JLN shares the story behind the Kotel @ Lifetown

Thank you Mira Rosen for creating a masterpiece! From the Jewish Link (full article here):

One of the most moving experiences for people visiting the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem is when they place a note with a request for blessings inside the wall.

Which is why, when artist Miriam Sasson created a replica of the Kotel for the new LifeTown center, she wanted to include notes from the children who would be using the building. What Sasson could not have envisioned was that the project would go beyond the children at Friendship Circle and would become a focal point for the Judaic programs at LifeTown, a fully inclusive center that empowers people with special needs in Livingston.

“I teach art class on Sunday mornings at the Friendship Circle and gave the children a paper that said ‘My Wish.’ On that paper each child wrote, drew or painted their wishes. I told them I would place their wishes inside the stones of the LifeTown Kotel. I explained to them that their wishes will forever be a part of that Kotel. People in the community started to hear about what I was doing and day by day more people came and asked if they could also take a part of this opportunity. They were excited to be included in something so special and tied to the historic roots of Judaism.”

Miriam Sasson at the Kotel replica at LifeTown.

The list of people who wanted to have their notes enshrined in the Kotel at LifeTown multiplied to include local Holocaust survivors who were touched by the project.

“When you have a wish and write it down, its one step closer to becoming a reality,” Sasson explained. “And when you put it in this place, you are planting your dreams to come true. The Kotel wall inside LifeTown is beautiful, but it’s not just a beautiful place you can only admire with your eyes. It’s a spiritual place you can feel in your soul.”

A native of B’nei Brak, Israel, Sasson has long loved art and began teaching herself the basics at a young age. For years, she worked primarily in oils and created powerful portraits that captured the attention of all who saw them. Sasson moved to the United States in the early 2000s and began building a reputation as an artist on this side of the Atlantic. As she pushed her artistic limits and began to explore new mediums, boundaries and modes of art, she solidified her work as a master artist.

For a Jewish communal Holocaust remembrance dinner in 2015, for instance, Sasson wanted to create a portrait of a child who had lived through the terrors of the concentration camps. To convey the tough, hard years of the Shoah, she didn’t want to paint with oils on canvas. Instead, she used nails, wood and string, raw materials that spoke of the harshness of that horrific era.

“I love to break the givul, the limits, of what is normally done, and between what we see and what is in our dreams,” she explained.

Heart of LifeTown

Sasson’s dedication to her craft first brought her to the attention of Friendship Circle several years ago when executive director Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum was looking for someone to create artwork for the “Exodus Experience” Passover program.

As Sasson recalled, “Zalman asked if I would do a carving of a giant sphinx for the set. I said I had never done one before, but I would give it try. They loved what I did and years later asked me to create the Kotel in LifeTown.”

According to Grossbaum, the Kotel Sasson has created far exceeded anyone’s expectations and is very much the “heart” of LifeTown.

“Geographically speaking, the Kotel is in the center of the building,” he explained, “and emotionally it has brought so much joy and meaning to people. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, believed that individuals with special abilities have special souls and connect on a soul level to things beyond what the average person can experience.

“And when you see them in LifeTown gazing up at the Kotel, I think they really feel the heart and soul that went into it,” Grossbaum continued. “We had another company who proposed to do the work, but when you look at the samples that they sent and compare them to the Kotel that Miriam created there is simply no comparison. The colors, the texture and the feelings they invoke [are] very powerful. You don’t have to tell anyone it’s the Kotel or how special it is.”

Full article on the Jewish Link.

Thank you to all the amazing FC Volunteers & Buddies!

Thank you to all the amazing FCNJ – Friendship Circle volunteers and buddies for keeping the FC spirit alive! Article below from Lubavitch.com.

On Sunday, May 10, Hannah Solomon, 26, waited outside her family’s home in North Caldwell, New Jersey, filled with the anticipation of seeing her friends for the first time in weeks.

The sound of blaring sirens heralded a flashing motorcade of fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars driving down her block. Friendship Circle staff members and volunteers followed in cars festooned with colorful balloons. 

Curious neighbors came out to enjoy the lively spectacle, a rare and welcome sight after weeks of confinement.

The parade came by the Solomon home just for Hannah, a young woman with multiple disabilities related to her Dandy-Walker variant diagnosis. The Livingston, New Jersey chapter of Friendship Circle, a Chabad organization dedicated to serving those with special needs, arranged the event to “Just say hi!” to its members, showing support and togetherness in a time of crisis.

“At first, when she found out she couldn’t see her friends anymore, Hannah kept asking, ‘How come?’” said Lori Solomon, Hannah’s mother. “So she was so excited to finally see everyone. It made us all feel great to see the whole town rally for her. We consider Friendship Circle our extended family.”

Maintaining Connection

Social isolation is difficult for many, especially children with special needs. When Jacob, 10, found out that the shutdown meant he would not be going to Hebrew School anymore, he cried. 

“He knows that Hebrew School ends in May,” his mother, Sharon, recalled, “So the news was especially devastating to him. He loves going.”

Jacob, who has autism, now attends Hebrew School virtually. Along with autism, Jacob also has ADHD, so he has difficulty being engaged and staying focused. While it’s not always easy, he participates online as much as he can. “He’s getting better at it each day,” his mother said. 

On Jacob’s birthday, Friendship Circle volunteers went to his house, holding signs out their car windows and singing Happy Birthday. They also dropped off a gift. 

