Feeling at Home
Students from the Elaine and Norm Brodsky Yeshivat Darkaynu program have been welcomed warmly into their new ‘home away from home’ on OTS’s Beren Campus for Men. Student Yochanon Gittleson: “I was worried that because of corona, the program might not happen this year. I’m so happy to be here in Israel, learning Torah with my friends.”
Amidst the many challenges of COVID-19, there have also been silver linings. Due to stringent government regulations and health and logistics considerations, young men in the Elaine and Norm Brodsky Yeshivat Darkaynu for Men are spending this year living and learning alongside students in the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva, located just outside of Efrat.
Darkaynu is the only program to offer young adults with special needs the same opportunity as their peers to spend a year learning and touring in Israel through a unique “sidestreamed” curriculum, in which students engage in a highly-structured program of their own, but within a larger mainstream environment. Each student also develops important life and vocational skills that foster independence and a sense of accomplishment.
“Our students look forward to coming to Israel with staff and peers who understand them, and to being part of a yeshiva where the young men treat them just like everyone else,” says Avi Ganz, director of the men’s program. “It was really important to us to do everything possible to make the logistical accommodations so that the program could take place this year, and we are thrilled to be on the Israel Henry Beren Men’s Campus.”
Despite accommodations which have included a capsule (small group) system of learning, mask-wearing, and vocational classes on the actual yeshiva campus rather than at workplaces, this year’s crop of Darkaynu students are thrilled to be in Israel.
Yochanon Gittleson is a 21-year-old man with Down’s syndrome from North Miami Beach who has returned for his third year with Darkaynu. “I participate in Darkaynu for the opportunity to learn Torah in Israel and to learn how to be independent and responsible. I was worried that because of corona, the program might not happen this year. It’s definitely different – we have to wear masks and there are plastic dividers everywhere – but I’m so happy to be here in Israel, learning Torah with my friends,” he relates.
“The Darkaynu program has enabled Yochanon to be more self-sufficient. It has given him a greater sense of responsibility, not only to himself, but also to others,” says his mother, Fran. “Our goal is for Yochanon to live as fulfilling and independent a life as possible, despite having Down syndrome. The Darkaynu staff believes in each student and helps each one achieve as much as he possibly can. Yochanon has developed life skills, a sense of confidence, and a wonderful group of friends.”
The Special Darkaynu-Machanaim Connection
While chevruta learning has had to be adapted as Gittleson describes, with plastic sheeting between learning partners in order to maintain health regulations that restrict mixing between different capsule groups, the learning and the relationships that develop between Darkaynu and Machanaim students remain central components of the program.
When offered the opportunity to learn with a Darkaynu participant, Matis Roskind immediately volunteered and was matched with Yochanon. They study together every week.
“I asked Yochanon what he’d like to learn and then followed his lead,” Roskind says. “We study parshat hashavua and the halachot related to each holiday. I look forward to our time together and he seems to really enjoy it, as well. Having the Darkaynu group on campus really enriches our experience. Now that they are here, I can’t imagine my time at Machanaim without them.”
As an integral part of the Machanaim Yeshiva, Darkaynu students benefit from large-scale yeshiva programs and the special Shabbat atmosphere on campus. Relationships between Darkaynu and Machanaim students were solidified recently when the sprinklers went on 20 minutes before the onset of Shabbat in the part of the dorm where the Darkaynu students live. This unexpected event ended with a beautiful sense of unity and connection as the Machanaim students came running to help move furniture and clothing and make sure everyone was ok.
“The Machanaim students really showed their sensitivity towards our Darkaynu group during a challenging situation,” notes Ganz. “This sense of connection continued throughout Shabbat, during the meals, and with beautiful singing and dancing during the melave malka on Friday night after dinner. It was a wonderful sense of togetherness and showed how much Machanaim has welcomed our Darkaynu students into the yeshiva in such a warm and beautiful way.”