Special needs students thrive in unique Israel gap year program
Program lets participants seamlessly participate in activities where they can excel and build confidence and provides them with individualized attention when necessary.
By JNS and ILH Staff, Oct 21, 2021
Twenty teens and young adults arrived this week from the US, Canada and England to participate in the Elaine and Norm Brodsky Darkaynu Program, designed to allow students with special needs to benefit from the “year in Israel” experience.
Founded in 2003 by the Ohr Torah Stone network of institutions (OTS), Darkaynu is the first and only program of its type, responding to the needs of students with a variety of developmental, cognitive and physical disabilities including students with Downs Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, traumatic brain injuries and other challenges.
The program is unique in that it “sidestreams” students alongside mainstream “year-in-Israel” programs for typical young adults. The women’s program, Midreshet Darkaynu, runs alongside OTS’s Midreshet Lindenbaum program while the men’s program, Yeshivat Darkaynu, is located at Yeshivat Har Etzion. Sidestreaming enables the Darkaynu students to seamlessly participate in activities in which they can excel and build confidence such as dorm living, mealtimes, prayers, trips and outings, but to be separated whenever they need individualized attention, a formula which empowers them to flourish in a setting designed especially for them, rather than being the ‘special’ kids in a ‘normal’ environment.
The Darkaynu Israel experience includes Jewish studies classes, volunteering, and travel around the country, like many other year-in-Israel programs. In addition, students have vocational training, including opportunities in local restaurants, supermarkets, libraries, kindergartens and the like, as well as individual lessons aimed at enhancing interpersonal skills and strengthening life skills with an eye toward future independence.
The past two years have been particularly challenging for Darkaynu’s organizers who struggled to ensure the students could still benefit from the Israel experience but were limited by the many obstacles presented by the pandemic. The sincere hope is that for the eight girls and twelve boys who arrived in Israel this week, the year will be able to go ahead without any major inconveniences.
“I am so excited to finally be here in Israel and can’t wait to have a real learning experience,” said Chaya Brayman of Rochester, NY.” Even though we are now in mandatory isolation, we are having a lot of fun and spending quality time getting to know each other well.”
“At the heart of Ohr Torah Stone’s message is the belief that Judaism belongs to every Jew regardless of his or her background or abilities, and that it should therefore be made accessible to anyone who wishes to grow closer,” said Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone. “As educators, parents and people who represent Torah values, we are obligated to create the frameworks to enable this also for people with special needs and to provide them with necessary solutions in all areas of life, including the year-in-Israel experience.”