“Interpersonal connection is so important, especially now,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum of Livingston, New Jersey. “The challenge is greater for students, families, and teachers in special education. Our focus is to be there for the families; to give the children the tangible structure and consistency that is so crucial.”

Rabbi Grossbaum is seeing even more connection now that Friendship Circle’s programs are virtual. “We used to worry about how we would keep in touch with the kids once they graduated and moved on. Now, many are participating in our activities again. They are back and involved.

“In so many ways,” said Grossbaum, “being there for the children and their families is the essence of shlichus, our mission. Our mission statement is the biblical axiom of ‘Veahavta Lerayacha Kamocha’—to love your fellow as you love yourself. That is the entire Torah—the rest is in the details.”

Virtual Reality

In a time of crisis, everyone has to adapt. For those in the special education sector, this unique time calls for innovation. How does Friendship Circle continue to support the needs of the individual, a concept core to its mission—in a world where individuals must remain apart?

“As soon as we realized that we’d have to close our physical doors, we jumped into action,” recounted Mrs. Bassie Shemtov, co-founder and director of Friendship Circle. In her home state of Michigan, they had to mobilize quickly. 

At their emergency brainstorm meeting, which took place before social distancing regulations were even put into place, FC Goes Virtual was formed, internationally offering a wide variety of programming including science, animal, music, and yoga classes. Friendship Circle’s Soul Center’s art division is fully operational with open studio time and one-on-one art offered online. Staff members are working systematically, meeting with each other daily and reporting progress. 

“Good learning is happening when everyone has a turn to share. Being forced to listen brings out the best in us and for each other,” said Shemtov.

Friendship Circle’s staff are supporting families through a personalized approach. The staff members work hard to be in tune with each family’s circumstances. “Families have different engagement levels,” explained Erin Berry, Friendship Circle’s program manager, “so we support them in different ways. Some kids love receiving mail, so we’ve been sending letters. Families express their needs, and we plan accordingly. Sometimes it may work, and sometimes it may not work, and that’s okay. It’s part of the process.”

In light of the current situation, the Friends at Home visitation program is conducting one-on-one video calls instead of home visits. Berry acknowledged that it takes creativity to connect. When she was on a video call with a child who loves cars, she did what anyone else might do—she turned her camera around and showed him her car.

“It’s all about tapping into their specific interests,” she explained, “and those will be different for each child.”

Read full article on Lubavitch.com.

Thank you NJJN for capturing the excitement of the FCNJ car parades!

Thank you Johanna Ginsberg and NJJN | New Jersey Jewish News for capturing the excitement of the FCNJ – Friendship Circle car parades!

From NJJN – New Jersey Jewish News:

On Sunday morning, May 10, 13-year-old Shai Nissel, who has a brain injury, and his family gathered outside their West Orange home. First they heard the wail of the sirens, then caught a glimpse of a caravan of cars, vans, police cruisers, ambulances, and fire trucks making their way to their house.

In decorated vehicles, volunteers held up signs, cheered, and called Shai’s name. Ruby Schechner, 21, dressed as Cookie Monster, threw mini chocolate chip cookies to the Nissels from her family’s festive convertible, with blue, orange, green, and purple balloons taped to the doors. Soon after, there was a car featuring two dogs with their heads out of the windows; another was draped in brightly colored squares and rainbow flags and with volunteers wearing sequin hats and Mardi Gras beads, holding signs that said “Love.” Police officers, pleased to be part of a celebration instead of breaking one up, waved and blared their sirens.

Read more here.

Thank you News 12 New Jersey for joining us this morning for the parade!

Caravan aiming to foster friendships for people with special needs travels around West Orange

A traveling caravan toured West Orange Sunday, organized by a nonprofit which aims to foster friendships for children and adults with special needs.

Friendship Circle says children with developmental disabilities have been hit particularly hard by social distancing measures and the disruption to their daily lives and routines.

Officials say they hope the parade will show support for people with special needs and their families and serve as a point of civic pride for the town.

Read more here.

Thank you CBS New York for sharing the story of today’s car parade

Thank you CBS New York for sharing the story of today’s FCNJ – Friendship Circle car parade in Livingston and Millburn/Short Hills. 30 Friendship Circle buddies were visited today!

Thank you to all the volunteers who joined the parade and to the Livingston Township, NJ, Livingston NJ Police Department, Livingston First Aid Squad, Township of Millburn and Millburn-Short Hills Volunteer First Aid Squad for making the parade possible!!!


Thank you Faygie Holt for sharing the incredible things going on at FCNJ – Friendship Circle!

Liba Grossbaum displays the main item in “Challah and Chicken Soup for the Quarantined Soul” packages for Shabbat, distributed by the Friendship Circle in Livingston, N.J., May 1, 2020. Credit: Courtesy.

 Hundreds of families will get a dose of nourishment and nurturing this Shabbat thanks to a special care package from Friendship Circle in Livingston, N.J.

The “Challah and Chicken Soup for the Quarantined Soul” package includes rolls, grape juice, kiddush cup, Shabbat candles and homemade chicken soup (matzah balls were optional).

Organizers had initially planned for about 125 care packages, but word got out and the requests started pouring in. Families were also offered the opportunity to pick up Shabbat packages for their homebound neighbors. Read more here on JNS.org.

“Challah and Chicken Soup for the Quarantined Soul” packages for Shabbat, distributed by the Friendship Circle in Livingston, N.J., May 1, 2020. Credit: Courtesy.