Yachad (Hebrew for together), also known as the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, is a global organization dedicated to enhancing opportunities for individuals with disabilities and ensuring their participation in the full spectrum of Jewish life, while educating and advocating for a greater understanding and acceptance through community outreach. Their motto is “because everybody belongs.”
Tobey Lass-Karpel has been with Yachad for seven years and was recently appointed as the Riverdale Yachad coordinator. Lass-Karpel is a behavioral consultant, a graduate of Columbia University‘s Teachers College, with a master’s in early childhood intellectual disability and autism. She has worked with children and teenagers in formal and informal settings. “I am passionate about creating inclusive spaces.” explained Lass-Karpel.
While working with the youth departments of the neighborhood’s shuls to accommodate all youth and family’s needs, her objective is for shuls to send out the message “Your child is welcome here and we can accommodate you.” She believes that “with just small tweaks, all programs can be accessible for all children.” Her observations include wheelchair accessibility, large-print siddurim and chumashim, and assignment of members to assist those with mobility issues. New playgrounds should be designed with sensory items. Her current goal is for the Riverdale synagogues and community to know she is here and available as a resource for them. Further, she is a local resource serving families as they navigate the many options available, and providing physical and emotional support. “Parents should not feel isolated because their child does not fit the typical mold,” stated Lass-Karpel.
She emphasized, “Language is important; silence is taken as apathy and seen as not wanting to do something. This is not necessarily true. More likely, many don’t know how to vocalize the message. Now there is an organized group in the community advocating for individuals with special needs to be part of the Jewish community and that’s what I’m here for.”
Yachad lay leader and Riverdale inclusion board member Seryl Ritter stated, “I am most excited that Tobey is our first-ever Yachad coordinator for Riverdale, here to make the Riverdale community as inclusive and accessible as possible.” When asked about her involvement with Yachad, Seryl Ritter explained that she has been involved with Yachad for over 20 years. For her, it started with the first Riverdale Yachad shabbaton hosting Yachad youth and staff. Two years ago, Ritter co-chaired the first Yachad scholar-in-residence shabbaton.
This year, the Riverdale Jewish community participated in North American Inclusion Month (NAIM) by sponsoring an inclusion shabbaton, one of 60 events sponsored nationally by Yachad during this special month. The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, The Riverdale Jewish Center and The Young Israel of Riverdale hosted the events over Shabbat Yitro, February 2-3. The featured speaker was Ariella Baker, an attorney, writer and disability activist. She spoke to captive crowds about her personal experiences and “the importance to our Jewish values to include everyone in our communities,” Lass-Karpel reflected.
North American Inclusion Month was created by Yachad eight years ago as a way of recognizing the need for more opportunities for people with disabilities, including employment and education. The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.Res. 1014, by a vote of 389-0 on February 2, 2010, formally recognizing the Orthodox Union’s initiative, designating the month of February annually. In the Congressional Record that day, Congressman Patrick McHenry (R-NC) spoke on the House floor, stating “41.2 million Americans have a disability of some kind and many of them are unemployed or underemployed and struggling to live on what they make or even to survive. Mildly disabled individuals make less each month than those who are not disabled, and the severely disabled individuals take home almost $1,000 less than they otherwise would.”
“Most people value what Yachad does for the members they serve, that everyone has a place in the community. Everyone should fulfill their potential and thrive,” observed Ritter. Yachad’s resources include job training, job placement and lobbying for people with special needs. Ritter continued, “We all can relate to Yachad as a community; for a community to thrive and be vibrant it has to embrace all members of the community, and Yachad helps all of us embrace everyone, together.”
By Judy Berger