Yachad—the Hebrew word for “together”—is the umbrella name for the National Jewish Council for Disabilities and a division of the Orthodox Union. Founded 30 years ago, Yachad’s mandate is singular: “To include those with developmental disabilities in all aspects of the Jewish community.”
With 12 regional offices in the United States, and one in Jerusalem and another in Toronto, the New England regional office serves the greatest number of participants outside of New York and New Jersey. Liz Offen, who directs the New England Yachad office out of Congregation Kehillath Israel, notes that its reach extends beyond Greater Boston and its suburbs to include Metrowest, Metro North, the North Shore, the South Area, Rhode Island and, most recently, central Massachusetts. “There is no other Jewish agency [in Massachusetts] with these kinds of perimeters, serving all ages, all abilities and all Jewish denominations,” says Offen.
In a wide-ranging interview with JewishBoston, Offen’s passion for Yachad is palpable, and even infectious. “Yachad is a life changer,” she says. “It takes previously isolated people and gives them a purpose.” Offen came on board as New England Yachad’s first full-time director three years ago. With a background in social justice, Jewish education and program management, the Newton native notes that, “I’ve almost always worked in underserved communities where I felt it was important to have a strong commitment to improving the circumstances of individuals isolated socially in society.”
Yachad is the ideal incubator for Offen’s dedication to Jewish learning and building community for those who are on the margins. She credits much of the organization’s growing success to partnerships with the Orthodox Union, the Ruderman Family Foundation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Congregation Kehillath Israel.
Offen is quick to emphasize that Yachad’s overall affiliation with the Orthodox Union does not preclude it from being open to all denominations. To prove the point, she notes that the organization’s many programs happen in area synagogues across Judaism’s denominations. “Here in New England, we are able with chazak—strength—to partner with everyone who wants to partner with us, including synagogues and community service agencies such as Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters and Gateways,” she says. “We also regularly provide referrals to Jewish Family & Children’s Service and Yad Chessed. We are very mindful that we don’t want to duplicate what anyone else is doing, and we work closely with directors of other agencies to make sure of that.”
Part of Yachad’s work is supported by a generous grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation, which shares Yachad’s vision of inclusion. Offen says the grant, now in its fourth year, “has helped us to quickly put boots on the ground to serve the community with a very robust array of services. We provide over 300 programs a year.”
One of Yachad’s signature programs is Shabbatons. “Our Shabbatons are two-day spiritual retreats in the community,” Offen says. “It’s a great opportunity for people with disabilities to come together to celebrate Shabbat as part of a larger community celebration. And it’s the sort of genuine fun you would have at camp.” Summer camp programs are also under the aegis of Yachad. In 1999, Yachad opened its first sleepaway camp program at Camp Morasha in Lakewood, Pa. The two-week program began with just nine campers; the following summer Camp Morasha held a full summer session. Other camps followed suit and to date there are almost 30 Yachad summer programs, including Yad B’ Yad (Hand in Hand), a five-week inclusive summer program in Israel.
In many ways, Yad B’ Yad demonstrates the essence of Yachad’s inclusive model. Half of its participants have special needs, while the other half interacts with them as peer participants. Offen explains that the peer participants go on the trip with Yachad members as equals. “These students go because it’s fun, not because it’s chesed (mercy) or tzedakah (charity),” she says. “We use the phrase ‘peer participants’ because they are not volunteers, but equal participants. Another example is the 200 high school students participating in Yachad clubs at Gann Academy and Maimonides School, and we’re expanding to work with youth groups as well as other day schools.”
Love of Israel has continued to figure prominently in Yachad’s agenda. In 2000, Taglit Birthright Israel began trips that afforded young adults with disabilities the same opportunity to experience Israel as their peers. Offen observes that, “parents who love Israel want their children to love Israel too. They want their children to go on this amazing phenomenon called Birthright. Yachad Birthright is basically the same trip with added support staff. It’s a huge benefit for me, as a regional director, to be part of a national organization where I can offer this experience.”
When Offen first arrived at Yachad, she had a mailing list in the low double digits. From there she has overseen the organization’s exponential growth. Yachad currently provides some form of support to almost 1,000 people, including family members of individuals with disabilities and special needs. Offen and her small part-time staff, which includes a social worker, also manage 350 volunteers and peers whose work ranges from interacting one-on-one with Yachad members to connecting with Yachad’s young adults participating in an outdoor adventure club.
“What we’re trying to do as we grow is to build a parallel peer group for each of our age groups,” says Offen. “Yachad has been around for a long time, but we are experiencing unprecedented growth and a rebirth in Boston. It’s a great problem to have—we can barely keep up with the interest in our programs and requests for services.”