Photo Credit: Courtesy
Chicago Yachad members performing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Yachad, part of the Orthodox Union network of programs and services, provides recreational and life-enriching programs for people with developmental disabilities. Debbie Harris has served as the Chicago regional director of Yachad for over three years.

Harris recently discussed her mission with The Jewish Press.


She said that while Yachad Chicago has predominantly been known for hosting Shabbatons, over the past few years they have added more nightly and daytime activities. Chicago Yachad’s mission includes teaching young adults leadership skills through volunteering and planning of Yachad events. It also provides supportive services to the parents of its members.

“Sometimes having a child or an adult with a disability can be isolating and lonely, and parents don’t always have a community,” Harris explained. “We try to provide community opportunities for parents as well.” While program members have access to camp in the summer, parents may also take advantage of “get-away retreats.” In all, Chicago Yachad provides support and services to ten organizational regions – including Canada and Israel.

Since 2020, Chicago Yachad has received funding to embark on ambitious performing arts projects that bring the bright lights of Broadway to the local Jewish community. For this year’s production, members performed the Broadway hit Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Chicago Yachad members devoted several months to acting, singing and dance training, and the resulting opening night was a huge success.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was chosen because our members really wanted to do it,” Harris said. While last year’s production of another Broadway hit, Newsies, incorporated a lot of dialogue, this year’s Joseph was nearly all songs.

“You could really feel the camaraderie, teamwork and support between all of the people in the production; everyone supported each other so eloquently,” Harris said. She remembered at one point during the performance that she wandered to the back of the sold-out auditorium and took in a wonderful sight: Everyone in the audience was dancing in their seats, singing along and clapping.

“Everybody had a great time. The benefit for our members has been learning how to work as a team, learning how to support each other, how to speak in public and how to advocate for themselves. Learning when it’s time to take a break when things become too overwhelming or too exciting…. There are so many things that people gained from it that are unwritten but seen. But mostly it built confidence and it’s just beautiful to watch the progression of how these things work.”

Other team members expressed the same satisfaction with this year’s production. “The best part of participating in Yachad’s production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat was the opportunity to form close relationships with the cast,” administrative associate and classroom aid Joel Lewison told The Jewish Press. “We connected with each other and with our roles in an intrinsically valuable and meaningful way, and we grew to become an ensemble. We jumped into the experience together, embraced the challenges, and achieved more than we expected.”

One member of Chicago Yachad expressed what he loved most about being a part of Joseph. “Singing ‘One More Angel in Heaven,’” said member Michel. “I like the fact that I got to use a country accent and show my creative skills.” Michel also enjoyed working with the rest of the Chicago Yachad members towards a common goal. “It would be great to do something like The Jungle Book next year!” he added.


Bernie Balbo is the director of Chicago Yachad’s Ralla Klepak Program for the Performing Arts. He took a few minutes to talk to us about his experience directing the members of Chicago Yachad through the months-long process of producing theatrical event.

The Jewish Press: Tell us a little about The Ralla Klepak Foundation and how they came to play a part in Chicago Yachad’s theatrical production. Who exactly was Ralla Klepak?

Bernie Balbot: Ralla Klepak was an attorney and performing arts enthusiast here in Chicago, and in her passing, she allocated significant resources to establishing a foundation that would provide funding to disadvantaged communities and those with disabilities. Chicago Yachad received its first grant from The Ralla Klepak Foundation for Education and the Performing Arts in 2020. Since its beginning, the Foundation has really been a vocal advocate for arts engagement in Chicago.

For this year’s stage production, you directed the members of Chicago Yachad through an interpretation of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. How did you come to join the team?

I grew up in the Squirrel Hill community of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I was very engaged in the arts. I was lucky to study under Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who is now retired but still very active in the Jewish community in Pittsburgh. When you meet a holy man like Rabbi Gibson who elevates a community in a way that goes beyond words, you feel it. I think it was his influence that really pulled me into wanting to play a meaningful role in the Jewish community in my professional life in some capacity.

I ended up going to school for theater and pursued a career as a professional artist. Upon graduating from Carnegie Mellon University’s drama program in Pittsburgh, I decided Chicago was the place for me. Yachad has given me an opportunity I hadn’t realized existed: that someone could come into a program like this and build a theater program from the ground up using my background as a theatre artist and also as an administrator. Truly, I have been enjoying the opportunity to develop this for our members and to see where it leads us.

What did you find to be the most exciting part of the Yachad process?

What excited me about it, I would say, was discovering that part of the job is to be a detective; you have to piece together information you have acquired through first-hand relationships with Yachad and its members, combined with research and feedback you’ve gotten from staff to customize the whole experience to suit the nuances of the community you’re working with. So, it’s about finding the things the members will relate to that meet them where they really are, versus where we may envision them to be.

How many people participated in the production of Joseph?

With Joseph, we had a cast of about 30 performers, in addition to program aids and a program team. There was also a production team which included sound, lighting, costume designers, etc. I chose Joseph because it seemed like a good first choice – coming into this position – as it was entirely music-based and led by a narrator. The score itself is really fun to do and the genres in the show are eclectic; there’s such a range of music styles and I thought this would benefit the group and be really fun to engage with. You have everything: Vegas-style showmanship, a French crooner ballad, big ensemble number, etc. We were able to secure the 60-minute rights to Joseph through Concord Theatricals and it just really worked out.

What in your opinion is the value of theatrical production as a therapeutic or growth tool for the members of Yachad? How do you measure the entire experience in terms of success?

You can’t really put a price tag on its worth. One thing is it’s allowed us to expose our Yachad members to arts and culture in the Greater Chicago area. We’ve taken them to shows at iconic venues such as the Paramount and Goodman theaters. Numbers-wise, we were totally sold out at the showing with over 250 people in the audience. The venue was at The Woman’s Club of Evanston, and they were amazing partners who really understood the importance what we were trying to accomplish, so it was perfect. Besides attendance, the feedback we received from family members was so genuinely special and varied: I heard from parents who said they hadn’t [ever] experienced their child being so excited. The performing arts has a way of pulling multiple tethers together into shared space and providing a platform to commune with all these feelings. It’s powerful.

The communities in Chicago and Skokie have been so supportive, it’s just really special. Everyone had the opportunity to show their talent. The members were so proud of the work they did, and I think they learned core life skills that will infiltrate everything they do and to be a part of that is beyond beautiful.


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Baruch Lytle is a Jewish Press staff writer.