by Tzuri Hason, adapted from the original Hebrew –

An aspect of my studies of my certification program for rabbis working in the Diaspora, I live on a residential campus adjacent to yeshiva Mahanayim. About two months ago, we received a new set of neighbors on the campus. My new neighbors are a group of eighth young guys from the United States who came to Israel to study in a yeshiva as part of the “Darcheinu” (Our Path) prorgam. This program brings young American men and women with special needs to Israel in order to study Torah. The program is similar to the “gap year” that many young men and women attend in between high school graduation and the beginning of their college studies.

The program falls under the umbrella of the Ohr Torah Institute, with the women in Darcheinu living and studying at the Lindenblum Seminary in Jerusalem, while the men, until this year, went to Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. This year, however, the men have been sent to Machanayim in Migdal Oz. The participants are mentally high-functioning, but have special behavioral, physical and mental needs. To assist them with these needs, they have a broad dedicated staff that includes mentors, an “adopted” family, professional managers and administrators.

In addition to being their neighbors, my wife has been giving the students photography lessons as part of their enrichment activities, and we have also hosted a number of them for meals both during the week and on Shabbat, providing them with a somewhat more homely feeling. From these meals and the random times I come across them, in the halls of the yeshiva or at the beit knesset, I’ve received the impression that this is a really impressive group of men.

Despite all the challenges of being without family, made even more challenging due to the situation with COVID-19, they have come to a distant land in order to study Torah. They aren’t just here by themselves, but due to the COVID-19 restrictions, their parents are not even able to come and visit. Despite this, they have maintained an amazing spirit, and I have seen them support one another with patience and care.

There is a specific image that will stand out in my memory. Two members of this group are Coheins, and perform the priestly blessing during our morning prayers. During Chanukah, when most of the Yeshiva students were away, I was able to sit closer to the bimah from where the Cohanim face the crowd for their blessing. (The beit midrash is divided into capsules and married students may not sit close to any of them) What I saw truly moved me. Yochanan, who has down syndrome, and Nissin, who has a congenital disability, went together to the bimah, but just before they arrived they stopped and faced each other. Yochanan adjusted the tallit that was on Nissin’s head down so that it would cover his hands so that he may give the blessing properly.

At face value, this seems like a simple act of mutual assistance, but when I look at it I see so much more. I see two people who overcome so many challenges in their lives, and who will not allow their limitations to prevent them from doing what they want. It isn’t just the triumph of the human spirit, but it is also the triumph of friendship and care. I see a man who not only overcomes his own challenges, but helps his friend. Also, this friend, who has overcome so much himself, but still needs someone to help him adjust the tallit just a little bit more, is not ashamed to ask him for help.