In a modest apartment in the town of Alon Shvut outside of Jerusalem, a group of young men are enjoying the experience of living together in ways many thought impossible just a few years ago.
The four men all came from America for the gap year Israel experience, a coming-of-age opportunity for tens of thousands of young Diaspora Jews each year. But what sets these four apart is that they are a part of the special needs community, which had long been deprived of such educational and social opportunities.
Like other year-in-Israel participants, the four and their peers have come to Israel to study and tour the land. The fact that they can do this while enjoying and maintaining their own their own living quarters is part of the vision of the program in which they are enrolled: The Elaine and Norm Brodsky Darkaynu Programs were founded 18 years ago as part of the Ohr Torah Stone educational network, inspired by the concept that young men and women with special needs deserve those same opportunities to learn Torah and appreciate their connection to the Jewish homeland.
"Darkaynu is driven by the belief that Torah needs to be accessible to everyone, and that means opening doors that might have previously been closed," explained Rabbi Kenneth Brander, President and Rosh Hayeshiva (dean) of Ohr Torah Stone (OTS).
"Study in Israel has proven itself as not just a religious, educational, or social experience but is essentially a transformative opportunity that helps shape the very nature of the next generation. There is no doubt that young women and men with special needs should be entitled to the same opportunity to explore their Jewish identity, establish deep ties and appreciate the Jewish homeland and become independent and confident in the very same ways that the mainstream young community does."
The original concept of Darkaynu Programs was developed by its Director, Elana Goldscheider, who had spent years developing and implementing programming for what is now the OU's Yachad, NJCD. When a camper expressed a wistful interest in going to Israel in the fall just like all the other kids her age, Goldscheider understood the need for a program that would allow young adults with special needs to also benefit from the study-in-Israel experience.
"For decades now, teens with special needs have grown up watching neighbors, siblings, and friends getting on planes and leaving for Israel, and naturally they asked themselves 'why can’t we be doing the same thing?'" she explained. "I realized that there was no good answer to that question and set about creating a framework to make those dreams possible."
Goldscheider approached the OTS with the idea of establishing a program at its women's seminary, Midreshet Lindenbaum, and received an immediate, positive response. The establishment of the men's program came three years later.
In the Midreshet Darkaynu program for young women and the Yeshivat Darkaynu program for young men, students live in a setting that is supervised 24 hours a day, but directly engage with their typically-developing fellow students through "sidestreaming" – a concept developed and coined by Goldscheider, in which students engage in a highly-structured program of their own, but within a larger, mainstream environment. This unique approach allows them to live in the dormitories alongside their mainstream peers from overseas and to be integrated into Shabbatonim, trips, and other social activities while also giving them special courses and individualized attention when needed.
But the idea for independent housing was inspired by the recognition that some of the more veteran students were ready for the opportunity to manage their own spaces and time. The four young men – Yochanan Gittleson, Eli Tropper, Nissin Katz, and Yehoshua Hoffman – are in their third years studying at Yeshivat Darkaynu, and are responsible for much of the upkeep of their apartment including occasional cooking, biweekly hosting of the other students for events and "chill nights," and more.
A part–time "madrich," or dorm counselor, is there every morning and evening to start and finish the day, and staff are available at any time should the need arise, but the four men thrive in the understanding that they are living independently and have the gained confidence in knowing that they are responsible for their own homes. "I’ve learned how long I need to get ready in the morning and how to fine tune my schedule," explained Hoffman.
According to Avi Ganz, Yeshivat Darkaynu’s director, when the four young men first arrived in Israel three years ago, their focus as well as that of the program was not about independent living off campus – first they had to learn to navigate supported living on campus. But over the course of their first two years in Israel at Darkaynu, including particularly challenging stints associated with the pandemic, the four progressed in developing practical life skills like cleaning, basic food preparation, time management, and even basic household budgeting. Even more importantly, the program worked to instill a sense of self-confidence that they could live on their own. While it is commonplace for others to take care of shopping or cleaning, only the individual can maintain his or her own confidence.
"These years are among the most formative in a student's life. We are very proactive in our approach to maximizing the learning and experiential elements of time in Yeshiva," says Ganz. "I am blessed to work with an incredible team of dedicated educators where our focus is on our students, as individuals, and not on the program or the group. It takes a diverse and confident group of individuals to contribute to a productive whole. The ultimate proof of the value of this model is in what we’re seeing in this apartment."
"During the first three years of the program I learned how to be independent," says Gittelson. "How and when to do laundry, to be responsible for going to bed on time without anyone telling me, to make sure my room is clean."
Gittelson welcomes the chance to prove that the Darkaynu apartment model is working.
"After I finish this year and return to the US, I think I'd like to go into an apartment there with friends, just like I have here in Israel," he says.