Yad HaChazakah-JDEC works with individuals of all ages with physical, vision, hearing, speech, cognitive, reproductive, or mental health related conditions, regardless of cultural or religious affiliation who seek to lead active and meaningful lives in Jewish communities.
As a person with a disability or health condition, you want to live, learn in Yeshiva or day school, work, date, marry, raise children, and participate in and contribute to your community. You want to know how to work towards your goals and how to handle the barriers that impede your efforts.
Yad HaChazakah offers support services and resource information to individuals; provides learning sessions and informational workshops; and offers discussion groups and networking opportunities. Also, we invite you to join us in raising awareness about how our communities can be more inclusive of people with obvious or hidden disabilities or conditions. As you browse through this website, you will find many ways Yad HaChazakah can work with and involve you.
Family members and friends of persons with disabilities or health conditions often make the first contact to Yad HaChazakah-JDEC on behalf of their loved ones. As a family member or friend, you care very much about your spouse, child, or friend. You want the best for him or her and still may or may not yet know what options or resources exist. At the same time, you may need support and care.
Yad HaChazakah-JDEC provides support and information to you while you partner with your loved one to improve the quality of his or her life. Concurrently, we can work with you to better balance and design your life as you learn how to work with him or her to plan for the future. You can also participate in our learning sessions, topical workshops, and community awareness activities.
Helping synagogues, yeshivas, day schools, catering halls, retail businesses, mikvas (ritual baths), and community organizations to better accommodate students, patrons, and employees with disabilities is a top priority of Yad HaChazakah-JDEC. Very often by making your space, programs, and policies more disability friendly, you improve the quality of your environment, products, or services for everyone you serve, educate, or employ.
We can help you prepare achievable goals and sensible strategies toward making your establishment, services, or programs more user friendly for your members, patrons, and students.
Likewise, we know that you come into contact with many people. Some of those people may benefit from the services and community that Yad HaChazakah-JDEC provides. If you own, manage, or staff a for-profit or nonprofit establishment, you can contact us for advice on accessibility or to refer customers to us.
Yad HaChazakah-JDEC is the first and only service organization that is led primarily by Jews with obvious or hidden disabilities in accordance with Torah standards. More than half of our board members live with disabilities or ongoing health conditions; since WE are the experts in living with disabilities or ongoing conditions, we are often best suited to support each other. We are able to understand the concerns and needs that are unique to Torah observant persons with disabilities and their families while we concurrently work with individuals from all cultural and religious backgrounds.
We provide assistance according to Rambam’s (Maimonides’) teaching; the highest level of tzedakah is to strengthen each other’s capacities to live with dignity and respect. We do this by working with you to build your skills and access resources that will help you for a lifetime.
Mrs. Sharon Shapiro-Lacks founded Yad HaChazakah-JDEC in 2006 with the support of ten other board members. A woman who typically zips around by motorized wheelchair, Mrs. Shapiro-Lacks envisions Jewish communities where people with obvious or hidden disabilities are sought and valued for the strengths they bring. In her vision, leaders and community members will want to improve physical, communication, and attitudinal access to shuls, yeshivas, batei midrash, workplaces, shops, and family life – not only for the benefit to specific individuals, but also for the enrichment of entire communities.
Mrs. Shapiro-Lacks has worked in the disability policy and human services arenas for over 25 years, spending most of her tenure in executive and management positions. As Executive Director, she is a nonvoting member of the board of directors.
Mr. Yisroel Lacks, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for over 30 years, joins his wife in executing the essential mission of Yad HaChazakah-JDEC and in overseeing program activities. A practicing psychotherapist with extensive clinical supervisory experience, Mr. Lacks has served in a variety of social service settings, including Tikvah at Ohel and Interborough Developmental and Consultation Center, and is valued for his creative insight and unique perspectives. Mr. Lacks supervises Yad HaChazakah-JDEC’s service staff and volunteers, works with individuals and families, and develops new programs. Lastly, he coordinates our Shadchan (matchmaking) Network.
A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy, who is blind, attributes his achievements to G-d’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel, journeyed towards Torah observance, received rabbinic ordination, and obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. To this day, he lectures to wide audiences on Torah and disability-related topics.
As a devoted founding member and former vice president of Yad HaChazakah-JDEC, Rabbi Levy promotes access to Jewish life and texts to those with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into leading purposeful lives, supported by Jewish communities that strive to be inclusive.”
Rabbi Levy is currently the director of Travel Training for MTA New York City Transit. He lives with his wife Chava Willig-Levy and enjoys his grown children and grandchild.
Born in Hungary and raised in Borough Park, Brooklyn, Mr. Aryeh Friedman is a clinical social worker. His career in clinical social work began after a significant history in business, marketing, and accounting. Impressed with the mission and work of Yad HaChazakah-JDEC, Mr. Friedman assumed lay leadership positions on the board in 2007. He has served as president since July 2009 and has a keen interest in the issues and barriers faced by those of us who acquire disabilities as we age. Those who meet and schmooze with Mr. Friedman are struck by his self-assured, personable, and caring nature.
