Things will be a little different at this year’s Yachad New Jersey Gala on Jan. 4. Yes, there will be speakers and adult honorees, but there will also be the inauguration of a new chesed fund and the installation of the first group of high school senior awardees.
The new initiatives come as the global organization, which promotes inclusion of Jews with special needs through programs, support and more, marks its 14th year of operation in New Jersey.
“It is incredible to see the growth in programs and services in Yachad’s New Jersey region,” said Avrohom Adler, international director of Yachad. “Our honorees this year have been closely tied to Yachad’s success and have demonstrated their sincere commitment to members of our community who are in need of our services.”
Added Chani Herrmann, associate director of Yachad and former New Jersey director, “Seeing the growth of programs and services in Yachad New Jersey over the past 14 years has been inspiring. The community has increasingly stepped up to recognize the important needs our Yachad participants and their families have.”
This year’s honorees are Guests of Honor Ken and Mindy Saibel; Yachad Family Award winners Moshe, Dena, Tamar, Zev, Noam and Eyal Kinderlehrer; Keter Shem Tov recipients Ilana and Jeff Gdanski; and Women’s Leadership awardee Rachel Cyrulnik.
Also being recognized for their dedication over the last four years are the winners of the first annual Mendel Balk Yachad Center Award to High School Seniors: Zachary Adler, Tamar Berman, Sammy Chasen, Rachel Gelb, Atara Herrmann, Jack Kasindorf, Ilana Knoll, Brian Racer, Ahuva Ross, Kayla Saidel, Racheli Schachter, Sarah Schechter, Raimy Vogel, Yonina Weinberg and Leah Wenger.
Each honoree has a different path and connection to Yachad New Jersey, but all say that it has truly changed their lives for the better.
Mindy and Ken Saibel became acquainted with Yachad when their daughter Jen volunteered as counselor on Yachad’s Yad B’Yad Israel trip. The trip’s participants were spending the Shabbat before their trip in West Orange where the Saibels live and Jen asked if the group could hang out at their house.
Ken Saibel is also now an employee at Yachad, serving as the organziation’s associate director. He said that involving typically developing peers with Yachad participants “sensitize[s] them to the fact that all people are created B’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God.”
“All people have abilities,” he continued. “Everyone has something to contribute to the world and everyone should be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the Jewish world.”
Mindy Saibel sees Yachad’s benefit from a different perspective. A speech therapist, she works in a secular school for children with cerebral palsy.
“I wish the kids that I work with had something like Yachad,” she said. “I know what Yachad does for kids and I see what happens when kids don’t have that. My [students] have no friends, they go nowhere, their parents have no respite and that upsets me. I know what life would be like for people with disabilities not to have Yachad.”
As part of their ongoing involvement with Yachad, the Saibels are launching the Debby Cohen Ahavat Chesed Fund, named in memory of Mindy’s mother, who passed away last year at the age of 81. The fund will be ongoing, and the monies raised will be used each year to provide the organization with something it needs. This year, it’s a sefer Torah that will be housed at the Yachad/NJCD’s Individualized Vocational Development Unit School, Ivdu, which is in Brooklyn. It will travel to wherever Yachad needs use of it, including for shabbatons.
Like the Saibels, participating in Yachad is a family affair for the Gdanskis, who say their lives have been enhanced because of their involvement with the organization.
“Yachad adds sensitivity and meaning to our lives,” Ilana Gdanski said. “Any big event or holiday we always ask, ‘What’s going on at the Yachad center?’ Thanks to Yachad, our children have summers filled with fun and an opportunity for giving. Whether they are at a Yachad camp as a counselor or in a camp with a Yachad program, they always connect to Yachad participants and enjoy hanging out with them.”
She went on to say that “Yachad has made our lives more complete and has allowed us to appreciate different types of people and to value whatever it is Hashem has given each individual.”
Dena and Moshe Kinderlehrer say that Yachad has been a part of their lives for almost as long as they can remember.
“My mother ran the Montreal chapter of Yachad when I was growing up. I have a sister with cerebral palsy and Moshe has a brother with Down syndrome who attended Yachad events and shabbatons,” said Dena Kinderlehrer. “In college, we were both advisers with Yachad. It’s always an organization that we felt very connected and close to.”
The same is now true for their children; 18-year-old Zev is a Yachad participant while his older sister and younger brothers have helped with the organization.
“When you have a child with special needs, the organization takes on a whole different level,” said Dena Kinderlehrer. “What they do for our family is hard to describe.”
She said that the Mendel Balk Yachad Center, which opened three years ago, has been a game-changer for her family as it provides programming Zev loves while giving the rest of the family much-needed respite time. Located in Teaneck, the Balk center offers programs every night, 4-7 p.m., where participants can have dinner, play games, hang out with other people and more. Teens from area day schools, including those being honored at the gala, can often be found helping out during the evening activities.
“Zev loves it there,” said Kinderlehrer. “My son doesn’t have many close friends. He doesn’t have extracurricular activities like a neurotypical child does, but this is something he can do. What is nice is that at the Mendel Balk Center, they have typical kids from the different day schools come together and hang out with the Yachad participants. It’s really nice because it gets everybody together.”
For Cyrulnik, her various roles as a volunteer have allowed her to watch Yachad New Jersey as it continues to grow and expand its mission.
“I love the fact that Yachad is not just for individuals with special needs when they are children, but that the programs and services enrich members’ lives at every stage,” said Cyrulnik. “Personally, being involved as a teenager and then as an adult has demonstrated, for me, that being inclusive never ends. There is always more to do.”
Acknowledging that much progress has been made in recent years, most especially with the opening and ongoing daily programs at the Balk center, organizers believe there is more to be done.
“I think it’s important for community members to see what we do here at Yachad and how we’ve become a center for the community,” said Raquel Selevan, director of New Jersey Yachad. “Whenever there’s a need mentioned by parents, we try and answer and fill it as soon as possible. That’s obvious with the Mendel Balk Yachad Center. It’s a home away from home for our participants and our high school participants as well.”
Yet, said Herrmann, the organization’s associate director, “Yachad cannot do this work alone. We need everyone to help us reach our goals. Our goals are to help as many individuals as possible and facilitate their inclusion and sense of belonging in the Jewish community.
“We have so much more to do,” she continued, adding “We’ve only just begun.”
The Yachad New Jersey Gala will be held on Saturday night, January 4, at Keter Torah Synagogue, 600 Roemer Ave., Teaneck, New Jersey. The event begins at 8 p.m. To learn more, RSVP or make a donation, visit https://www.yachad.org/newjersey/gala.
By Faygie Holt