Splashing in a pool was a meaningful part of Matthew Waizer’s gap year in Israel.
The 18-year-old Highland Park resident returned to New Jersey in June from studying at Yeshivat Shaarei Mevaseret Tzion outside of Jerusalem. While there he volunteered at Shalva: the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities. Waizer was part of the Ambassadors Program, which launched in 2016 to attract gap-year students to Shalva’s volunteer opportunities.
“The organization is amazing,” said Waizer. “It’s just so easy and fun to work in the environment at Shalva. It is an incredibly special place where people from so many different backgrounds come to bond.”
Shalva serves 2,000 individuals with disabilities from infancy to adulthood and their families. Programs include a host of therapies, inclusive educational frameworks, recreational activities, as well as respite and overall support.
Under the guidance of therapists, Waizer assisted those with cognitive disabilities at the Shalva National Center in Jerusalem, which draws participants from across the country. For example, “The therapist instructed me how to hold kids who can’t swim,” he said, noting that was especially important in the case of one youngster who uses a wheelchair.
After his weekly sessions on Tuesday afternoons, he often chose to stay and eat dinner with his charges.
“Then I would continue to hang out with them until everyone’s rides came to pick them up,” said Waizer, whose family belongs to Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison.
A graduate of Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison and the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, Waizer said he chose a gap year in Israel to “focus on religious and spiritual growth” before college. He hopes to return to Israel for another semester of study — and to continue to volunteer at Shalva — before he begins his full-time college studies. He is spending the summer working in a lab and taking classes at Rutgers University as he prepares to major in biochemistry in college, probably at Yeshiva University, either in the spring or next year.
Working with individuals who have disabilities isn’t a new experience for Waizer, who developed an interest in the special needs community when he was in eighth grade after a Shabbaton with Yachad — an Orthodox Union-affiliated organization that addresses the needs, and ensures the inclusion, of Jews with disabilities.
“I’ve been involved with volunteering ever since,” said Waizer. He also spent a summer in high school participating in Yachad’s Yad B’Yad summer program, in which high school students participate in a trip to Israel with young adults who have disabilities.
Being a part of Shalva this past year built on Waizer’s earlier experiences and created a lasting appreciation for the needs of others.
“It was an absolutely tremendous experience for me,” said Waizer, the son of David and Mindy Waizer and grandson of Jonas and Clara Waizer of Edison. “I grew so much from the opportunity. I really learned not to think of myself so much, but rather to think of others. It was also so inspiring to see the kids so happy just by me helping them to do things they normally couldn’t do.”