The Friendship Circle is a program started by Rabbi Levi Shemtov of West Bloomfield, Michigan, that gives assistance and support to 3,000 individuals with special needs and their families by providing recreational, social, educational and vocational programming. According to their website, their mission is to “create friendship in the lives of individuals with special needs and those facing isolation while providing an opportunity to become a contributing member of the community.” The Friendship Circle has branches all over the world that help with this mission.
At our Maryland branch, run by Rabbi Mendel Kaplan and Mrs. Chana Kaplan, two main activities are organized. The first is Torah Circle, which occurs every other Sunday from 1:30-3:30 at the JCC. This activity is the highlight of many of these children’s weeks. Mrs. Chana Kaplan, co-director of our area’s Friendship Circle frequently says “All the children always ask their parents ‘is there Torah Circle this week?’” In addition to the program at the JCC, the Friendship Circle runs the Friends at Home program as well as many other programs in the area for special-needs children.
At Torah Circle, teenagers from all over the Washington, DC and Maryland area come to the JCC to hang out with children who have special needs. Volunteers are assigned buddies aging from 3-20 years old, with whom they do activities, such as robotics, theater and sports
According to Ayelet Brown, who has been volunteering at the Friendship Circle for 5 years, not only is Torah Circle “a great way to interact with kids in normal activities to help [the children] do things that I do in my normal life,” but it also “helps me create friendships with amazing kids who I wouldn’t normally create friendships with.” Nava Israel, another longtime volunteer, says that unfortunately these kids “don’t have so many friends,” so when the volunteers hang out with them, it makes the children “so happy!” She also said that “the hugs and huge smiles on both the friends and their parents faces really show you how grateful they are.”
At the Friends at Home program, one or two regular teens are paired up with a special needs child and they hang out at the child’s home for one to two hours a week. The relationships that are created through this last “for years,” according to Mrs. Kaplan, who also says, “it gives these kids an opportunity to have a playdate that they may not normally have.”
In addition to its main activities, the Friendship Circle hosts a variety of other activities for the special needs community. At the birthday club, the special needs children’s birthdays are celebrated at popular venues in the area because these children don’t get to normally go to birthday parties.
The Yad program is a program that gives special needs adults ages 21 and older an opportunity to hang out with college students and young professionals once a month at different venues in Montgomery County. Mrs. Kaplan says that their “favorite part [of the whole program] is getting to socialize [with other young adults].” The Friendship Circle also runs holiday programs, a parent support group, and an annual end of year “celebration of friendship,” and are even starting a moms’ night out.
Mrs. Chana Kaplan, one of the founding members of the area’s Friendship Circle says she loves all of it, especially “working with teens.”
“At any given program I can have the entire spectrum of the Jewish community in one room,” she said. “This year is our biggest year. We have close to 250 volunteers and over 100 families.”
As a regular volunteer at the Maryland Torah Circle, I think it is amazing what they do. It allows children to make friends with people they never would have made friends with before and it is really the highlight of many of the children’s weeks. I hope to keep volunteering with the Friendship Circle for years to come and really think it is an amazing program that takes incredible initiative at the inclusion of special needs people.
Ezra Troy is a sophomore at the Berman Hebrew Academy, where he is a member of the Model UN team, student council and the student paper. In addition to writing for Kol HaBirah and his school paper, Ezra is the senior east coast correspondent for a sports blog called My ESPN for Kids. He has lived in Silver Spring, Maryland’s Kemp Mill neighborhood for 14 years, and currently attends Kemp Mill Synagogue.