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20 years of Darkaynu: The year-in-Israel program for Jews with special needs

The overall goal of the Elaine and Norm Brodsky Darkaynu Program is to teach students practical skills for living a Jewish life, encompassing Shabbat observance and kashrut. 

By Alan Rosenbaum | March 23, 2024

DARKAYNU WOMENS first visit to the Old City and the Kotel is a dream come true for manyDarkaynu [our path], the first and only program that brings special-needs young people to spend a year in Israel, learning Torah and touring, marks its 20th anniversary this year.

In today’s inclusive society, such a program may seem par for the course, but 20 years ago it was a revolutionary move for participants with a range of cognitive and physical challenges such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, and traumatic brain injury.

The history of Darkaynu

Elana Goldscheider, founding director of the Elaine and Norm Brodsky Darkaynu Program, explains that the inspiration for the program came from one of her special-needs students in the late 1990s.

While working at Camp Morasha in Lakewood, Pennsylvania, Goldscheider ran a program for children with special needs who had special bunks set up within the camp.

“One of my campers that summer was a 16-year-old girl named Tikva Juni,” she recalls. “When I started the program, she said to me, ‘I want to go to Israel for the year.’ I said, ‘I will make it happen.’”

When Juni graduated high school, Goldscheider looked for ways to keep her promise.

“We had thought we would bring her to a regular women’s seminary and mainstream her in,” she says. “I said, ‘Why bring just one student? Let’s create a program.’”

Goldscheider developed the concept and, in 2002, approached the Ohr Torah Stone educational network with the idea of incorporating it into its educational system. The program was approved, and a year later Midreshet Darkaynu for Women opened on Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum campus.

Lindenbaum was selected because of the numerous other projects that operate there, among them various ones in Hebrew and one for overseas students. “We wanted to be seen as one of the many programs they run in the building.” It hosted seven students in its first year, and three years later in 2006, a men’s department was opened on the campus of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion.

AVI GANZ, who heads the men’s program, known as Yeshivat Darkaynu, explains that for the students being 6,000 miles away from home provides a singular, real-life experience that encourages growth and maturity.

“Even in special-education programs which teach some life skills, it is a synthetic environment.

“They put an oven in the school, and the participants go on a field trip and spend money at the local pizza shop or grocery store. Here, it is immersive and organic because the students have to do their own laundry and have to get pizza occasionally, and restock shampoo or make plans for spending Shabbat out. Here, it is with real-time feedback. There is nothing synthetic about it. We actually go to the store.

“‘Organic’ and ‘immersive’ are the two key words here.”

Ganz continues, “People with disabilities should have their chance at a year in Israel.

Darkaynu men“The idea was that someone with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy or autism or severe learning disabilities should have a place for them as well, assuming that there is nothing else that would preclude them from coming (such as a severe medical condition or behavioral issue).”

Goldscheider adds, “These are students who, for the most part, were the only special-ed students in their school, and now they make friends with people just like them, to whom they really have not been exposed. They develop relationships and friendships, which are amazing to watch.”

Since Darkaynu is the only full-year-in-Israel program open to students with disabilities, it has a wide range of students in terms of abilities, disabilities, and diagnoses, as well as socio-political and socio-religious backgrounds. The program provides three levels of supervision for the students. The most central level is that of the counselors, who are always with the students. The ratio is one counselor for three students.

The second level is provided by the administrative staff in each program, while the third is supplied on the peripheral level of the school, through social workers, teachers, and study partners from other programs at Lindenbaum and Har Etzion, who are assigned to the students.

A term frequently used in special education is “mainstreaming,” in which special-education students are placed in a general classroom for specific periods. At Darkaynu, Goldscheider coined the term “sidestreaming,” in which Darkaynu students study in separate classes that are tailored to their needs, but they mingle with the other students in the Lindenbaum and Har Etzion programs.

“We are not mainstreamed in their classes, but we are mainstreamed at lunch and during davening [prayers]. We are mainstreamed in all non-academic activities. We live in the same building,” explains Ganz.

On an average year, the girls’ program has between eight and 16 students. This year, the numbers are a bit lower with eight girls in the program, which Goldscheider says is due to the war.

DARKAYNU’S PROGRAM always begins in the fall, after Simchat Torah. After the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, the Darkaynu staff were not sure if the program should proceed as scheduled. They delayed the opening until October 31, and then taught students to locate the bomb shelters when sirens would sound.

As in all schools in Israel, the students at Darkaynu, too, have been affected by the war. The brother of a staff member in the girls’ program was killed on the first day of the war, which weighed heavily on the students.

Because of the overall uncertainty, students have a bit less freedom. “We have given them less independence to take a bus on their own,” says Goldscheider.

“I am very wary, and I’m not sure what will happen if the siren goes off.”

The girls in Darkaynu have picked grapefruits for short-staffed farmers, and, she adds, they feel great pride in their ability to help. They have also assisted in delivering food and packages to families during the war, which gives them a sense of belonging.

“This is a population that most often is on the receiving end,” says Ganz. “We encourage them to be givers.”

