Darkaynu – This is Our Way
The blessed initiatives bringing young Jews from the Diaspora to a year of learning in Israel left young women and men with special needs behind. The Darkaynu programs succeed in makeing the Jewish and Zionist year-in-Israel experience accessible.
By Ariel Schnabel – Makor Rishon Weekend Supplement | 16 November, 2018
It happened about 16 years ago. Elana Goldscheider was assistant director at Yachad, a Jewish youth movement of sorts for teenagers with special needs operating in the USA. When she arrived with her students at Camp Morasha – an age-old tradition among American Jews – she erected a few cabins for campers with special needs alongside the regular cabins. It was a blast. But when camp ended, one of her campers approached her and said grimly: “Until now we were able to integrate well into regular society, but now it’s over.”
Goldscheider probed further, and the camper explained: “Now all my high school friends get to go to Israel for a whole year, but me? I don’t get to go.”
Goldscheider did some legwork and discovered that indeed, no such program existed for teenagers with special needs; in other words, they couldn’t do what was considered an unwritten law among Orthodox high school graduates: a year of hands-on learning in Israel. She decided to undertake the mission herself, turned to Ohr Torah Stone, and together the Elaine and Norm Brodsky Darkaynu program was launched, currently in its 16th year of activity.
So what exactly is Darkaynu?
“It is a post-high school program for high school graduates with special needs who want to come for a year to Israel after completing their high school studies. Many of the students learn in regular high schools, only to see their friends leaving for Israel while they stay behind, and their first thought is – ‘You’ve given me the chance to integrate into mainstream classrooms, and then it all ends when I hit 18?'”
Why did you turn to Ohr Torah Stone with your initiative?
“Naturally the ‘Anglo’ background plays a part here as well, and in terms of language it was easier, but it was also because I identified with the values of the organization. Ohr Torah Stone’s vision is one of tikkun olam, promoting the principles of social justice and advocating the idea that everybody belongs and nobody is left out. Moreover, I particularly wanted a place with ‘regular’ students to host our program, and that’s exactly what we did. Darkaynu is located on Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Chana and Yaakov Tilles Campus, in Jerusalem.
Can you tell us a little bit about how this integration takes place?
“As far as the academic program is concerned, our girls do not study with the Midreshet Lindenbaum overseas students. But all non-academic activity – breaks, sleep-time, Rosh Chodesh parties, various social activities – is done together. We see real friendships forming between Midreshet Darkaynu students and Midreshet Lindenbaum students”
How many girls are we talking about?
We started with six in the first year, and in recent years we have had between 10 and 15 girls each year. Most of our girls have developmental delays, although more recently we have started integrating girls with physical disabilities as well. This has been made possible thanks to Midreshet Lindenbaum’s accessibility policy – everything is accessible to wheelchairs.”
There is also a similar program for boys, right?
“Yes, we launched the boys’ program in 2006, and it is a completely separate program hosted on the Yeshivat Har Etzion campus, with about the same number of students as the girls. The boys’ group has its own director and I am the director of the girls’ group. But I am responsible for both.”
They keep coming back
Unlike other high school graduates who arrive in Israel and begin their academic year in the month of Elul, the students of Darkaynu only begin after the Jewish Holidays of Tishrei. “There are too many free days between Elul and the end of the Tishrei holidays, and our students require much closer supervision,” Goldscheider explains.
The boys’ and girls’ daily schedules are very full and similar to one another: one lesson in the morning; departure for vocational placements and working until 12:00; returning to the midrasha or yeshiva for lunch; attending various classes – Torah, life skills, social skills et cetera. The voacational placements are varied. It is considered to be an internship of sorts, and is therefore without pay. The day begins at seven in the morning and ends at nine-thirty at night, with close supervision by staff members.
I imagine the are big differences between the students. How does one build a uniform schedule for all of them?
“Those who come to us have to be sufficiently functional to be able to leave the house, get dressed on their own, perform daily chores, eat independently, pray and go to class. That’s the minimum. The maximum would be somebody who can get through this year without our help. Sometimes there’s a very fine line between the two, but the line is there nonetheless.
Are you saying that in the whole of the USA there are only 30 youngsters with special needs?
“That’s a good question, and I will even take it a step further: There are quite a few students in the group that keep coming back year after year, which means that the actual number of students we can accept is even smaller. They keep coming back because unfortunately their future isn’t bright. Here they feel good; their parents, too, can see that when they are here, they grow and develop and feel happy – so they keep sending them back. Also, we don’t only get students from the USA, we also accept students from Europe and Australia.
“Part of our curriculum includes familiarizing our students with different workplaces and having them work in numerous businesses and institutions for a few hours each week. They may not get paid, but it is still excellent preparation for joining the workforce in future, before they return home.”
A unique part of the program is having the students meet with an “occupational coach”, who gives them basic knowledge they would otherwise find it hard to acquire on their own. The coach explains to them how to get to work and how to conduct themselves in the work environment they have chosen. For example, they learn in which manner to talk to their superior, how to ask for more work, or, alternatively, how to explain that a job is too complicated for them. They also learn how one ends off a day at work and how to bid their colleagues goodbye. They work as “sous-chefs”, in kindergartens, stores, old-age homes, restaurants and so forth. “The point is to find our students jobs that will suit them best, and give them the know-how that will help them in future.”
The program participants also take part in voluntary work. “Our goal is to have them come to Israel not only to experience it, but to be able to give back to their country as well.” They volunteer in hospitals, give out food to the needy and learn about charity organizations in Israel. The boys’ program in the yeshiva also includes volunteering in an IDF army base once a week.
She has a dream
Ilana Goldscheider made aliya at the age of 31 when she was still single, and was married soon after establishing Darkaynu. She is a mother of three and lives with her family in close proximity to Midreshet Lindenbaum, in order to be close to her students.
One of them – Elena Bugoff – suddenly enters the room in the middle of our interview, and we are thrilled at the opportunity to talk to her. She tells us, in a shy manner, how much the program has given her: “There was no other program through which I could come to Israel. I didn’t even learn in a Jewish high school, and I really wanted to be with Jewish girls. Here I have friends, I am independent and can do many things on my own without my parents helping me. This is the first time ever that I am experiencing anything of the kind.”
Elena works as a teacher-assistant in a kindergarten. “I help the kids put their shoes on, wipe down the tables and I really enjoy it all.” But she has much bigger dreams: “I want to be a teacher when I am older. I made this decision two years ago. I want to be a high school teacher.” Elana looks at Elena with admiration – behold, another young woman who dares to dream about things she would not have imagined a few months back – and all because of Darkaynu.