Mrs. Chaya Wajngurt Levy, a mathematics professor and administrator at Queens Community College, first became involved with Yad HaChazakah as a valued participant in the shadchan network that Yad HaChazakah coordinates. Living with someone with ongoing health conditions and teaching students with disabilities at Queens Community College have sensitized Ms. Wajngurt Levy to the issues that affect people with disabilities and their families. Ms. Wajngurt Levy was elected to the board in 2013 and brings with her experience in workshop development, preparation, and presentation; grant proposal preparation; and strategic planning.
Mrs. Lynne Cassouto-Feinberg works as an assistant controller at a large New York City real estate firm and is one of Yad HaChazakah-JDEC’s valued founding members. She has over 25 years of professional experience in bookkeeping and finance and is pleased to be able to contribute those skills to Yad HaChazakah-JDEC. Having family members with both obvious and hidden disabilities, Mrs. Cassouto-Feinberg knows the isolation and marginalization that individuals with disabilities and their families often experience. Raising awareness about, improving access to, and expanding inclusiveness in yeshiva day schools are among Mrs. Cassouto-Feinberg’s primary concerns.
"As a person with autism myself. I'm highly verbal and have learned how to mask my differences with some success, but also with some cost, and it took a very long time to figure these things out. The diagnosis is very recent, although not unexpected, and I am coming to terms with viewing myself as disabled when, with effort, I can function "normally", and learning what I might need to eliminate that effort, and to accept that asking for help is not being helpless."
In addition to her roll-modeling leadership capacities as an autistic woman, Mrs. Baker, since 2014, has brought to the board program organization experience as well as writing and social networking capacities
Ms. Rivka Herzfeld is the newest member of the Yad HaChazakah board as of July 2016. She has the potential to mobilize Jewish young adults and youths with disabilities to become active in promoting access to and opportunities for participation in Jewish community life. As a student at Yeshiva University, she successfully convinced to make bathroom stalls more accessible and to post signs to wheelchair accessible entrances.
I come from strong family stock who believe in making the best of a given situation, and trying to mitgaber or mitgaberet; in overcoming by being strong. I am not only strong out of sheer will and power, though. I think about and analyze my plans before I concretize them, looking for potential difficulties and anticipating solutions to any situation that could arise. I know I have always been thorough, but my muscle condition has exacerbated that aspect of my personality. I know that this can be put to good use as a board member of Yad HaChazakah.
I have experience teaching adult shiurim I have given to groups of women from Congregation Beth Aaron, as well as within The Boston Beit Midrash Program of Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future, and working with high school age children as an assistant teacher at Sinai Schools’ Karasick Shalem High School at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School, and as a madricha on Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future’s Counterpoint Israel Summer Program in Dimona, Israel, and as a teaching fellow at Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls
Chaim Laufer has been working and volunteering for over a decade in organizations dedicated to serving people with disabilities. He has worked with individuals with various mental, physical and developmental issues while also working closely with their families, direct care staff, doctors and communities. Mr. Laufer has helped develop educational tools, social mediums, trainings and other methods of improving the lives of individuals with disabilities and those that assist them. Mr. Laufer grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community, spent two years in Israel after high school, and received a BA in psychology from Yeshiva University. He attended and worked at several Jewish summer camps, including those serving the disabled community.
As an alumnus and affiliate of those institutions, combined with his current community involvement, Mr. Laufer has amassed a large social network. Amongst his close friends are individuals who have thrived while living with a disability. Through Yad HaChazakah-JDEC, Mr. Laufer hopes to connect his friends within the disabled community with his friends that have not yet had the opportunity to experience that relationship.
Mrs. Malov is totally blind due to retinitis pigmentoza. She was introduced to Yad HaChazakah several years ago when her guide dog, named Princess, and she were denied access to a private coach bus traveling from NYC to upstate New York. They feared that children would run off the bus in fear upon seeing the dog. Staff from Yad joined her to educate the bus company about guide dogs and how they can help other passengers feel comfortable. They were ready to work with her as a result of that meeting. “Had Yad existed earlier I would have had a much easier time advocating for myself in different areas as a disabled person,” says Mrs. Malov.
Mrs. Malov was invited to join Yad's Board of Directors in June 2012. She was very happy to accept the nomination and to be elected onto the board. “It gives me an opportunity not only to give back, but to be there helping build up this very worthwhile organization."
Passionate about innovation, and having known the frustrations and triumphs that go along with having a hidden disability Mr. Tommy Stern was elected to the governing board in 2013. As an entrepreneur, the founder of "Do the Right Thing America", and the inventor of the "Reflux Guard" and the "Stern Retractable Tzizit", Mr. Stern contributes his knowledge about entrepreneurship so that Yad HaChazakah can continue to think creatively and can connect with the business community.
