New program offers a Jewish home for young adults on the autism spectrum.
The downpour drenching the streets of White Plains last week didn’t affect the Sabbath calm that had descended on the 12 people inside the Taft Community Center. The group joined to recite the candle-lighting blessings and prayers for Israel and healing, then sang the traditional Shabbat songs “Oseh Shalom” and “Shalom Aleichem,” followed by Kiddush and a Friday-night dinner together.
They were part of “Shelanu” (“Ours”), a program for young Jewish adults, ages 18-35, on the autism disorder spectrum.
Westchester Jewish Community Services developed the program, which is funded through a $150,000 grant from the UJA-Federation of New York. “We’re committed to a community that is as inclusive as possible. We want young adults on the autism spectrum to feel welcome in the Jewish community,” said Alex Roth-Kahn, managing director of the Federation’s Caring Commission.
To that end, the charity has funded programs that encourage both independence and inclusion, said Melanie Goldberg, planning executive with the Caring Commission. Starting with 18-year-olds is “a target for many programs because it’s a key development point,” she said. “Parents have described this time as ‘falling off a social services cliff.’”
Currently the program has 10 members; each pays $45 to join, which includes the option of bringing a friend to one program a month. Since the program launched in April, about 25 young adults have attended at least one event.
Patricia L. Grossman, director of outpatient services for People with Developmental Disabilities at WJCS in Hartsdale, said the program emerged from the need for something to engage young Jewish adults on the autism spectrum — many of whom say they don’t feel like they have a place in the Jewish community after high school.
“We knew there were individuals who were disenfranchised from synagogue; others were connected to synagogue, but feel uncomfortable. These are high-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum who crave socialization but don’t have the social skills to achieve that,” she said.
“They did not want another program,” she added. “They’re tired of going to a program. We wanted to establish a membership community where they could choose to come and pick from a menu of programs that are infused with Jewish values and traditions.”
It’s helpful to think of Shelanu as training wheels for socializing, using a membership model that’s analogous to joining a gym.
“It’s 100 percent your choice about what you want to attend,” said Robin Davies-Small, the program’s coordinator. “We tell them, ‘Tell me what you’re interested in and I’ll put it on the calendar.’ Any time a new individual joins, I ask, ‘What are you interested in?’”
Since April, activities have included “’Mocktails and Mixers,’ ‘Mock Iron Chef ‘[and] matzah pizza and a movie during Passover,” said Carrie Melcer, the program facilitator.
“We always link to Jewish values, so we’ll do volunteering with the elderly and have made Havdalah candles. It’s about re-connecting back to Judaism,” she said.
Other activities have included watching a Mets game, playing board games, bowling, gardening, and holiday-related events.
In addition, Shelanu offers a drop-in space at the Taft Community Center, Mondays from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (excluding holidays). Members are welcome to hang out, eat lunch, use the computer lab, or simply relax in the lounge.
Participants say that the chance to connect to peers in a Jewish context is a main attraction.
“I like the socializing part,” said Evan Rosen, a student at Westchester Community College. “It’s something to do.” His brother, Eitan Rosen, a student at Iona College, agreed, adding that he particularly likes being able to interact with other Jews.
“Here we’re facilitating more of the conversation,” Melcer said. “It’s about linking people, and letting them go.”
For more information about Shelanu, contact Robin Davies-Small, firstname.lastname@example.org, or (914) 949-7699, x509.
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