If you’ve ever experienced a Yachad Shabbaton, or any Yachad event, with its trademark infectious enthusiasm and spirited teens, advisors and Yachad members (individuals with special needs), and wondered how it all began — the question would naturally lead you back to NCSY. Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities and the Orthodox Union’s division promoting inclusion for individuals with disabilities, began with an NCSY Shabbaton.
In the fall of 1983, Chana Zweiter, a special education teacher of Jewish subjects at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, approached Rabbi Raphael Butler, then director of NCSY, with a novel idea. NCSY was expanding throughout North America, taking both unaffiliated teens and yeshiva-educated teens and filling them with inspiration. Why not take that same inspiration and bring it to the Jewish disabled community?
Through her work, Zweiter had realized that the special needs community was hungry to feel included in the larger Jewish community, but at the same time, there were very limited programs available for them. The only program she found catering to the special needs community was the Orthodox Union’s Our Way, a division for the deaf and hearing impaired, which began a few years earlier within NCSY.
“Because the OU was already demonstrating its sensitivity to the disabled, I felt reassured that they would be receptive to this new idea I was bringing to them,” Zweiter explained.
After multiple discussions, Rabbi Butler approached Julius Berman, then president of the Orthodox Union, to propose the additional programming serving those with developmental disabilities within NCSY. “NCSY was a perfect beginning for Yachad because the individuals with disabilities would feel part of a larger group that was already established,” Berman reflected.
Zweiter felt a program allowing the greater community to see individuals with disabilities being called for aliyot, giving divrei Torah and participating in synagogue life was an important message. She knew that these individuals had what to contribute to the Jewish community; they just needed a chance to showcase what they had to offer. In addition to providing social programming for those with special needs, Zweiter felt that the parents and siblings of these individuals would also benefit. Berman was convinced of her idea and pledged at least two years of funding to turn the idea into a reality.
Zweiter joined the NCSY staff to direct this new branch, which was named, appropriately, Yachad (the Hebrew word for together). Zweiter planned and implemented ongoing social and recreation programming, and of course, Shabbatons.
By the end of two years, Yachad was booming and quickly became its own division within the Orthodox Union. In 1989, Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman took over its leadership and continues to lead the division to this day. Yachad — now the flagship program of the National Jewish Council for Disabilities — has grown to include 17 chapters across the United States, Canada and Israel (and is still expanding). Today, in addition to its Shabbatons and social programming, Yachad offers more than 18 different summer programs; school programs; vocational services; a Day Hab program; clinical services; educational services and much more.
“So many individuals think that it is just the participants that Yachad impacts, but that’s not true,” Dr. Lichtman noted. “While we provide a full array of services for those with developmental disabilities, we stress inclusion. Inclusion is not a program; inclusion is an attitude that everyone benefits from.”
While NCSY and Yachad now occupy separate floors in the Orthodox Union’s main office, the two still work together on a number of programs all over the country. In Los Angeles, inclusive programming is still a major part of the relationship between NCSY and Yachad chapters. “In addition to joining programming throughout the year, Los Angeles NCSY always insists that Yachad members join their two major regional Shabbatons — telling us that the ruach (spirit) just wouldn’t be the same without them,” shared Orit Cohen Faguet, current director of Los Angeles Yachad. “At a hotel with 400 people, our Yachad members are invited to give divrei Torah and are involved with every part of the Shabbaton.”
Yachad and NCSY, together after all these years, continue to push the envelope to ensure that every Jew, regardless of their abilities, take their rightful place within the Jewish community.
Check out some Yachad photos from recent events!
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