The opportunity to spend a gap year in Israel is a right of passage for many young Jewish adults in the Diaspora. In Orthodox circles, it's customary to mark the transition from high school to college with a year studying in a yeshiva in the Holy Land.
But until Darkaynu was founded in 2003, there was no program specifically geared to helping students with disabilities participate in gap year.
This week, 29 students from the United States, Canada, Australia and England arrived in Israel to begin their year in the Jewish state through Darkaynu, making it the largest cohort since the group's founding.
Learning Jewish and life skills
According to the organization's website, Darkaynu is "the only year-in-Israel programs for young women and men with special needs, providing students with a full-time social and academic program within a mainstream environment, and enabling them to gain independence and acquire life skills while reinforcing their ties with Israel and the Jewish people."
The program runs alongside mainstream gap year programs, with the men’s program at Yeshivat Har Etzion and the women’s program at OTS’s Midreshet Lindenbaum.
The year features Jewish studies classes, volunteering and traveling around the country, in addition to vocational training in local restaurants, supermarkets, libraries and kindergartens to enhance interpersonal and life skills needed for the future.
“This model has proven itself as an empowering opportunity for our students, enabling them to build confidence and excel as they live in the same dormitories as other students and experience the excitement of being on a campus with many other young people," explained Elana Goldscheider, Darkaynu's director.
"At the same time, they are in a modified program tailored to meet their specific needs, and receive individualized attention in places it is needed, such as in the classroom or in workshops on life skills, independent living or interpersonal relations."
Darkaynu has been such a success that some students return for a second year, such as Tuvia Minchenberg from Passaic, New Jersey.
“Last year I was able to go on a lot of trips and meet a lot of new people, to learn a lot about Israel – and had one of the best years of my life,” he said before the flight.
“Last year I was able to go on a lot of trips and meet a lot of new people, to learn a lot about Israel – and had one of the best years of my life."Tuvia Minchenberg, Darkaynu participant