The Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County is spearheading new programming and support groups for families with special needs youngsters.
In partnership with New Jersey Yachad, an affiliate of the Orthodox Union, the programs are intended to make the community more inclusive for those with disabilities, regardless of Jewish denomination or affiliation.
The partnership will kick off on Sept. 27 with a meeting for parents outlining how they can become involved. The partnership will also introduce two Yachad coordinators, Tobey Lass and Jeremy Lichtman, who are facilitating the Middlesex program.
“Federation leverages the strength of its community to care for the vulnerable, a core value expressed through our mission for decades,” said federation executive director Gerrie Bamira. “Our goal is to build the capacity of the entire community to be inclusive and truly welcoming for children with special needs and their families.”
The Sept. 27 program follows up on a family day and conference held with Yachad in March. Other activities include a support group for parents and monthly Sunday programs for special needs children and young adults.
“What’s important is that we don’t have self-contained groups,” said NJ Yachad director Chani Herrmann. “We run programs pairing those with and without special needs.”
The Middlesex chapter will be working with youth groups in seeking volunteers.
Herrmann said Yachad has formed similar chapters across the state, including an extensive program in Bergen County.
NJ Yachad began offering vocational training for young adults on Sept. 10 in cooperation with the state Division of Developmental Disabilities, which Herrmann anticipates will draw Middlesex participants.
Lee Livingston of East Brunswick has long sought to establish programming to address the issues of those with special needs. He recalled that several years ago, as federation president, he formed a steering committee to investigate opening a group home for disabled Jewish young adults. It proved “an overwhelmingly daunting task.”
If organizers accepted state or federal funding for the home, it could not legally be exclusively Jewish. Meanwhile, enough private funding wasn’t available in the community. Livingston said the committee “hasn’t given up hope.”
“That led to trying to find alternative options for the special needs population,” he said.
He referred to studies showing that one in 10 youngsters has special needs.
“Our own demographic study found there were 10,000 kids in Middlesex County,” said Livingston. “That means 1,000 kids here have a need.”
Federation is exploring the possibility of establishing a day care program and last year began a respite program for parents. It has also provided camp scholarships for 15 years to children with special needs. Livingston expects to announce within a few weeks the establishment of a weekly Hebrew school program for special needs children.
The overriding concern, however, seems to be the need for a parental support group.
“Every meeting I’ve attended has seemed to turn into a parental support group,” said Livingston. “Every parent feels they are not connected. They are isolated. Even if it’s not true, they [feel they] are the only parent who knows what it’s like to stay up all night with a special needs child. They are the only one who knows what it’s like when their synagogue tells them not to bring their kid to services because he’s too disruptive.”
The two coordinators will also be available to work with parents. Lichtman, who is beginning a doctoral program in psychology at Rutgers, is moving to Highland Park next month.
Lass, a 24-year-old applied behavioral analysis instructor in Manhattan, has a master’s degree in intellectual disabilities and autism. She has been working with youngsters with disabilities since her days as a student at East Brunswick High School. She began working with Yachad three years ago.
“When I got involved in Yachad the first thing I said I wanted to do was bring Yachad into my old neighborhood,” said Lass. “Now I’m very proud it’s coming here and I’m honored they asked me to be part of the program, which is so needed in the community where I grew up and where my family still lives.”
She and Lichtman are planning to run activities ranging from Shabbatons to those involving a general integration into the larger Jewish community.
“We want to bring them out of the shadows and into the light as part of the larger Jewish community,” said Lass. “We also want to work with the community to open its eyes to the need to provide accessibility to the disabled.”