L.A. Yachad celebrates its accomplishments in uniting special needs Jewish communities

On May 29, Los Angeles Yachad, a program of the Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities, dimmed the lights and rolled out the red carpet for its second annual “Yachad Oscars” ceremony. Built upon the message of inclusion, Yachad works to unite the local special-needs community with the broader Jewish community through social gatherings and Jewish celebrations. Its mission, according to Assistant Director Ian Lurie, is to “open the eyes of the world to the idea that everyone belongs.”

Much of the evening was dedicated to the achievements of Director Perri Tabak, who will be leaving after 10 years with the organization and who was lauded at the event by Yachad’s national director, Jeffrey Lichtman.

Through Yachad, elementary, middle and high-school students are given opportunities to meet with individuals with special needs, as could be seen through photo montages of Shabbatons, a mock seder and other highlights from throughout the year.

“There are two main factors to making inclusion successful: education and will,” Lurie said. This year’s programs included sensitivity training for high-school participants, and in February, which was North American Inclusion Month, Yachad hosted a screening of “King Gimp” that drew more than 100 people.

Throughout the evening, awards were presented and received by all Yachad participants and members for a variety of talents, ranging from Best Animators of the Year to Everybody’s Best Friend.

Lurie will assume the role of director in September. “The future of inclusion is incredibly bright due to the efforts of Yachad in L.A. and across North America,” he said, adding that his biggest goal “is to have enough people involved in Yachad next year that the Yachad Oscars will be held in the Kodak Theatre, like the Oscars themselves.”

Visit with special people makes for special summer

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.

Class Acts

“I definitely stand out,” says Bina Hager, 17, of Hancock Park.

And it’s not just because the YULA senior is a strapping 5-foot-10 tall. Consider, for example, the cubist self-portrait that hangs upon her bedroom wall. Or the wildly colored abstract paintings, all Hager originals. Or the 6-foot-high punching bag and the gloves in one corner.

Kick boxing is, well, unusual fare for an Orthodox young woman, but Hager doesn’t mind the raised eyebrows.

“The mockery of my friends reverberates in my mind as I face the punching bag,” she cheerfully writes in an essay. “[But then]…the air crackles as I unleash my hand with unbridled fury…I savor the electricity of that moment…when I channel all physical chaos into artistic order.”

If Hager is an iconoclast, she’s also a Renaissance woman.

Two years ago, she began volunteering at Yachad, a program for children with disabilities; she went on to assist the physical therapists at a summer camp in the Catskills, where a number of experiences were engraved in memory. There was the autistic child, with whom she worked for seven weeks and who finally said her name. And there was the frail 9-year-old boy who was just learning to walk. The process was painful for the child, and Hager “held him, my palms supporting his elbows, as he embarked on a most courageous journey, a journey of five steps.”

Now, she has no doubt about her life’s path: Hager will attend Barnard College and study psychology and special education after attending a yeshiva in Israel next year.

“What working with people with disabilities has taught me is that the little you can give of yourself means so much,” she says.

Alexa Fields, Harvard-Westlake School

Don’t tell Alexa Fields that Latin is dead.

She’ll give you a look and say, “Rident stolidi Latina verba” — “Only fools laugh at the Latin language.” And Latin, specifically her poetry, helped get her into Harvard University’s early admission program, after all.

Fields first took Latin in fifth grade — rather reluctantly — but promptly fell in love with the language.

“I discovered that these ancient people were not deadbeats,” says Fields, who has also taken intensive summer theater workshops at the Santa Monica Playhouse, has studied French in Avignon and varsity lettered in cross country. “They were alive, clever, scandalous, mischievous, and they had great stories to tell.”

Fields read many of them over the years, in the writings of Ovid, Cicero, Horace, Catullus and Virgil’s “Aeneid” — “a real blast, which reads like a soap opera.” Some of Catullus’ poetry is so risqué, she adds, wickedly, that a substitute teacher once assumed the students were fabricating the translation and stormed from the room.

After completing Harvard-Westlake’s entire Latin curriculum last year, Fields decided to follow her own muse; with dictionary in hand, she composed five poems, “Carmina Vitae” (“Songs of Life”), in painstakingly strict hendecasyllabic meter.

One defends the Latin language, another extolls silliness, and the National Latin Honor Society member, for her part, will become the subject of a favorite joke when she travels to the former Roman empire this summer.

“A Latin student wandering in Italy asks where the restroom is,” says the 17-year-old senior, who is considering classes in science, psychology and music at Harvard. “The Italian stares at her for a long time and finally says, ‘You haven’t been here in awhile, have you?”

