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Giving Integration a Mainstream Voice at Hamaspik Community Concert

October 27, 2015

By Mendy Hecht, Hamaspik Gazette

Taking Center Stage at Music Event, Individuals Make Themselves Heard

From far and near they came.  And for days—and in some cases, weeks—they talked about it and discussed it, after the event and even before it.

It was Hamaspik’s grand annual family outing.  And boy was it ever fun!

This year, for an exciting and fresh change of venue, Hamaspik Special Events Coordinator Mrs. Brenda Katina switched gears.

While the agency’s outings for the children and adults they serve, and their families and caregivers, involved rentals of indoor family fun centers or even seasonal outdoor amusement parks in recent years, Mrs. Katina opted for something flavorfully different at Sukkos this year—a return to the grand Hamaspik community concerts held in years before that.

Chol Hamoed, the four-day “Intermediate Day” period occupying the center of the nine-day Sukkos holiday, is customarily marked with family-friendly fun activities.

And ensuring that the hundreds of individuals under its purview have as much Chol Hamoed fun as do their typical peers, Hamaspik has long had the tradition of organizing an exclusive outing each Chol Hamoed for the entire Hamaspik community.

That community consists of residents (and, of course, loving staff) of its dozen-plus Individualized Residential Alternatives (IRAs), the precious young beneficiaries of Hamaspik’s sprawling Community Habilitation (Comm Hab) program and, let’s not forget, Hamaspik’s successful Family Care program—the largest such New York State-partnered project of its kind in the entire state.

Working for weeks in advance as usual to give them all a positive experience to remember was Hamaspik’s very own Mrs. Brenda Katina.  And this time, Mrs. Katina pulled off all the demanding logistics necessary for a professional unique concert event—this one geared from conception through completion with young people with special needs in mind.

Setting the stage

The stage was literally set.  The hall lights were down.  The spotlight towers were up.  The chairs were laid out.  The singers were in.

It was sometime past noon on Wednesday, September 30 at the spacious and cavernous Ateres Charna social hall in the Rockland County village of New Square, New York.  Mrs. Katina and husband Chaim Mendel were on site ironing out all the last-minute logistical wrinkles that predictably pop up with large-scale events like these.

Several hundred seats were set up in long neat rows across the hall.  Two giant screens were positioned on both sides of the chamber to allow all to clearly see the proceedings from any point.  A robust sound system stood at the ready, mike stands occupying the front of the stage.

At 2:00 p.m., with an on-site “all systems go,” the first of the capacity crowd began to trickle in.

Pulling up in private cars and hired buses alike, from points as far as further-upstate Orange County and as far south as Brooklyn and New Jersey, individuals and their caregivers and family members made their way into the hall.

As usual, they were greeted by Mrs. Katina and staff, all sporting that trademark Hamaspik smile.  Tables laden with goodies stood off to one side, with individually plastic-wrapped pastries, fresh orange-juice drinks and other snack staples in ample abundance.

By 2:30 p.m., with the parking lot filled with buses, cars and Hamaspik’s instantly-recognizable navy blue Transport Vans, the social hall was filling up—and the event was ready to launch.

Master of Ceremonies Motty Zeiger, a much-beloved figure on the non-profit event circuit, took the podium to work the crowd as the clock struck half past two.

Heightening the atmosphere and setting the tone in his colorful style, Emcee Zeiger welcomed the crowd, and then asked his audience if they were ready.

Were they ever!

The voice of integration

At the precise 2:30 p.m. mark, the drummer of the eight-man Yanki Katina Orchestra struck up the music, and a crackling Sukkos medley quickly filled the air and set the atmosphere.

Heightening the introductory excitement was not only the sophisticated laser and spotlight show that lit up the dark room in sync with the upbeat music, but a water show of sorts that immediately followed the opening set.  An illuminated fountain system had jets and waterfalls stopping and starting in time to the live music, as well as cycling through every color of the rainbow, eliciting wows of wonder from mouths of all ages.

Following that exhilarating opening, the first singer of four singers hit the stage.

Accomplished and very popular vocalist Levi Falkowitz sang several of his own hits, rolling out a minor concert in its own right as the event’s opening act.

Next came the Yeshiva Boys Choir.  The hugely popular singing group, known for their bold contemporary sound, took the stage and crowd by storm, eliciting roars of approval upon appearance and after each choreographed song.

Next up was singer Yoely Greenfeld, a talented singer with a substantial community following.  Mr. Greenfeld kept the musically stimulating streak going with several notable numbers of his own.

