Because Everyone Belongs
Yachad Detroit brings more Jewish inclusion for individuals with special needs.
When asked about the organization Yachad, Danny Friedman, 25, who has Down syndrome, opened his journal, drew a picture of a boy and wrote the word “happy.”
“That tells it all,” said his mom, Linda Friedman of West Bloomfield. “Being part of this group makes him very happy. He looks forward to participating, and thinking about it makes him smile.”
Danny is a member of the newly formed Yachad Detroit, an Oak Park-based group dedicated to addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities and including them in the Jewish community.
The group’s tagline — Because Everyone Belongs — resonates in their programming, activities, educational components and with the relationships forged between members and Yachad volunteers.
“Yachad is so special because it represents friendship on the truest level,” said Jeff Lazar, Yachad Detroit director. The group works with 20 individuals ages 8-39, with a wide range of abilities.
“Detroit had an active Yachad chapter about 20 years ago, but then it fizzled out,” Lazar said. “We decided to reopen it in September 2012.”
The chapter was recreated after the director of Cleveland Yachad met Aish youth group staff member Bayla Hochheiser of Oak Park at an NCSY youth group convention. Needing some assistance, it was suggested she contact Lazar, who had been involved in Detroit’s original Yachad group.
Lazar and Hochheiser, now Yachad Detroit’s assistant director, held a parent gathering last July.
“The meeting was a place to talk about our needs for our children, and I shared my main concern,” Friedman said. “When my kids were in Jewish day schools, we always heard that the school will teach them about Judaism but that we have to follow through at home. Now we’re at the opposite point. Danny has Judaism at home, but we were looking for a place for him to follow through in the community.”
Danny became a bar mitzvah at Congregation B’nai Moshe and graduated from the Frankel Jewish Academy, both in West Bloomfield.
“But, after high school, there was little for him to be included in Jewishly,” his mother said.
“A lot of the families who attended that meeting were already involved with other Jewish agencies,” said Ethan Gross of West Bloomfield, whose son Jacob, 16, participates in Yachad programs. “But many of them lived in Southfield and Oak Park and said there were few activities on their side of town.
“The missing piece for those who are observant is a good inclusion program that does religious study and has kosher events but also is open to everybody, whether they are observant or not.”
Lazar said, “Yachad gives participants a link to camaraderie they’re not getting anywhere else.”
“Yachad volunteers are genuine,” Friedman said. “They are part of Yachad because they want to be there.”
The first Yachad Detroit volunteer was Zach Herschfus, 15, of Southfield, who has been involved with Friendship Circle and individuals with special needs for several years. Zach’s mom, Fern, was active in a New York chapter of Yachad while in high school and became involved in the original Detroit chapter in the early 1990s.
A student at Akiva Hebrew Day School in Southfield, Zach invited his school friends, 15-year-old twins, Alyssa and Noah Adler of Southfield, and Yardena Schwarcz, 16, of Oak Park, to join Lazar and him at a Yachad leadership seminar in Connecticut last fall.
“After an inspiring weekend of leadership training, networking and brainstorming, we returned to Detroit energized,” said Zach, president of Yachad Detroit’s high school board, with Alyssa, Noah and Yardena serving as board members. Next year, the board will include a Yachad member as well.
“We are in discussion with Akiva to build programming, volunteering and sensitivity training as well as chesed (lovingkindness) projects that involve the whole school,” Lazar said. “We hope this will also inspire other schools to participate. In addition, we are looking for partnerships with other agencies and synagogues.”
Yardena said, “I immediately fell in love with the program and the people involved. I enjoyed the concept of Yachad so much that I applied to go on a Yachad summer program in Israel” that brings high school students together with Yachad members.
In January, several individuals involved with Yachad Detroit trained and participated on Team Yachad in the ING Miami Half-Marathon to raise funds and awareness for individuals with special needs. They were Hochheiser, Zach and Yachad volunteers Elana Greenbaum, 17, of Southfield and Isaac Wolfe, 15, of West Bloomfield.
Noah and Zach recently attended a Yachad high school leadership Shabbaton in New Jersey focusing on advocacy training and lobbying.
“From there we traveled to Washington, D.C., along with Yachad members from across the country, to lobby our congressmen to approve new legislation that will help enhance the lives of the special needs population,” Zach said.
The high school board works together to plan events with the hope of expanding the Detroit chapter.
“It makes me, and individuals with special needs, feel part of our community,” Alyssa said.
The board works to recruit volunteers as well as plan and publicize programs and events. A Facebook page notifies participants of upcoming activities.
Being part of Yachad “teaches all kinds of kids in our community how to associate with a large range of people and how to be open-minded to new situations,” Yardena said. “The volunteering process is a mutual relationship on both sides, teaching patience, friendship and commitment.”
Noah said, “I feel as if we make a humungous impact on the lives of our participants, and they make a huge impact on our lives, too. We strive to include each and every one and become friends with them.”
The largely volunteer-driven group attracts about 10-15 high school- and college-age volunteers on a regular basis.
“Our programs are very interactive, and watching everyone ask or answer questions is amazing,” Hochheiser said. “They are truly learning something. Their faces light up when they walk into the room. When we get together we are all the same. We don’t look at differences; we look at similarities.”
