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October 8, 2015 / 25 Tishri, 5776
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‘Nice’ Vs. ‘Right’

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As summer arrives, our thoughts here in the offices of Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities are on our one-of-a-kind summer program, Yad B’Yad.

Yad B’Yad, which translates from the Hebrew as Hand in Hand, is unique in that participants include both “mainstream” high-school students – from Jewish or public/secular schools – and campers who have developmental disabilities and sometimes accompanying physical disabilities. Yad B’Yad is a touring summer program; most summers see two concurrent trips; one in Israel and one somewhere in the United States. (This year’s U.S. trip will be on the West Coast with time spent in Hawaii.)

The itinerary of the program is quite comparable to itineraries for other Israel (or U.S.) touring summer programs. All participants travel together, study together, engage in fun and exciting activities together, and take turns as (same gender) roommates in the assorted hotels, hostels and kibbutzim at which the trip encamps.

In light of the needs of some Yad B’Yad participants, there is a high ratio of counselors to campers – but that’s the point: the mainstream teens are not the counselors; mainstream kids are campers alongside the campers with disabilities. There are counselors, and there are campers.

The real uniqueness of this trip, however, eludes most parents who send their children on this program. Let me elaborate. Parents, generally, want to raise children who are “nice.” As Jews, we pride ourselves on being nice, doing acts of chesed – an important Jewish precept meaning righteous (nice) acts. And people with disabilities are increasingly becoming recipients of the Jewish community’s niceness.

I proudly represent Yachad/NJCD among a phenomenal group of committed professionals, volunteers, and parents in such umbrellas as UJA-Federation of New York’s Task Force on People with Disabilities and the New York Board of Jewish Education’s Association of Jewish Special Educators and Jewish Parent Advocate Coalition.

In February, UJA-Federation coordinated the first (annual, let’s hope) Shabbat of Inclusion. Yachad/NJCD was a proud progenitor of this worthy event – I daresay it was somewhat of an offshoot of a comparable venture we conducted a few years ago called North American Inclusion Month, or NA’IM, which roughly translates from Hebrew as “nice.”

But here’s the rub. Yad B’Yad’s structure rejects the “nice” model of inclusion for the “right” model of inclusion. In other words, even though it’s nice to do the act of chesed by including people with disabilities in mainstream activities, it is much more ideal to do what is right. Rather than including the disabled in a group in which they, to some degree, do not belong, far better to make it so that they do indeed belong in the group.

Good people, with the best of intentions, tend to build inclusion programs aimed at providing access to people who don’t fit in. But the ideal is to make the program a program for everyone.

Nice parents who send their mainstream children on Yad B’Yad often expect those children will serve as quasi-counselors for campers with disabilities. But in fact what’s rare about Yad B’Yad is that the teens who have disabilities share equally with the mainstream youth in all activities and programs. The campers bond, as do any kids in an intense summer program, and they cry when the program is over. And as is the case with any summer program, participants maintain relationships after going home through correspondence, phone conversations and visits.

This is not an indictment of any of the wonderful inclusion programs that are out there. Yachad – whose very raison d’être is inclusion – is as much a part of the imperfect genre as are any of the other outstanding efforts established on behalf of people with disabilities.

Yachad’s signature Shabbatons – weekend retreats, usually centered around a community synagogue – are phenomenal. Anyone who wants to see both the joy that someone with disabilities can exude as well as the love and kindness that our “mainstream” youth can share must observe a Yachad Shabbaton. But the point is clearly expressed in the above-mentioned dichotomy: There are “Yachad Members” and there are “mainstream youth”; there are people with disabilities and there are people without disabilities; there are them and there are us.

Initially, we even made that differentiation in our Yad B’Yad program. The summer participants were considered Yachad participants or Yad B’Yaders. But as of last year there were only Yad B’Yaders. Co-participants. One group. Inclusion. Not a nice thing to do, but the right thing to do.

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