Wowing the crowd with the stage’s third act was Yonason Zigelbaum, a.k.a. Yoni Z, whose thrilling high-range vocals electrified the audience.

Following him on stage was creative recording artist Beri Weber, whose innovative twists on traditional themes have earned him community-wide popularity.

Throughout all four performances, as the band pounded away and the colored laser-and-spotlight show delivered a high-level professional event, Hamaspik beneficiaries of all ages were constantly streaming on and off the stage, joining the good-hearted singers on the mike to give voice to their joy—especially when many were singing songs they regularly enjoy in their own homes or Hamaspik Individualized Residential Alternative (IRA).

“It’s exciting when they want to share the moment,” Zigelbaum later shares with the Gazette.  Children with special needs “are typically very cute, very social, and love to sing,” he says.  “They have an ear for music and hear things others don’t hear.  When they want to get up on stage, then you know you’re doing your job.”

For the young adults and even children taking to the stage to sing along with Messrs. Falkowitz, Greenfeld, Zigelbaum and Weber, they got to meet in person the very singers they loyally listen to at home, all while hearing them sing the songs they love.

The singers, conversely, not only got to meet and interact with their most loyal fans, but got to hear them give voice to their love of music—and to acceptance, tolerance, integration and love, too.

As a matter of fact, Jewish music superstar Yaakov Shwekey is almost equally known for his family’s involvement with children with special needs as he is for his unique voice.

Mrs. Jenine Shwekey, even before being introduced to her now-famous husband, initially ran a volunteer after-school program out of a rented apartment with two friends.  Well over a decade later, that program has burgeoned into Lakewood, New Jersey’s prominent Special Children’s Center—where kids with various disabilities can hang out, get therapy, or just sing along with their frequently-visiting friend Yaakov.

The Center, as it’s informally known, has joined Hamaspik a good few times at its holiday events in the past—and given the power of inclusion, especially inclusion centered on music, that’s no surprise.

The next stage

So what was different about this year’s Hamaspik family holiday event than previous events?

More people attending and a better location, begins Mrs. Katina—with the former prompted by the latter, actually.

However, the satisfied Special Events Coordinator continues, the real significance of this year’s concert event was the absence of stigma associated with children who happen to have disabilities.

Back in the day, parents who had children with special needs “didn’t want to come out and be part of the community in public,” she says—an attitude that is now “extinct.”

“Now they are so proud of themselves!  It’s almost a competition,” Mrs. Katina elaborates, noting that she saw several mothers whom she had no idea had children with special needs, all proudly “showing off” their precious bundles with Down syndrome or other disabilities.

But to what does the veteran Hamaspik leader attribute the sea change?  “To Hamaspik!”

If parents of children with intellectual and other disabilities are publicly proud of their kids today, those kids are certainly feeling it.

That feeling of being just as loved and accepted as everyone else was certainly in the air as the concert ended with a powerful grand finale.  All four soloists joined one another on stage, along with an encore performance by the Yeshiva Boys Choir, for a dazzling light-and-sound-filled close marked more than anything else by the return to the stage of the Hamaspik beneficiaries.

Backed by the full vocal force of the choir, the boys clapped, danced and sang along with their favorite singers, all while parents, siblings, family members and Hamaspik caregivers erupted in cheers. 

Said one Hamaspik staff member in attendance: “They felt like more than a billion dollars!”  As music director Yanki Katina himself put it succinctly, “Music talks to kids more than anything else.”

With the concert over minutes later, attendees headed out of the hall on the healthiest of highs.

Passing the entrance table manned once again by Mrs. Katina and crew, attendees collected parting gifts: Small packages brimming with an assortment of candies and goodies, plus packs of colorful markers emblazoned with the Hamaspik logo.

That, coupled with the happiness carried in their hearts, helps at least partially explain why at Hamaspik of Rockland County’s Concord Briderheim IRA, for example, residents were talking about the event for the next few days, according to Concord staff.

But in commenting, “It was beautiful how the children got involved,” the aforementioned staffer touches upon a picture far bigger than the concert—the vision of a world in which people with disabilities are unconditionally embraced exactly as they are, for who and what they are.

To Mr. Zigelbaum, whose second concert appearance with Hamaspik, he says, builds on his teen volunteerism with special-needs summer camps, kids with disabilities “come from the most genuine place” in interacting with others.  “I love how they truthful they are. They wear their hearts on their sleeves.  When they’re happy, it’s not to flatter you.”

And what better way to set the stage for that than a stage filled with musical inspiration and integration?