Hebrew school, Camp Ramah, United Synagogue Youth, Hillel and Nativ.
That is the road map of David Abraham’s Jewish identity. And when no other opportunities were waiting in the wings, the 30-year-old decided to stick with the leadership program Nativ – not as a participant but as a professional, specifically the assistant director for Yozma, a new program track for young adults with cognitive and social challenges.
For Abraham, the position combines his passion for education, his commitment to individuals with special needs, and his love of Israel.
Making Jewish connections wasn’t easy in Abraham’s hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which he says has an estimated 10,000 Jews, most of whom were only visible during the High Holy Days.
“My mom started the USY chapter so we could have the same experience as she did in upstate New York,” Abraham says, referring to his two siblings. “It was also very important for her to send us to Camp Ramah in Ojai, California, which became our second home.”
When he was 15, the Abraham family moved from New Mexico to Arizona.
When he arrived, he found kids who also attended Ramah, a larger USY chapter, and a stronger Conservative synagogue, which he calls “a huge upgrade in the Jewish community.”
As a teen, Abraham spent most of his time with his USY and Ramah friends. He ran for and won the USY Regional president position, which he says was “the apex of my Jewish career up until then.”
Once his camp and USY were days behind him, he enrolled in Nativ, a gap-year program in Israel, where he volunteered at Soroka-University Medical Center in Beersheba. Although he wanted to work in the children’s ward, he was needed more in the emergency room where he spent two days each week. He also worked two days a week as the only volunteer in a local elementary school.
“It was the next logical step after my USY regional presidency,” he says of his decision to participate in Nativ.
“I was happy I was in Israel, making an impact, and helping a real Israeli community. It opened my eyes to what Israel was, where I fit in, and what Israel was for me and the Jewish people as a whole. Also, I love education and I love kids. My mom was a teacher and I would volunteer at her school. I just always liked being with kids.”
Wanting to take his interest in children to a more professional level, Abraham returned to the US and enrolled in the University of Arizona, Tucson, majoring in elementary education with a minor in Judaic studies. He returned to Camp Ramah as a staff member and became involved with Tikvah, its program for children with special needs.
“That’s where my passion really started taking off,” he explains. “One of the main things that the kids taught me was how to appreciate the life they have and to adapt my life to help them, which improved my life. I connected with them, but I didn’t see things through their eyes until then.”
During his eight summers staffing Tikvah, Abraham worked with 10- to 22-year-old campers with Asperger’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, and Down’s syndrome, among other disabilities. In 2008, the then-22-year-old decided to make aliya, forgoing a full-time teaching position in Arizona.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he says about why he decided to move to Israel instead of staying in the US.
“I don’t know if anyone truly knows. There is something special that causes us to move here. It’s hard to put into words. There is a connection with Israel. I like the way of life here.”
Abraham arrived as a lone soldier and lived on a kibbutz in the North with a group of other young people who also decided to move to Israel to join the IDF, and an adoptive family, without whom he says he never would have survived.
Thinking the army would capitalize on his education background, the college graduate instead found himself as a tank driver and then a tank commander. He passed the commander’s course – the “proudest moment” of his life. Post- IDF, Abraham moved to Tel Aviv for two years, teaching English and staffing Solomon Schechter trips to Israel.
“I was getting paid to tour Israel and show my Israel to 12th graders,” he says of the experience. “I was teaching my passion.”
Abraham enrolled in Bar-Ilan University to study special education with a focus on autism. Because the program was taught entirely in Hebrew and was more theoretical than the practical curriculum he was seeking, he again returned to the US to study, beginning at Columbia University’s Teachers College and ending with a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from the University of Kentucky. This was his path to working with adults with disabilities, helping them to accomplish their personal goals as well as ensuring their inclusion in the general community.
While working on his master’s degree, Abraham continued building his practical skills. He worked in New York as a case manager for adults with special needs to improve their “soft skills,” for example, how to make appropriate eye contact. He also worked in conjunction with Yeshiva and Pace universities, providing career services for students with special needs, as well as planning social activities such as field trips or to the theater.
“I like experiential education,” Abraham notes. “Sitting in a classroom, you can learn a lot, but you have to put it into practice.”
Three years after moving to New York, the oleh returned to Israel to head Yozma, the new Nativ track, which launched in August 2015.
“Some students can fall through the cracks without support,” Abraham says.
“This initiative includes those who need extra support to experience the same gap year program as their peers. The idea is for people who can live independently but have cognitive and social challenges that make day-to-day living activities difficult.”
The first cohort of Yozma in 2015- 2016 had participants from New Jersey and Tennessee. California, Massachusetts and Delaware joined the list during the 2016-2017 year.
“They do everything with Nativ and they are completely integrated with accommodations,” Abraham explained.
“The biggest thing we say is we don’t want to do things for them; we want to give them the tools, so when they return home they are more confident.”
Yozma staff assist the 18- to 21-yearolds with organizational skills, social interactions and academics. Two counselors help with individualized accommodations such as carrying a lesser academic load than their peers or helping to prepare for a trip or seminar. The goal is to support these students toward their transition to college and to ensure they have the necessary strategies to help them succeed.
“We are teaching them to become advocates and giving them their own voice,” Abraham says of the approach, adding that parents are seeing benefits to their children. And typically developing Nativ peers also are benefiting by having their eyes opened to the greater community and learning what it means to give people a chance to succeed.
“We’ve heard having [students with disabilities] in the group is challenging but everyone is grateful for the experience,” Abraham says. “It is eye-opening about how to be inclusive. That is always the goal of any inclusive program.”