Jewish Journal


October 5, 2006

Visit with special people makes for special summer


Yachad member Tzvi Burstein, left, and Ian Lurie

Yachad member Tzvi Burstein, left, and Ian Lurie

Going to Disneyland with your family or friends is always an experience. But going with a group of developmentally disabled adults turns out to be unforgettable.

This summer, I participated in Yad B'Yad, a program where a group of high school students and a group of developmentally disabled campers from around the United States travel together, along with a staff of counselors.

The joy that I saw on so many faces when we were boarding "it's a small world" is something I will cherish forever. Joy can be found in simply buying clothing or seeing a movie, but seeing someone laugh at a showing of "MuppetVision 3-D" sparked a type of pure joy I had never encountered.

We hadn't planned to end up in Disneyland.

Yad B'Yad, sponsored by the Orthodox Union's Yachad program for the disabled, was set to begin on July 18. I was incredibly excited for this amazing opportunity.

The summer after 10th grade is a summer where most teens look to hang out with friends -- in Israel, particularly -- and just have a great time getting to know people. I had a different agenda in mind: I wanted to spend my summer in Israel, as well, but I wanted to know I would grow from the experience.

But the day before we were supposed to leave for Israel, I received a call from my father.

"Israel is canceled because of the war in Lebanon," he told me.

What was going to happen to the summer of my life?

Well, the next day the program began anyway, with a new destination -- the West Coast. A little disappointed (especially since I grew up in L.A.), I boarded the buses and began the journey that would become the greatest experience of my life. Apprehensive at first, I grew more and more comfortable with the high school and Yachad members and was able to establish personal relationships with each and every one of them.

While the program is set up for the high school students to give the disabled or handicapped participants the times of their lives, the reverse was also true and overwhelming. The joy and fun the Yachad members brought to all the participants was and will forever be unforgettable. Waking up to smiles every morning and going to sleep with the exact same happy faces at night is an indelible memory.

The first Shabbat everyone met and established connections with as many people as possible. This was a great success and set the tone for the rest of the summer. We started in San Francisco and went to Palo Alto and Los Angeles, including our stop at Disneyland.

Prayer services took place three times a day; in the morning, the boys put on their tefillin. One Yachad member I had the privilege to assist with his tefillin was Navid Harouni, one of the three Los Angeles participants on the summer program. Every morning, he and I would recite the Shema together.

On the last day of the trip, when we reached the last word of the first paragraph, my eyes were close to tearing. The type of joy and love Navid expressed by saying a few words that so many people say carelessly gave me the warmest feeling and one of most rewarding experiences of my life.

The last week of camp we traveled to Arizona. When we got to the Grand Canyon for a magnificent sunset, everyone was clicking away with cameras, observing God's amazing creation. Once the sun had almost set, one counselor from Israel, Shachar ben David, asked everyone to pick a different spot on the platform and simply think about something meaningful in perfect silence.

I sat down looking at the spectacular sunset with lightning crashing down on the background and was astonished at the beauty God could create. Then, looking around at everyone else sitting in silence, I thought, "Wow, look at how God was able to create a program like this, as well."

The night after the program ended, I received at least 50 e-mails from people on the program saying how hard the separation is and how different life will be without 65 amazing people joined together. A reunion occurred Aug. 24, only three days after the program concluded. The ties and relationships established through the program are the types that remain forever.

Participants in these programs go with a specific goal in mind -- to give more than you get. Those are the types of people who try to perfect this world and assist in bringing unity to the Jewish nation as a whole.

Ian Lurie is an 11th grader at YULA.

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