Some years ago, when Lauren Mayesh was a teenager, she rarely saw her classmates reach out to people who were different from them. Since March 2000, Mayesh has been the Los Angeles coordinator of Yachad, an organization formed to serve young adults, ages 17 to 30, who are coping with developmental disabilities. Yachad (Hebrew for "together") wants to incorporate its members into Jewish life by providing social and educational outlets at which they can interact comfortably with mainstream Jewish high school students.
What makes Mayesh shep nachas (draw pleasure) is the fact that so many local teens have come forward to give of themselves to members of the disabled community. "The high school kids today are just so special, so involved. It's beautiful," Mayesh says.
In fact, it's because of a handful of day school students that the Los Angeles chapter of Yachad exists at all. The national organization, founded in 1984, is a branch of the National Jewish Council for the Disabled, which itself falls under the auspices of the Orthodox Union. (Jews of all backgrounds are welcome to join.) Yachad members, most of whom are clustered on the East Coast and in Canada, enjoy a wide range of monthly activities, which may include holiday parties, crafts sessions and sporting events. They can also take advantage of two summer programs. One is the specially designed Yad B'Yad (hand-in-hand) trip to Israel. The other is a month-long bus tour that, in alternating years, brings Yachad members to the tourist high spots of the East Coast and California. In 1999, when a handful of YULA and Shalhevet students returned from their summer Yachad adventures, they were determined to form a Yachad chapter at which their school friends could get to know the developmentally disabled living within their own community.
One of Yachad's local founders was Rachel Millman, who at age 15 turned down a teen trip to Israel that she suspected would revolve around talk of hair, makeup and boys. "I wanted something more than that, to give the summer more meaning." Millman said. So she signed up for Yachad's Yad B'Yad Israel trip. Because the group consisted of only 25 mainstream high schoolers, 16 Yachad members and 10 college-aged staffers, it had an intimacy that allowed relationships to blossom. Any awkwardness at being among those who were different soon vanished. Her role on the trip was to be a travel companion, not a caretaker. But at the local group's recent first-ever weekend Shabbaton, she felt perfectly comfortable helping her Yachad friends with their clothing and guiding them to the bathroom.
Another of the sparkplugs behind Los Angeles' Yachad chapter was Jennifer Kessler, now 17. Two summers ago, after her sophomore year at Shalhevet, Kessler shocked her mother by signing up for Yachad's East Coast bus tour. "I had no idea what I was doing. I had never worked with the disabled," Kessler recalls. Still, the trip changed her life, to the point where her commitment to Yachad began to crowd aside other afterschool activities. But Kessler insists that her newfound interest in the disabled has paid major dividends. In their huge capacity for joy, she finds personal inspiration. "I learned the most important lesson in the world from them. [Yachad] made me happier, since I saw what real happiness was," she says.
Yachad's Los Angeles branch enjoys a close connection with the Orthodox youth group known as the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Los Angeles's new NCSY director, Rabbi Steven Burg, feels strongly that a link between NCSY and Yachad can be beneficial to both groups, with Yachad members gaining social skills while NCSYers learn tolerance and patience.
The Katz family has special reason to appreciate Yachad's presence in Los Angeles. Eighteen-year-old Jacob has Down syndrome. He climbed Masada on last year's Yad B'Yad Israel trip, and has become an active member of the local Yachad chapter. Jacob's 16-year-old brother Aaron serves on the Yachad planning board, which he views as an opportunity to do chesed (acts of kindness) while also having fun. Aaron acknowledges that he used to feel sad on Shabbat afternoons when he went off to activities, leaving his brother behind. Now they can both enjoy Yachad, which Aaron calls "a place where everyone can be the same."
For more information on the Los Angeles chapter of Yachad, call Lauren Mayesh at 310-273-2998.