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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

In the pressured teenage universe, it can often seem like grades and standardized test scores are the only things that matter. In our Jewish day schools and high schools, where the dual curriculum also includes a heavy focus on textual study of Talmud and Bible—in a second language, no less— a student who is diagnosed with dyslexia or any kind of print disability can quickly become discouraged and feel down about their self-worth.

Enter local Bergenfield resident Ovadya Yaish, a 12th grade student at Heichal HaTorah who was diagnosed with dyslexia in Pre-K and is trying to educate and lift the spirits of those with dyslexia, locally and around the world. His primary tools are his podcast platform, “Dyslexia Friendly” (https://anchor.fm/dyslexia-friendly) and his mentoring relationships with the local day schools— and he has even more in store.

Yaish’s confidence, easygoing manner and ready laugh as he talks about his project, belie the challenging experiences he has faced as a student. Homework that took him hours to do while it took minutes for everyone else, in-class writing that felt near impossible as he struggled to decode even the question prompt, and the accompanying feelings of hopelessness as academic demands only increased. Ovadya recalled, “I remember one year, I had to call in on a hotline to read the assigned Talmud homework to my rabbi in middle school. I was so relieved on the one hand that I did not have to read in class, but I also was nervous, as I understood that now there was no way out, the rabbi would hear me and truly comprehend how much I was lagging in my reading.”

Yaish feels lucky that he was able to access tutoring and that his parents and teachers built his confidence rather than destroy it. As he got older, he realized that many of his peers were not so lucky. He attended a training and advocacy event at Learning Ally in Princeton, New Jersey, the largest provider of text-to-speech books and textbooks for those with print disabilities, and he met a core of teens who taught him about the challenges others faced in their schooling and social lives. He then started to meet peers who were shocked by how open Ovadya was about his reading challenges, and told him about how few tools they had at their fingertips and how much shame they experienced with teachers, family and friends.

In response to this shame, Ovadya immediately harnessed the power of technology and taught himself how to podcast. He utilizes this popular format, in brief five to seven minute soundbites, sharing the tools,tips and attitudes that he has picked up over the years. Each cast ends with his upbeat signature style, and reminds the listener to be kind, be inclusive and look out for each other.

Yaish understands that there are great problems that every community struggles with, and that to some, dyslexia is seen as being of lesser import. He highlighted, “Everyone thinks that dyslexia means you just reverse letters, but that is somewhat of a myth. Here’s what it can look like: Imagine ordering in a restaurant only the items you can read on the menu, or the first thing you see, because it would take too long to read the rest.” That is just one example of many that Yaish and his cohort of peers experience daily. These types of struggles are coupled with ongoing fighting that can happen with parents over schoolwork, the financial and time pressures of tutoring, the shame in needing to ask classmates for help and notes, worries over being a burden in a chavrusa or group project setting, or even at school in general. These are just a few of the challenges Yaish and his peers with dyslexia experience. Over time, especially for young people with developing senses of self and all the vulnerabilities of adolescence, these daily challenges, can significantly take a hit at overall mental health and wellness.

Ovadya added, “There are powerful statistics about dyslexia out there and while it is true that many high-level business CEO’s and innovators had or have dyslexia, there is also a huge percentage of inmates in the prison system that are diagnosed with dyslexia.” To him, this statistic shows that “facing this huge obstacle without support, understanding and a good education, in a world where reading is the key to access and success, can mess with someone’s internal world in a way that can lead to the greatest of failures.”

Ovadya Yaish hopes that listening to his Dyslexia Friendly podcast will open doors to the successes that are more possible than ever for someone with dyslexia. Dyslexia tools like text-to-speech, technology apps that help with note taking, and even Torah apps that help students read and unpack the dapim of Gemara and the text of Tanach have changed Yaish’s life.He also talks about the best ways he has learned to explain dyslexia to teachers and peers. Ovadya has spoken to a number of individual students at the request of local teachers, rabbis and learning center staff, who felt their students needed a boost and a hopeful message amid all their academic difficulties. In addition, through his developing website, also called Dyslexia Friendly, he hopes to highlight and review the tools and strategies he has collected in one easy-to-find place, as well as offer a unique database of apps, technology and other tips aimed specifically at those who are working on Judaic studies and other Hebrew texts. Lastly, Yaish aims to form a core of dyslexia mentors who can help others like him in their local communities.

The podcast is accessible on all major podcasting platforms like Spotify, Apple podcasts and Google podcasts. It is Ovadya’s hope that it will provide information, support and education to other teens who are facing dyslexia. While his initial plan was to make an impact on other local Jewish teens and Jewish day and high schools, the Dyslexia Friendly podcast has reached an audience of 20 countries and most states in the USA! He is always happy to hear how many teachers and parents have received strength and positive energy from his podcast. His favorite comment left by an early listener is “Oddly, listening to this guy makes me happy I have dyslexia!” To Ovadya, that means he has fulfilled his goal. To be happy with yourself, to learn to live at peace with dyslexia is what means the most to him as he continues to hear from those who have not yet been able to reach that place.

By JLNJ Staff