At the elongated study desk, the two young women are discussing Passover and
the Haggada, the text read at the Passover Seder. “Why is so much of the Haggada
written in Aramaic and not Hebrew?” asks one. Her study partner isn’t sure, and
flips through the commentaries in the book they’re both using. They think
of examples in Aramaic. “ Ha lahma anya – this is the bread of affliction,” says
one of them.
I can’t help thinking of the words “ kol dichfin, kol
ditzrich ” – the poignant “All who are hungry, come in and eat; all who are
needy come in and make Passover” that is read in the same passage.
early evening at Midreshet Lindenbaum, one of the most prestigious study halls
for women acquiring advanced Jewish education. Tall Talmud tractates and other
primary sources dominate the tabletop book stands, but a few English-language
Jewish classics like Lonely Man of Faith , If You were God,
and Genesis and the
are tucked into the bookshelves too. The brainiest graduates of the
world’s top Jewish high schools compete for spots in this program, hoping to
fine-tune their Jewish study skills before heading to Harvard, the University
of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
Two weeks before Passover,
nearly everyone is focused on the upcoming festival. Almost every desk has a
copy of Pesahim
, the third tractate of Seder Moed
, the section of the dense
compendium of Jewish thought that deals with Passover. As in all religious study
halls, most studying is conducted in hevrutot
, pairs of students working
together to unravel the meaning and significance of complex texts. At the back
of the room, I spot a famous teacher studying one-on-one with a lucky
But tonight I’ve come to eavesdrop at the tables where one
partner is a young woman in the regular program of Midreshet Lindenbaum and the
other is a member of the Darkaynu (“our path”) program, geared for high school
graduates with special needs. Nearly every weekday, pairs of students meet to
study in the hall. I’ve chanced on these young women during women’s night at the
Jerusalem Pool and admired the sweetness of the atmosphere among the volunteers
and the participants, despite severe physical, developmental and emotional
challenges. I met them again in their orange T-shirts toward the end of the
Jerusalem Marathon, valiantly walking hand in hand. The same volunteers and
counselors who swim and run with them make this post-high school year in Israel
for teens with special needs not only possible but sensational. There’s a
parallel program for young men at the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut in Gush
The study pairs I join are all focused on Passover, too. They’re
using Haggadot with English translations of the Hebrew and Aramaic. A few pairs
are reviewing Seder basics, while others are tackling tougher questions like
the one above. Several of the 11 women with special needs attended public
school, while others went to yeshivot with special education programs like the
New Jersey-based Sinai schools for children with learning and developmental
disabilities. Still others were fully mainstreamed.
At one table, sits a
Darkaynu student who is legally blind. Her study partner is doing all the
reading, reviewing the 10 plagues. They’re troubled by the English translation
“vermin,” which could suit several plagues. Another young woman can recite
whole paragraphs of the Haggada by heart but is fretting about her mother’s
upcoming visit to be with her for Passover. “I’m worried about her coming. She
treats me like a baby,” she says.
At another table, the subject is why
some Sephardi Jews eat rice on Passover. At still another, they’re talking
about the Four Sons. My stomach twists. How are they going to get through “the
simple son,” I worry. But the pair sails through it, seeming not to
notice that for one of them this term might have significant resonance. They’re
comfortable with each other. After all, they’ve been studying together since
In addition to study, the participants volunteer in food
preparation for the elderly, kindergartens and school offices. They go on hikes
and spend Shabbatot with adoptive families. They get more supervision than
participants in most other programs, but they have never had to deal with the
alcohol or drug problems that have plagued some year-in-Israel
UNTIL DARKAYNU started 11 years ago, special-ed students would
listen with envy as their siblings weighed the pros and cons of the many
year-long programs they could attend in Israel after high school. They would
have to stay home.
The initiative for Darkaynu began with the sensitivity of two women who were saddened when a friend’s sister with Down syndrome
couldn’t find a program in Israel that would accept her.
Keren Gluch and
Ilana Goldscheider, two religious special-ed experts, were behind the
initiative. Both Americans, they’ve since made aliya.
“I was determined
that we could find a way for our friend’s sister to come to Israel for a year,
but Ilana always thinks bigger. She’s a program creator,” says
Goldscheider had started and run a bunk for special-ed kids at
Camp Morasha in Pennsylvania.
They approached Tova Rhein, the head of
Midreshet Lindenbaum, and got an enthusiastic response from her. Approval
followed from Ohr Torah Stone and its chancellor, Jerusalem Post
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
Over 100 young people have completed the program
Most of the extra effort goes into interviewing and training the
volunteers and counselors, says Gluch. While other gap-year programs may
have difficulty finding counselors, this one has an abundance of goodhearted, highly motivated candidates, she says. Some are drawn from second-year
National Service volunteers. Others, like Rachaeli Samuel from Toronto,
are students in the advanced program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. Samuel felt
so enriched by the hevruta with Darkaynu girls that she stayed an extra year to
work with them.
When I got home, I checked the commentaries on the “Kol
dichfin/ kol ditzrich” passage in the half-dozen Haggadot we have.
Significantly, Rabbi Riskin’s commentary lingers on the distinction between the
hungry and the needy. The needy, he says, are those who have “fallen beneath the
wheels of our increasingly demanding and abrasive society.” The experience
of the Seder, he says, provides food for both the body and the
The young Jews of Darkaynu may have special needs, but engulfed
in this caring program, they are not needy. They’ll be full participants
at this year’s Seder, celebrating Redemption with all of our
people.The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous
stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations
for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her
columns are her own.