For participants in JCC Chaverim program, yoga is more than exercise

WHITEFISH BAY – Michael Tores said he likes learning yoga because “It helps me stay calm.”

At his twice-monthly yoga class, students aren’t just learning yoga — they’re growing friendships and learning coping skills. 

Held at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay, the yoga class is a component of the Chaverim social program, which includes adults who may have intellectual disabilities. Chaverim is a program of the JCC.

At a visit with the students, the benefits are instantly obvious. The yoga class in a side gymnasium is filled with laughter and love. In an interview with several of the students, there was plenty of good-natured teasing. But there can be moments of frustration for some students too and for that, the class helps even things out. 

How to join
The Chaverim fee is $50 annually, and JCC membership is not required. There is an additional fee per event which is typically around $5. For more information contact Jody Margolis at or 414-867-8206, or Sarah McCutcheon or at 414-967-8198.

“They apply so much of what they learn in the yoga, the breathing techniques, the calming down, in their everyday life too,” said Jody Margolis, director of the Center for Inclusion & Special Needs for the JCC.

Sydney Selig said the class helps “to keep my temper under control, that’s all. So I don’t get upset.” She works at Noodles & Company: “I run food, wait tables, spray windows if they need me to and I spray the doors.”

“I like Minda,” said Michael Junck, who also works at a “Noodles” and was wearing his Special Olympics T-shirt. “I think she teaches us good stuff, like how to keep calm. How to take deep breaths if we get aggravated.”

Minda Devorkin, who holds a master’s degree in social work, is the popular yoga instructor here. She models stretches and breathing techniques for the class. She’ll also have a classmate model the yoga moves for the rest of the class.

“It’s life-changing. It’s amazing,” said Devorkin, referring to yoga. “It can take us out of our thinking minds and into our bodies.”

Chaverim program

“Chaverim means friends,” Margolis said. “That really is the focus. Our group is a social group. Our biggest goal is to fight self-social isolation.”

The Chaverim program serves adults, with a current roster that ranges from about 22 to 70 years old. Typically, around 25 to 30 participants will join yoga or a different Chaverim activity. The total mailing list is about 80. 

Yoga instructor Minda Devorkin works with student Michael Tores on May 14, 2019, at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay. Photos by Rob Golub.

“I love Chaverim. I think it’s a great program,” said Sarah McCutcheon, Chaverim coordinator. “I love the friendships that are made. I love the community that is brought together. A lot of people are brought out of their shells because of the programs.”

McCutcheon takes suggestions from the group and the activities she organizes have included making matzah pizza with Hillel Milwaukee, attending the Purim Carnival at Congregation Sinai, visiting Milwaukee Public Market, a visit to the Bayside Garden Center, going out to live theater, enjoying a Lakeshore Chinooks baseball game and out for dinner at Blaze Pizza.

“When we go out for dinner it’s not just about eating dinner,” Margolis said. It’s also about building independence, knowing where your money is, and knowing how to pay. There are different goals for individual students, “but the goal of the evening is for every individual to have a great time and have fun.”

Sydney Selig, who is participating in yoga at the JCC on May 14, 2019, is a big fan of the Chaverim program.

The Chaverim fee is $50 annually and JCC membership is not required. There is an additional fee per event which averages $5.

“We charge the smallest amount of money possible to our clients,” Margolis said. United Way and other donors make it all possible.

When asked which Chaverim activity he likes best, Tores, who bags groceries at Metro Market, answered quickly.

“All the events,” he said. “I love them.”