Imagine being part of a community all of your life, attending its schools and summer camps as well as partaking in its programs and social events. Then, suddenly, you turn eighteen and find that you have become an outsider, excluded from joining your peers in major opportunities you have been anticipating your entire life. How do you think you would feel? While this may seem like a hypothetical situation for many of us, individuals with special needs in our communities encounter this challenge on a daily basis. Throughout their childhood and adolescent life, they had many opportunities for inclusion, but, until recently, they were barred from participating in our most important educational milestone: college.
Over the last couple of years, there has been marked improvement in this area. Inclusive programs have been started across the country – in fact, there are over two hundred. However, they are completely secular, which was not a good fit for Jewish individuals with special needs. Though a secular college program would give them the education that they desire and deserve, it would still leave them feeling excluded from the community they had been a part of all of their lives. While their childhood friends were provided with the opportunity to attend college together, people with intellectual disabilities were forced to join a new, unfamiliar community if they wished to seek a further education.
Today, that is no longer the case. In the fall of 2017, the Makor College Experience, created by Makor Disability Services (previously known as Women’s League) and Yeshiva University, opened its doors. Based on Wilf Campus of Yeshiva University, the three-year, comprehensive, non-degree program is geared specifically for Jewish men with intellectual disabilities. Dubbed a “Day Hab without walls,” the program provides these individuals with a very structured day, while allowing them a sense of freedom to learn new things and socialize with the other students. It boasts a welcoming and supportive environment and a top-notch curriculum that offers a developmentally appropriate education in both Judaic and secular studies. The students start their day learning Jewish studies in the beis midrash, then spend the afternoon attending various secular courses taught by teachers specific to the Makor program.
In addition, students also attend various courses focused solely on developing the life-skills necessary to enter and succeed in a work environment. Theses courses focus on interpersonal skills, such as how to handle social situations and resume writing. There is also the opportunity for vocational exploration so that students can try out different career options and prepare for future jobs.
What sets this program apart from other similar programs is that its creators work to ensure that the curriculum stays relevant. The program is constantly evolving to fit the needs of the students and to keep things personalized. As long as a student has the ability to function behaviorally in the program, the staff will adapt the learning to any academic level and differentiate the education that they receive.
Along with all the incredible academic opportunities, throughout the day, the students also have various opportunities for socialization and integration with the Yeshiva University students and are proud to be part of the “YU Family.” Those who aren’t commuting live in near-campus housing, attend minyanim and learn in the beis midrash with the YU students. They also have access to all the university facilities and are welcome at campus social events. They cheer at basketball games, eat lunch together at the many eateries on campus, and really get to know the other students. They are “part of the fabric of the university” to quote Rabbi Menachem Penner, the Dean of RIETS/YU.
This was really the motivation behind Makor College Experience. In the words of Dr. Stephen Glicksman, the director of Clinical Innovation at Makor Disability Services, as well as an adjunct instructor at Yeshiva University and the mastermind behind this amazing college program, “Many of our students went to inclusive programs for elementary school and high school, only to find their peers disappear when it was time to graduate and go off to college. This program really is a dream come true for them.”
There are many qualified staff members available to help. Rabbi Uri Feintuch, for example, who runs the Judaic studies morning program, is a mentor to the students and is constantly available to give advice or just to shmuz with them. Rabbi Feintuch has both a master’s degree in social work and a background in the special education field. The staff is both friendly and approachable, which allows the students to enjoy a close relationship with them. This, in turn, adds to the positive environment the creators strive to establish. Dr. Glicksman says, “I typically can’t walk into the room without a student approaching and asking for some time to speak.”
At the end of three amazing years, the graduates won’t receive a diploma, but they will receive a certificate of completion from Makor. They will also receive a resume and a glowing reference letter to future employers. More importantly, though, they will have gained many important life-skills, close friends and mentors, as well as the confidence and independence to try new experiences. Using all that they have gained from their three-year college experience they can move onto something bigger and better and succeed in their future lives.
The program isn’t just good for its students; it is mutually beneficial to the Yeshiva University students as well. The Makor students are concrete proof of just how beneficial inclusion and diversity is for students in a college setting. The experience allows both sets of students to learn not only from their classes, but also from each other. Their interactions will challenge them to strive to reach new heights in spirituality and will also teach them more about each other and, by extension, themselves.
The Makor College Experience is a place where acceptance knows no bounds. It is a place filled to the brim with warmth and caring. It is a place that fights for the individual, striving to ensure that no one is left behind while still allowing each student to reach his full potential. It was with this in mind that Dr. Glicksman very aptly stated, “This gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘letter of acceptance.’”
For more information on the program call 718-853-0900 or email Dr. Stephen Glicksman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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What about women? Dr. Glicksman hopes to open a women’s program within the next three years. The men’s program is Makor’s very first college program and they would like to focus all of their attention on it, allowing the program to establish its roots before they work on creating a second program. It will help pave the way for the women’s program, providing structure and techniques that they hope to have successfully executed.