. Teens and adults came to participate from fourteen shuls and residents came from the Jewish Foundations for Group Homes. Over the Shabbaton, in addition to participating in group activities, Yachad members gave d’vrei Torah and led aspects of the davening.
After a ruach filled davening and community Shabbat dinner, Yossi Szpigiel, the National coordinator for Yachad, led the community in active, high energy games and songs. He said, “One of the most important goals of a Yachad program is to level the social playing field.” Over the course of the year, Szpigiel will help Beth Sholom coordinate programming, provide sensitivity trainings, and lay the foundations for a full time chapter.
In one rocking song, Szpigiel called on new and old friends to lead their own renditions of “Boom Chicka Boom.” Each rendition was unique. One participant led the song while enthusiastically jumping, another stood on a chair and led the chant with a whisper. Szpigel explained that his role as facilitator is to, “encourage everyone to participate, not just our Yachad members, but also our high school schoolers and community members.”
Fruchter said it was satisfying to see the, “neuro-typical participants not caring what other people thought of them, that the presence of Yachad created a different kind of community. Getting up and being silly equalizes us on some level. There was no wrong way to be.”
Fruchter received training at Yeshivat Maharat, a school that gives Smicha and trains women to be spiritual leaders for the Orthodox Community. While at Yeshivat Maharat, Fruchter trained with Shelley Cohen, the main speaker at the Shabbaton who spoke on why inclusion of those with disabilities is an obligation, not a kindness. Cohen is the Founder and Director of The Jewish Inclusion Project, which develops and conducts Disability Inclusion Training Programs for Rabbinic Students and Jewish Leaders.
Fruchter explained that the training included studying pertinent halacha, case studies, and theology relating to and regarding those with disabilities. She said she is sensitive to those on the outskirts of the community and when she came to Beth Sholom she, “brought a perspective from the other side of the mehitzah. I have an ear for people with disabilities, for LGBT, for anyone not in the dominant group.”
According to Rabbi Antine, senior rabbi of Beth Sholom, the plans for creating a Yachad chapter at Beth Sholom had been in the works for several years. With the Shabbaton in its third year, Beth Sholom is actualizing the dream to start the Yachad chapter. When Antine, Fruchter, and members of the Beth Sholom inclusion committee met with Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, the International Director of Yachad, to discuss opening a Yachad chapter, he expressed his surprise because he explained that normally, “It’s families that have a child with special needs or professionals working with individuals who have disabilities that reach out to us about opening a chapter or providing services.” He noted that mainstream communities do not typically reach out to Yachad to start a chapter, so in that way Beth Sholom is unique.
Chad Freeman, member of the the Beth Sholom inclusion committee, whose daughter has Myotonic Dystrophy, a milder disability that does allow her to more easily engage socially with peers, said there is a need for Yachad because, “many kids with disabilities suffer in silence from lack of social activity.” He noted that those with special needs “are frequently not invited to birthday parties, (and that) playdates are a struggle and most often initiated by the special needs parent.” He said part of his mission is, “to break down barriers” because inclusion does not just benefit families who have children with special needs, “but it should be a beacon of transformation for ‘mainstream families’ such that neuro-typical children and especially their parents, come to embrace a true behavioral shift in their approach to inclusion and integration.”
Josh Rubin, a sixteen year old Beth Sholom member and member of Yachad, had several participants and Yachad advisors stay at his house for the Shabbaton, and he said he liked having them over because, “they were nice and wanted to come back.” Josh’s mother, Nancy Rubin, who spoke on a panel of parents who have a child with a disability during the Shabbaton, said her son is “eager to have more activities…He just likes to be with people.”