“Right at the start, someone asked, ‘Would Danny like to go to an NCSY Shabbaton?’” Linda Friedman said. “He was so excited to go. He went to Oak Park and stayed at someone’s home and went to programming in one of the synagogues. When I picked him up, everyone was singing and dancing, and the warmth and Judaism and acceptance just embraced him.
“Tears came to my eyes; he was so happy.
“Danny got a sweatshirt at the Shabbaton that he calls his Yachad sweatshirt. When he goes to Yachad programs, he puts it on.”
Yachad is involved with the Orthodox Union’s NCSY group in other programming as well.
Holiday activities, attendance at community events and monthly outings, like a scavenger hunt at a local mall, also take place. Tickets donated by a member of the Sara Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center in West Bloomfield, where Gross is a past president, allowed the Yachad group to attend a Detroit Pistons basketball game together on buses provided by another member.
Each Thursday evening, Parsha and Pizza is held as a combination dinner-study program at Jerusalem Pizza in West Bloomfield.
Founded by Gross, it includes both pizza and a study session of the week’s Torah portion.
“We print out sheets and go around the table and those who can read stand up and participate,” Gross said. “I’ll tell the story about the parshah (weekly Torah portion), and we’ll have a discussion and make a project related to what we learned.”
About 10-12 participants attend each week with the same amount of peer volunteers. Lazar, Hochheiser and some of the volunteers typically drive members coming from Oak Park and Southfield, but some parents and siblings stay for the program.
“This amazing program has broken down the boundaries, so that the special needs population can participate in religious and social activities, and expand their network of friends,” Zach said. “Not only does Yachad have an impact on the special needs population, but it also has given people, who perhaps once felt uncomfortable around this population, the chance to get to know and appreciate their strengths and accept their differences.”
He said he has learned important lessons from his new friends at Yachad. “They don’t judge, they don’t hate, they are loyal and, unlike the average young adult, the simplest things make them happy,” Zach said.
“On a recent Yachad Shabbaton, our planned Saturday night activity was to go bowling. After a half-hour bus ride, we find out the bowling alley overbooked and could not accommodate our group. I was disappointed, but I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction of my special needs friends. They were not disappointed; rather they were so happy just having fun being together on the bus.”
Other Agencies Weigh In
“We are not here to compete with other programs, like Friendship Circle and JARC,” Lazar said. “In fact, we would like to talk to Rick Loewenstein [CEO of the Farmington Hills-based JARC] and start inviting their clients into our programs.”
One of the nation’s largest providers of community-based Jewish residential services, JARC offers support, relationships and engagement with the community for individuals with disabilities.
“I agree with Jeff Lazar,” Loewenstein said. “The more quality programs for young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities in our community the better.
“There is an unmet need in the Orthodox community for this type of programming,” he said. “JARC’s School Inclusion program is, however, deeply engaged in the Orthodox community, specifically in the Jewish day schools. Having said that, I think Yachad Detroit will provide an unmet need, and we look forward to working with them to promote full inclusion for young adults with disabilities.”
Some Yachad members have been involved in Friendship Circle, which pairs teen volunteers with individuals with special needs and provides programs and support for their families.
“We realize that the need is great and is growing,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive director of Friendship Circle in West Bloomfield. “Any organization that provides programming for children with special needs and their families plays a very important role in our community.”
Yachad Detroit is one of 14 U.S. chapters of the New York-based Yachad: the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, an agency of the Orthodox Union. Chapters also exist in Toronto and Jerusalem.
“The hope is for Yachad Detroit to gradually include more of the programming of the national group,” Lazar said.
Without a base, Yachad Detroit meetings and programs take place in the homes of staff and volunteers as well as synagogues and outside venues.
Program costs include a minimal charge per activity as well as a $50 membership fee, with scholarships available. Fundraising projects also take care of some expenses. Sponsors are being sought for Parsha and Pizza, for example, because parents and staff members often cover the additional costs.
Internationally, Yachad serves 5,000 individuals in programs including summer experiences and individualized vocational development schools.
Sensitivity training workshops are offered for junior and senior high school students, along with social skills training and job training and placement for Yachad participants, and social and support programs for family members.
Yachad’s Our Way for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing similarly serves the Jewish population with hearing issues.
“Our son, Jacob, has been going to sleep-away camp in Pennsylvania through Yachad for the past six years,” Ethan Gross said. “He went to Camp Nesher, an NCSY camp that has Yachad staff come in for part of the summer. The Yachad kids are integrated into the program with other campers who do the same activities. Jacob is very outgoing and friendly and is fairly athletic and likes to participate.”
The connection between Yachad members and volunteers is priceless.
“Most importantly, I have learned how much a smile can mean to someone,” Yardena said. “Some participants of Yachad have a hard time speaking and communicating. However, I know that I am doing something right when I am working with them and see a huge smile on their face.”
To Linda Friedman, “Yachad is a mitzvah, a dream come true; like a family. Danny talks about Yachad as ‘my Jewish group.’
“He talks about ‘my Jewish friends.’ Danny likes to belong.”
For information on Yachad Detroit, to make a donation, sponsor or partially sponsor Parsha and Pizza or to order tribute cards, email Jeff Lazar at DetroitYachad@ou.org.
By Shelli Liebman Dorfman | Contributing Writer