I have a progressive form of muscular dystrophy, which renders me functionally a quadriplegic. Growing up with a disability was a difficult journey, and I experienced plenty along the way. My maternal grandparents were holocaust survivors, and my paternal grandparents fled Eastern Europe before World War II.
I attended a modern orthodox Hebrew day school for several years, but the attitudinal barriers I encountered along with the lack of reasonable accommodations, such as accessible transportation and architectural barriers became too detrimental to continue. Despite this experience, I developed a deep sense of fairness, justice and Yiddishkeit from an early age.
I have always been an advocate, whether it was in formal or informal ways. I have led by example, and never had difficulty trying to educate or correct attitudinal and architectural barriers. I have also wanted to explore opportunities to use my experiences with attitudinal and architectural barriers to Jewish education and religious practice to help others avoid my experiences. I firmly believe that our faith offers some of the most effective tools by which to advocate. “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Pirkei Avot 1:14 is a personal favorite.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, the founding director of NISHMA, is Yad HaChazakah-JDEC’s primary Rabbinic Advisor and serves as a nonvoting member on our board of directors. Rabbi Hecht is recognized throughout North America and Israel for his study, insights, and perspectives in the fields of Torah law and ethics; specifically as they impact contemporary issues and interact with the world political scene and the human condition. He is a member of the Rabbinic Advisory Board of Koshertube and is a regular columnist in The Jewish Tribune (Canada).
Mr. Yoel Bodek is the CEO and president at Brokers Central LLC insurance company and owner at Bodek & Company Insurance & Financial Services. Raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Mr. Bodek is a role model for many young people in chasidish and yeshivish communities as he zips along and effortlessly swings around in his sports designed wheelchair. He wants young people with disabilities to strive for more and not settle for living on benefits as they remain in their parents’ homes. His motto is, “You can do it!” Married to Rochel and raising 2 children in Monsey, Mr. Bodek finds time in his busy schedule to fly to distant places to provide encouragement to people who want to know what is possible for their lives when living with physical disabilities.
Mr. Bodek works with Yad staffers and others to find speakers for inspirational and informational gatherings. He has a specific interest in increasing access to yeshivas and raising the expectations that rebbes have towards students with disabilities. For example, he maintains that students with physical disabilities should be expected to wake up early to participate in morning minyan, and all shiurim (classes), just like their peers, and be afforded the access to do so.
Mr. Al Fogal, Esq. served on the board of directors from 2013-2016. Mr. Fogel played a large role in helping to establish our Brooklyn base of operations. As an attorney with a vision disability, Mr. Fogel has encountered and addressed issues related to people with disabilities in the areas of employment discrimination and basic everyday issues.
Mrs. Karen Halper was a bookseller for Barnes & Noble, Inc. for over ten years and has had over 25 years experience in retail stores. She has also been a member and volunteer with the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and the Queensborough Public Library (QBPL). Through these various positions she has gained tremendous skill at dealing with all different kinds of people from all backgrounds, and has brought these people skills to help grow Yad HaChazakah’s financial base and extend the reach and services provided by the organization. Having friends who are disabled and are wheelchair users has made her very aware of the need to make our public buildings and public transportation accessible for everyone. Through Yad HaChazakah she works on making our synagogues, kosher stores and restaurants, and other Jewish institutions completely accessible.
Mr. Ari Knoll, a lawyer and adjunct associate professor, serves with several social justice organizations and academic committees. As one who uses a combination of vocal techniques to successfully counteract a speech impediment, Mr. Knoll is particularly sensitive to the concerns of and strengths in others.
Mr. Knoll joined our board of directors in 2008 to participate in Yad HaChazakah-JDEC's efforts to broaden access and opportunities for people with disabilities in our communities. He brought to the board gentility, warmth, and compassion in addition to his astute legal insights. Good changes in his life situation necessitated his resignation from the governing board in June 2012. Nevertheless, he wants to will maintain his connection to Yad HaChazakah-JDEC by serving as an adviser.
Mr. Jason Lieberman is a consultant to Yad HaChazakah on issues pertaining to strategic planning. Mr. Lieberman received his masters degree in public administration specializing in nonprofit management from the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, and his BA from George Washington University in American studies. Most recently, Mr. Lieberman worked at Chartis Insurance as the disability program manager working to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
Mr. Lieberman previously was the director of government and community affairs for Yachad/The National Jewish Council for Disabilities, an agency of the Orthodox Union, which seeks to include all Jews in the Jewish community regardless of their disabilities. In addition to serving as a member of the UJA-Federation of New York Task Force on Disability, Mr. Lieberman continues to be a sought-after public speaker on issues relating to disability and Judaism, who has spoken in various venues throughout the United States and abroad. He draws from his extensive experience in growing up with and living with Cerebral Palsy. Mr. Lieberman lives in New York City with his wife Emily, son Ruby, and dog Isaac.
"I have had the zchus to work with Yad HaChazakah, and I am very impressed with their work. They provide much needed chizuk, direction and support. This organization is very much needed in Klal Yisrael. May Hashem grant them much hatzlacha."