Four of the eight girls in this year’s program have Down syndrome, and the others have a range of disabilities. Goldscheider explains that even within the definition of Down, there are many variations. In order to be accepted into the program, students have to be able to manage basic life skills, dress themselves, get to class, and follow a schedule. The girls’ counselors live with them on a full-time basis.

“The idea is that I want to enable any student to come to Israel. We tweak the program for students to make it work for their needs,” she says.

Students work every morning in various settings before their afternoon studies. They begin the year with a job coach who works with them, getting them accustomed to their list of tasks at the workplace and helping them reach a comfort level with the workers. The coaches also liaise between the employer or supervisor and the students to ensure that the relationship runs smoothly. Once all parties agree to take the next step, the job coach will withdraw into the background. The process can last a few days or a few weeks, and occasionally a few months.

Midreshet Darkaynu’s young women work in kindergartens as assistants, in office administration, kitchens, clothing stores, and offices. Yeshivat Darkaynu male students work in the local winery, supermarket, school, libraries, restaurants, and IDF base kitchens. Some students walk to work, others take buses, and others are taken to and from work.

Darkaynu’s overall goal, says Goldscheider, is to teach them practical skills for living a Jewish life, encompassing Shabbat observance and kashrut.

Classes are geared toward fitting into conversations and patterns of Jewish society. “If everyone is talking about the parashat hashavua [weekly Torah portion], we have a parashat hashavua class so they can be part of the conversation. If everyone talks about the great rabbis, we want them to be part of the conversation so they can know the names of the rabbis. Our classes reflect how we keep them in a Jewish community so that they can talk the talk and walk the walk.”

Darkaynu, says Ganz, keeps the academics on an age-appropriate level for the students, who range from 18 to 24 years old. While the program may include fewer hours of study than a standard Israeli post-high school program, Darkaynu places great emphasis on teaching its students the practical skills of Jewish living. He echoes Goldscheider, “We want everyone to live their lives in a Jewish way. We want to teach them that Hanukkah is more than just jelly donuts, and we want to teach them real applications of Halacha. When we study kashrut, we teach them the basics of practical Jewish law.”

ANOTHER WAY Darkaynu students learn the practicalities of daily Jewish life and how to maintain relationships is through the school’s adoptive family program. Students are paired with local families in Jerusalem for Midreshet Darkaynu and in Efrat or Gush Etzion for the men’s program – for dinner once a week and Shabbat once a month.

Students are dropped off and picked up from their hosts. “Over the course of their year or years,” Ganz notes, “students develop relationships with the family. It is an important part of life away from home to still maintain a ‘home away from home.’”

More than half of Darkaynu students stay for a second year, and in some cases return for additional years of study. Goldscheider says many of the students are faced with the challenge of what to do next in their lives.

“In this population,” she says, “some get married, and some go to US community colleges, but there is nothing great out there. They are not becoming doctors and lawyers and professionals. It is a hard next step, which is one of the reasons why often many return for several years.”

Ganz mentions Yeshiva University’s Makor College Experience, a three-year, non-degree program for young men (typically aged 18-25) with intellectual disabilities. Goldscheider says some students have remained in the Darkaynu program for as many as 10 years. “It’s because the program is fun, it keeps you busy, you are safe, you are learning, and there is nothing you are running to do next, so why not stay?”

The parents of Darkaynu students are happy with the program on many levels, says Goldscheider. For some, she explains, it is a dream for them that their child can be like their other children and study in Israel. In other cases, having their special-needs child spend a year in Israel also provides a needed mental respite for the parents.

Knowing the value and care they are receiving can also yield positive benefits for other children in the home. It can change the dynamics and bonds of the relationship between those children and their parents, now that their sibling, who requires more time and attention, is away for the year.

No less significant, she says, is the feeling of pride that parents can express that their child, like so many others, is studying in Israel. “There is something very powerful like that for a parent who doesn’t know what the goals of this child will be.”

Goldscheider contemplates the changes that have occurred over the past 20 years since the founding of Darkaynu. The use of smart phones and exposure to the Internet have impacted the students in much the same way as students in other Israel programs.

She quips that the program used to teach basic money skills to students, but now, like everyone else, they pay with their phones at the store and no longer have to fully understand those concepts. She is concerned that the job market for people with special needs is shrinking, as there is much less office work than there was when the program began.

“One of the gifts of the program,” Goldscheider notes, “is that it gives us a different program every year. Each year has its own personality and direction.” She emphasizes that each year’s program must be tailored to specific students’ needs. This year, the four girls with Down have influenced the nature of the program; last year, there was a blind student who shaped the tenor.

After 20 years, Goldscheider says that the enthusiasm of her charges is what keeps her motivated.

“The drive to keep going for another 20 years is that each time, they look at things as if they have never done it before with bright eyes. ‘Wow, we are at the Kotel,’ they say. ‘We are going to the Old City.’

“They have a naïve, beautiful approach to life. They give that to me. It is a great gift to be part of that enthusiasm.”

Read this article on the Jerusalem Post website

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