For Israeli DJ with ALS, Disability Doesn’t Stop Dreams

December 10, 2014


The crowd surged with adrenaline – 3,000 earnest and enthusiastic young people lining the streets of Netanya, the coastal Israeli city of 180,000 people located 18 miles north of Tel Aviv.

They had gathered for a street party hosted by Hagag, the local chapter of JDC’s Center for Young Adults program, which assists young immigrants and other young Israelis facing socioeconomic challenges in cities with high immigrant populations and economic difficulties.

For Yoni, the event’s DJ, the crowd represented something more than a fun weekend diversion – it was an opportunity to connect to his peers and break through the barriers and stereotypes associated with disability.

Yoni has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” ALS is a degenerative disease affecting nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

For Yoni, a Netanya resident and a student at the city’s Rimon Music School, a stage of 3,000 young people wasn’t just a platform for a burgeoning career. It was a way to make a public statement: that his work is universal, exciting, and relevant to his peers – regardless of ability or disability.

As a DJ with ALS, Yoni creates music with computerized technology that uses the movement of his pupils to control the music.

“This occasion offered Yoni dual exposure, giving him an exceptional chance to reveal his musical abilities and raising awareness for his disease,” Yoni’s mother Rebecca said. “We’re grateful for this opportunity given to us.”

Yoni will be taking his involvement with JDC further: participating in a pilot initiative that focuses on including young adults with disabilities in JDC’s Centers for Young Adults in Netanya, Akko, and Sderot, and four new locations in Israel that will be chosen next week.

This program integrates young people with disabilities into existing activities, services, and networks for young Israelis. Like all people their age, young adults with disabilities cope with significant challenges when transitioning to adulthood – but at higher intensity levels and with far more difficulty. They must maneuver through government support services, acquire accessible housing, and secure educational opportunities, all without much guidance and support.

The Centers for Young Adults offer people with disabilities access to services, including educational consultation, employment assistance, networking opportunities, and social connections. The initiative is known as Israel Unlimited, a strategic partnership between JDC, the Ruderman Family Foundation, and the government of Israel to promote the status of people with disabilities.

The program’s success is twofold: not only are people with disabilities being integrated into existing structures built by JDC for young adults, but services are being uniquely adapted to fulfill this population’s specific needs.

At the same time, center employees gain an opportunity to recognize that the lives of people with disabilities are productive – motivating them to help change attitudes and dismantle stereotypes prevalent in Israeli society.

“I had to learn for myself how to reach a new population and expand my knowledge to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities,” said Tal, the employment coordinator at the Hagag center in Netanya.

The initiative has already enabled some 500 young adults with various disabilities to maximize their opportunities at this critical transition stage. In 2015, the program will expand to nine additional enters.

Meanwhile, back in Netanya, Yoni’s performance was a rousing success.

As his track played, the young DJ welcomed the crowd’s support and boisterous cheers.

He had found a way to make his artistic work public – and was proud to be acknowledged as a valued member of his community.

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