Yachad Receives Ruderman Foundation Grant, Plans to Expand

  • Written by AMY FORMAN
  • Thursday, November 21, 2013 - 06:00
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Joel Taubman and Kayla Shatz at Yachad’s apple picking outing at Belkin Family’s Look Out Farm.
Joel Taubman and Kayla Shatz at Yachad’s apple picking outing at Belkin Family’s Look Out Farm.

Jewish Journal Staff

BOSTON —With the promise of a significant grant earlier this month, Hanukkah arrived early for Liz Offen, director of New England Yachad, an organization dedicated to enhancing the life opportunities of individuals with disabilities and promoting their inclusion in the Jewish community. A $50,000 grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation, and a partial match from Yachad’s national branch, will provide the necessary funding for the fledgling local chapter to expand its reach wider into the Greater Boston area and beyond, ensuring the chapter’s sustainability.

"Yachad’s work embodies the core belief of our foundation that ‘including each is strengthening all,’ " said Sharon Shapiro, a trustee of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which supports programs and partnerships that advocate for and advance the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the Jewish community.

"The Ruderman Family Foundation and Yachad have been leading the way within the broad Jewish community of promoting inclusion for Jews living with a disability," said Yachad International Director Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, who added that the grant "validates the tremendous need for Yachad in the Jewish community." A division of the Orthodox Union, Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, welcomes all denominations. Fifty-five chapters across North America and Israel offer a variety of programs with local partners, as well as summer camps and Israel trips. Recent Boston-area programs have included apple picking, holiday celebrations, parsha and pizza, and trips for bowling and mini golf.

Plans were already underway for Yachad’s expansion into the North Shore. In September, a kickoff Simchat Torah celebration was held at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly for the new North Shore Yachad Club. The Ruderman Foundation grant will fund a part-time coordinator to implement North Shore programs, and will allow Yachad to offer similar opportunities on the South Shore and in Metrowest.

At its core, Yachad is an inclusion program allowing those with disabilities to participate in activities with peers.

"It is about doing things together, making friends and building relationships," Offen said. "Young people with disabilities are often socially challenged and isolated. Doing activities side by side creates a common history."

The majority of peer participants are drawn from school based clubs, thus far from Gann Academy, Maimonides and the Binah School. Yachad hopes to connect with other day schools, middle schools and youth organizations such as North Shore Teen Initiative and Prozdor. Last year, Yachad hosted a Shabbaton at Brandeis University. Offen hopes to organize Hillel-based Yachad clubs at the college level to build peer relationships for young adults with disabilities to focus on building life skills leading to employability and independence.

With a background in Jewish education as an inclusion specialist, a teacher at Gateways Access to Jewish Education, and a Hebrew schoolteacher and b’nai mitzvah tutor for students with disabilities, Offen understands the challenges faced by the disability community, and she has a knack for creating appropriate opportunities. She has recently helped Camp Limmud enroll children with disabilities in its program for the first time, and has worked with coordinators to set aside a block of seats at the Shlomo Katz Concert for her Yachad group.

"No one actively turns away individuals with disabilities," Offen said, "but often they forget to include us. So I frequently ask rabbis, lay leaders and community organizers to invite us to their programs and try to make it as easy as possible by handling all the logistics."

Those social and recreational opportunities are greatly appreciated by families who often feel a void.

"Yachad has changed our lives," said Ruthie Liberman, mother of 20-year-old Aaron, who has special needs. "Aaron is a young man who loves being Jewish. He has a very strong Jewish identity, but he hasn’t had the opportunity to go to Jewish camp. It means a lot to be able to send him to Jewish activities. Ever since Yachad came around, there is no shortage of things to do. It is such a relief. He is getting a chance to develop a Jewish community. He sees the same people over and over. It is something he really loves."

The thrill of enjoying social opportunities offered through Yachad is shared by 29-year-old Jonathan Spiller (see sidebar), who has special needs.

"I love Yachad because it is a very supportive environment. No one judges me," he said via email. "Yachad has changed my life because it has given me more confidence to talk to new people and introduce myself at Yachad events and tell them about my photography. What makes Yachad so special is that high school students … help out at the events, and form bonds with members of Yachad, including me. They give advice, and are always there for me if I want to talk about things."

Peer participants are quick to cite the rewards of their own participation. Longtime peer participant Yael Green of Brookline said empathy is at the top of the list.

The Ruderman grant will go a long way in expanding Yachad Club opportunities in the area since there remain significant gaps in social and recreational programming for children, teens and young adults with disabilities and their families, especially outside the Route 128 belt.

"There is definitely a lack on the North Shore," said Beverly’s Judy Wittenberg, mother of a 10-year-old son with special needs. "Kids on the North Shore will really benefit from the opportunity to socialize and enjoy community outings without having to travel too far."

"The idea of creating an ever growing network of Jewish programming for the disability and non-disability community to come together is my dream," says Offen. "It is really not about disability. It is actually about the Jewish community and bringing people together."

Yachad will host two Hanukkah parties at Young Israel of Brookline – one for children and families on December 1 from 5:30-7:30 p.m., and one for teens and young adults on December 7 from 7-9 p.m. For more information about Yachad, contact Liz Offen at bostonyachad@ ou.org.

Last modified on Thursday, November 21, 2013 - 06:00

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Joel Taubman and Kayla Shatz at Yachad’s apple picking outing at Belkin Family’s Look Out Farm.

Joel Taubman and Kayla Shatz at Yachad’s apple picking outing at Belkin Family’s Look Out Farm.

Atara Saltzman (left) and Leah  Sudenfeld at Maimo’s Yom  Chesed in Brookline.

Atara Saltzman (left) and Leah Sudenfeld at Maimo’s Yom Chesed in Brookline.

Liz Offen, director of New  England Yachad

Liz Offen, director of New England Yachad

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