This year's cohort of Ohr Torah Stone's Elaine and Norm Brodsky Darkaynu Programs arrived at Ben Gurion airport Tuesday afternoon. The chaperoned group was greeted by peers who had arrived earlier, as well as administrative staff, madrichot and madrichim (counselors) holding huge welcome signs and bearing snacks and drinks to refuel the students after their long flight.
The first and only Orthodox gap-year program in Israel for teens with special needs, Darkaynu - which literally means "our way" - provides its students with a full-time social and academic program within a mainstream environment, enabling them to gain independence and acquire life skills while reinforcing their ties with Israel and the Jewish people – just like everyone else.
Upon arrival, the students – who hail from Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Santiago, Toronto, St. Louis, New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. – headed to their respective campuses: OTS's Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, where the young women will be 'sidestreamed' alongside their typical counterparts from overseas; and Alon Shvut, where the young men are housed alongside their peers at Yeshivat Har Etzion. They are poised to embark upon a unique and phenomenal year-long experience of Torah learning, touring Israel, volunteering and working, through which they will acquire life skills, independence and self-esteem.
"We tend to get caught up in the needs of our day-to-day routine, but the beginning of the year is always filled with excitement and emotion," said Avi Ganz, director of Darkaynu's program for men. "Even now, on the eve of our 14th year, I'm struck by the import of each student's journey."
Darkaynu Founder and Director, Elana Goldscheider added, "It is always especially rewarding to see how our returning students take on leadership roles and, as the veterans, help the new students off the plane and with their luggage."
As the only Orthodox year-in-Israel program for young adults with special needs, the Darkaynu programs fill an important role: too often, these young men and women struggle to maintain meaningful relationships with their peers during their high school years. When they do develop meaningful relationships, they are ended abruptly after graduation as thousands of typical young adults make their way to Israel for a year of study and self-discovery. Thanks to Darkaynu, individuals with special needs can benefit from the same experiences and opportunities as their mainstream peers.
"People at home keep asking me if it's hard to send our (physically disabled) son to yeshiva in Israel," shared the father of one student. "I tell them it would be so hard not to. He has no social life anymore. The summer was very challenging and we were counting down the days." The father added, "Thanks for having this program. There's nothing, anywhere, that's anything like it."