“I’m going to miss you,” a friend told me on my last day of study at Yeshivat Har Etzion, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in Gush Etzion. The two of us hugged and my eyes swelled with the thought of leaving him. Throughout the year, the student and I had forged a friendship that I still cherish till this day. This friend was a member of a program for special needs students housed in my yeshiva.
In addition to providing a place for high-level study of the Talmud, my yeshiva was also home to several residents who participated in Darkaynu, an on-campus learning program for special needs students. The program aimed to fully integrate its students in the yeshiva, and I had the wonderful opportunity of getting to know several of them.
The value that Orthodox Judaism places on taking care of those who can’t help themselves can hardly be exaggerated. Ever since high school, when I participated in a regional chapter of NCSY, YACHAD and other organizations aimed at helping those with intellectual disabilities have remained a part of my life. Several of my closest friends—including my girlfriend—continue to work intensively for special needs organizations, and they find their work to be extremely rewarding. Even in my Orthodox college, I find that every other night I encounter an event aimed at raising awareness for those with special needs. And although I’ve never volunteered for one of these events myself, their constant presence has impacted me.
Over winter break, I heard that one of my brothers would soon fly to Miami to run a half marathon in support of the Orthodox special needs organization, YACHAD. I was in Cincinnati with my family and, until then, I didn’t realize that anyone in my family was involved in special needs work. My brother said that he was raising support with several of his friends and that he had previously volunteered with special needs children and adults in Chicago. He told me that his work in the field was extremely rewarding, and that he hoped to continue to do it throughout his life. With his experience in mind, I began to fully consider the breadth of special needs work in our community. The thought of a family member getting involved brought me pride, and it has inspired me to likewise help out in the future.
When I consider the value that my community places on helping those with physical and intellectual disabilities, I gain new appreciation for Orthodox Judaism. That all of humankind was created in G-d’s image remains a driving force behind the selfless desire to help those in need—and it is reflected in my community’s actions. When I think back to my dear friend from yeshiva, I think about the value of our friendship, and what it means for our religion at large.