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Just One Shabbos

C. Rosenberg

It’s only a single Shabbos, yet participants find that the impact of one incredible weekend can fortify them for months. What makes shabbatonim so powerful?

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

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POWER WEEKEND All the effort, time, energy, forethought, and money spent to develop these life-changing retreats are not lost on the participants who fully appreciate them and try to get the most from each one

S ara Leah Kovacs was dealing with the transition from being severely hearing impaired to having both hearing impairment and low vision when she heard about the DB (deafblind) Shabbaton. She liked the idea of a shabbaton with support services that would allow her to follow the divrei Torah and socialize with other Jewish DB people.

“I’d been oral only my whole life and was now trying to learn sign language because lip-reading was becoming more difficult,” Sara Leah says. “I also started using a mobility cane and learning Braille, and I wanted to meet my fellow landsleit. Because my primary identification is as a Jewish person, I was especially interested in meeting Jewish deafblind people.”

Meeting the crowd at the DB Shabbaton, which ranged in age from late teens to 70s, far exceeded Sara Leah’s expectations. She found it especially inspiring to connect with other Jewish deafblind individuals who were living fully productive lives despite their challenges. Surrounded by this welcoming community of peers, she didn’t feel singled out by her DB status.

“We all have the commonality of some degree of combined hearing and vision loss that makes conventional Jewish educational and religious programming less accessible — or totally inaccessible,” Sara Leah says. “Attending the shabbaton helped me feel like I’m not the ‘odd man out’ or the person about whom others whisper: ‘See her? Nebach, she’s deaf, dumb, and blind!’ ”

Among the tremendous benefits of specialty shabbatonim — weekends of learning, support, or socialization organized for specific groups or purposes — is the bonding experience for people in similar situations. Together, they can laugh, cry, and just be themselves; there’s no reason to cover up their true feelings, as they might otherwise do “in public.” In this environment, everyone present can relate to their experiences — they’ve been through it themselves.

For the community of people who struggle with infertility, the annual shabbaton of support and advocacy organization ATIME is a lifesaver; participants wait all year for the empowerment, shift of attitude, and, most importantly, validation that it offers. Miriam, who has been dealing with infertility for close to three decades, now considers ATIME and its members like family.

“No matter the walk of life one is from, everyone belongs,” Miriam says. “I love meeting other people, sharing, caring, listening, learning from others who navigate their way courageously in similar but somewhat different circumstances. The camaraderie is exceptional.”

“The best chizuk and therapy comes from someone sharing a similar situation,” asserts Zahava Farbman, LMSW, associate director of Project Chai Crisis Intervention, Trauma, and Bereavement Services and organizer of bereavement shabbatonim. “The shabbaton gives participants new strength to pull through the year by providing a sense of support and a new, positive outlook.”

Especially for those who are new to a nisayon, watching how others have successfully moved forward helps them believe that eventually, they will be able to as well, that there is life after a tragedy.

Fortifed for the Year

There’s more to these special shabbatonim than connecting with like-minded people. Participants often come away with a strong dose of encouragement along with coping skills that serve them well when they leave the protective shabbaton cocoon.

At the annual shabbaton for LINKS — an organization providing support to young children who lost a parent — workshops and activities help attendees achieve growth in areas of challenge related to their loss. This includes openness about issues, agreements to seek help where needed, relationship work, and grief work, among others.

“We have lectures that are open to all,” explains Sarah Rivkah Kohn, LINKS director, “as well as workshops and roundtable discussions individualized to specific losses such as loss of mother, loss of father, sudden loss, too young to remember, etc. Here, the kids share their experiences, while a moderator validates their emotions and keeps the discussion on track.”

Another type of workshop — “Toolbox Sessions” — allows participants to acquire meaningful tools for communication, dealing with parental remarriage, feeling ready for shidduchim, or reconnecting to tefillah.

The LINKS shabbaton is a safe, nonjudgmental space, emphasizes Sarah Rivkah. Participants are free to express what they really think with no backlash, while moderators approach issues from a Torah-true hashkafic perspective. It helps that all LINKS volunteers also lost a parent at a young age. Attendees will more readily listen to someone who has walked in their shoes.

For Dror — which aids families with an imprisoned father — the purpose of the annual shabbaton is to rejuvenate attendees in a supportive, tolerant atmosphere and share practical tools and chizuk from top professionals.

 

“We have crafts, swimming, a magic show, carnival, music, dancing, and more,” relates Menachem Kahn, one of the shabbaton organizers. “The kids love coming because they know that they won’t be ostracized — as some children feel in school, whether perceived or true. After the fathers get out of prison, the families still want to attend!”

In addition to fun activities, Dror provides workshops for children, wives, and married kids. With noted psychologist Dr. David Pelcovitz as advisor, Dror maintains a high standard of psychological care, and shabbaton participants leave invigorated for the year of challenge ahead.

The highlight of Shabbos at the Dror Shabbaton is usually the “special guest,” a former frum inmate who is now free to tell his tale. Often, participants recognize the speaker from the visiting room in prison or from a high-profile case. Seeing someone out from behind bars reassures family members that their loved ones too will be free one day.

Inspiration — and Education

At some shabbatonim, inspiration is bookended by detailed education and condition-specific motivation, like those for Friends with Diabetes, an organization that helps frum adults and children with diabetes lead quality lives.

“While controlling type 1 diabetes has become easier,” says founder and director Rabbi Hirsch Meisels, “it still requires constant input and commitment. The Shabbos gives people that burst of motivation to refresh their commitment to continue responsible diabetic self-care day in, day out.” In addition to topics pertaining to Shabbos and Yiddishkeit, lectures also cover diabetes medical education, including new gadgets that can help with blood-sugar control. For participants, hearing the medical perspective — often with input from fellow shabbaton attendees — helps them set goals to better their diabetes care.

Technological advances and communication methods are also part of programming at the DB Shabbaton. But this is far from the focus at this event. Because‎ of the challenge of communication, most deafblind individuals do not have the luxury of a Jewish education. Interpreters cost money and not every shul or school is willing to put forth those dollars to accommodate a small number of people. Even shiurim that advertise sign language interpreters may be inaccessible to a deafblind person because of visual impairments.

Unfortunately, missionaries often prey on the weaker backgrounds of Jewish deafblind individuals, trying to tempt them with their sense of belonging. Sara Leah recalls being targeted frequently by signing missionaries offering friendship, help, and “enlightenment.” The DB Shabbaton seeks to counteract that.

“Our goal is to provide access to Judaism,” states Yael Zelinger, coordinator of the DB Shabbaton. “This fully accessible shabbaton enables attendees to participate in the rituals of Shabbos, in davening, in workshops, and in conversations, while connecting with other deafblind Jews.”

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