Sometimes great ideas have small beginnings. When caring people nurture the ideas, they can have a great impact on the lives of people who need them most — especially when those people need a place to feel at home, a place to express themselves and ways to get problems solved — and appreciate them so much.
The lasting power of one such idea and the people who have enabled it to grow deserve a celebration. Late this month it will happen.
The Jeremiah Society was born 25 years ago when the Jewish Community Center was located at an unused public school on Buaro Street in Garden Grove. At that time, the late Rabbi Robert Jeremiah Bergman was CEO of the JCC. He and Rabbi Moishe Engel of Hebrew Academy approached Rose Lacher to sponsor a Chanukah party for people with developmental disabilities.
At that first Chanukah party two and a half decades ago, Rose – herself the mother of a child with developmental disabilities – peeled and grated 10 pounds of potatoes for latkes, and Rabbi Engel invited three people to the event. “My daughter, Amy, and a non-Jewish friend, Cathy, made five guests; that was the seed of The Jeremiah Society,” she said.
Rose, who served as a volunteer program director for both the JCC and the Orange County Regional Center for the Disabled, wanted to go beyond that party as there was nothing in the Jewish community for people with developmental disabilities. “When Rabbi Bergman passed away in 1989, we honored him by adopting his middle name ‘Jeremiah’ as the name for this growing society,” she said.
“To my mind, The Jeremiah Society had to be something more than teaching our Jewish disabled that they are Jewish,” Lacher added. It would become a three-hour program one Sunday a month, and it would be long enough to provide some respite to parents. It would serve Jewish adults and would be offered to the gamut and diversity of those with developmental disabilities.
The Jeremiah Society now includes a unique group of Jewish adults with developmental disabilities who live and work in Orange County. The programs are designed to provide a variety of activities such as building socialization skills, stress management, inclusion and, most importantly, dance and music. With the assistance of rabbis, professional dance teachers, music and art therapists and volunteers, The Jeremiah Society helps its members express themselves and enjoy themselves. The number of people attending events has varied from time to time, but there are usually 20 to 30 people at a given program.
“We learn about and discuss Jewish history, and we celebrate the Jewish holidays,” explained Sheldon Lacher, Rose’s son, who now serves as president of the group. “We participate in art projects, and we enjoy karaoke. There are barbecues, dances and bingo games, and we try to have music at each program. Occasionally we go on outings, and we engage in Mitzvah projects.”
Every year since its inception, The “Society” has held that special Chanukah party where Rabbi Engel participates in the menorah lighting and gives everyone a crisp dollar bill. Now Temple Beth El Men’s Club provides presents for the members as well.
Members have celebrated Passover with a seder plate and songs. They have experienced being in a sukkah. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have been celebrated with talk about living life in a moral and ethical way.
Lacher remarked that there is “always a plentitude” of food. His sister Hilary and four friends were going to make charoset for one seder and ended up with enough food for 120 people.
Because of the Jewish environment, The Jeremiah Society becomes a very special place for its participants, according to Sheldon Lacher. “It allows them to let their hair down and know that it’s OK,” he said. “Some people have trouble speaking and writing, but you wouldn’t know it.”
The Jeremiah Society embraces the uniqueness of each individual and encourages independence and freedom of choice within a framework of Jewish culture and values, he explained. Each person brings a valuable contribution and is very proud of his or her Jewish heritage. As it was from the early beginnings, there is a determination to be treated with dignity and respect, while making friends and having fun.
What excites Lacher and others who work with the members of The Jeremiah Society is how they care for one another and provide peer support. “People talk about their problems and jump in and help one another,” Lacher explained. “We help to guide the discussion, but they help each other out.”
Members like being treated as adults, according to Lacher. “They can be just as good or bad as anybody else, and they all have responsibilities,” he said. “They recognize that. They talk about discrimination and how to contend with strangers saying mean things to them. They learn individual self-esteem, interact with each other and get grounding.”
Lacher continued, “It’s very inspiring and poignant. We get great happiness from it.”
The Jeremiah Society’s genesis was long ago from those days in Garden Grove which morphed to the JCC on Baker Street then to the Samueli Jewish Campus in Irvine, Lacher added. Home is now at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach. Along the way, the group has been hosted for special occasions at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Temple Beth Sholom and Heritage Pointe.
On June 26, at 3 p.m., at Temple Bat Yahm, the Jeremiah Society will celebrate its 25th anniversary and Rose Lacher’s 90th birthday. The public is invited for refreshments and a chance to honor some of the invidivuals and organizations that have helped The Jeremiah Society over the years, including Rabbi Moshe Engel, co-founder; Penina Bergman, supporter and widow of co-founder Rabbi Robert Jeremiah Bergman; Bobbi Adler, volunteer and music teacher; Sharon Perlmuter, Myrna Capsuto and Gail Smith, volunteers; Temple Bat Yahm, home of programs for many years; and Temple Beth El Men’s Club, provider of Chanukah gifts.
“Mom still has her wry sense of humor and still gets great solace out of the members, who are all very fond of her,” Lacher concluded. “And The Jeremiah Society is still about members helping one another, expressing themselves, making friends with other Jewish people and sharing experiences.”