Zhanna Livshits, Fairfax High School

You’ll find Zhanna Livshits bustling about the multicultural kitchen at Project Angel Food, preparing meals for people with AIDS. Or she might be in the dialysis unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, holding the hand of a gravely ill patient.

“I believe that people need each other, need to know they are not alone in their struggle,” says Livshits, 18. For her, volunteerism has become a way of life because “I understand what it is to feel powerless, abandoned, with no one there to help.”

Livshits is speaking of her experience as a Jew in Belarus, where anti-Semites sprayed gunfire into the family apartment. She is also speaking of her early years in the United States, when, as the first in her family to learn English, she took on responsibilities beyond the realm of a typical 11-year-old. She dealt with the gas company and the welfare office. And when her parents couldn’t find work, she secured jobs as a tutor and as a receptionist. The tasks were doubly daunting for Livshits because she has battled stuttering all her life.

“But I am so grateful and admire my parents so much for bringing me here,” says the senior, who vows to become a physician “to make a difference and so that my family never again has to live in poverty.”

The Fairfax High salutatorian is well on her way, with some $9,000 per year in scholarships to attend UCLA.

Nevertheless, she believes that her most important work is with patients such as Lynn (not her real name), a 29-year-old woman whose kidney transplant had failed for the third time.

“She was pale and crying, but, at the end of our time together, she smiled,” says Livshits, who may go into the Peace Corps before medical school. “I don’t have the words to describe how that made me feel.”

Laurie Rubin, Oakwood School

In March, Laurie Rubin’s rich, intensely expressive mezzo-soprano dazzled the audience at the Kennedy Center in Washington with a feisty aria from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” Just two weeks later, she sang at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and snagged first place in the classical voice category of the prestigious Music Center Spotlight Awards.

The thoughtful, vivacious Rubin has entered five competitions in her 18 years and has won first place in four of them.

But what sets her apart from her competitive peers is that she is blind.

Her love of music began when she was a baby, when her parents stimulated her other senses with scents and classical music. By age 16, she was already a seasoned performer, singing in six languages at Jewish and other functions honoring individuals such as George Burns, Ronald Reagan and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. Recently, she sang at an event for the Foundation for the Junior Blind, an organization that has helped her build self-confidence.

Rubin was the first blind person to win the Spotlight Award; the first to attend Oakwood; and the first to become bat mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom, where 600 congregants turned out to hear her chant the Torah portion from her Braille book atop the scroll. She has perfect pitch, learns music by ear, and hopes to become an opera singer, recitalist and cantor.

Nevertheless, a prominent conductor once warned her that no opera company would hire a blind person; some competition judges have been cynical; and Rubin, further, had to fight to be admitted to the gifted program at one school.

At the Tanglewood Institute, she was overcome with emotion while learning the role of Iolanthe, Tchaikovsky’s blind princess who longs to do more than the world will let her.

So Rubin has become an activist; she has been the subject of two educational films about blind people, and has screened and discussed them at Los Angeles-area schools.

“I’m sure at times I won’t get roles, because I am blind,” says the singer, who’s won a $8,000-per-year scholarship to Oberlin College and Conservatory. “But I’ll keep trying because music is music; it expresses what is in the heart, no matter what the politics.”

Adam Rosenthal, Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple

Adam Rosenthal is writing a guide for teen-agers like himself, his older brother, Jeremy, and many of his friends, who have become more observant than their parents. Its working title: “Mom, I Can’t Go Out With the Family. It’s Shabbat.”

In January, Rosenthal was elected as the international president of United Synagogue Youth (USY), representing more than 20,000 Conservative Jewish North American teens, and he just completed a year term as regional president of USY’s FarWest Region, which includes Southern California and five states.

Rosenthal’s Jewish involvement has been lifelong, starting with Camp Ramah — where his mother worked — at age 3, and continuing there every summer since. This year will be his second as camp counselor.

But Ramah, which he calls “a Jewish utopia,” existed only during the summer, so Rosenthal became involved in USY at his temple, Adat Ari El Synagogue in North Hollywood. He quickly became a youth leader and also team-teaches a fifth-grade class with his mom.

“I love planning activities that really change people’s lives,” he says.

One such program is Hevrah, which brings together USY-ers and Jewish teens with disabilities for social and religious experiences.

Rosenthal, who attended Los Angeles Unified public schools in Woodland Hills until this year, plans to spend his freshman college year on the USY NATIV leadership program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He will then