I just returned from participating in my first marathon. I am not an athlete, I hate crowds, and I spend most of the winter trying to avoid going out in the cold. So what inspired me to walk 13.1 miles in a crowd of 24,000 people after spending two months diligently training outdoors in frigid temperatures?
The answer is: The Friendship Circle. The Friendship Circle has become an international phenomenon, and the mission of the local affiliate, directed by Rabbi Mendel and Chana Kaplan of Chabad Lubavitch of Maryland, is to facilitate friendships and foster inclusion by bringing together individuals with disabilities and volunteers through a wide range of social, educational, and Jewish programs. Approximately 250 teens currently volunteer for the Friendship Circle of Maryland, serving over 100 participant families.
Very early Sunday morning on Jan. 27, 183 Friendship Circle participants from across the country , who together raised close to half a million dollars, gathered in Miami for the race. Team Maryland was led by 11-time marathoner and Potomac resident Dana Ginsburg, with her characteristic dedication, warmth, and enthusiasm. The team was made up of 14 runners, including two husband-and-wife teams and a mother-daughter duo. The local Maryland Friendship Circle chapter raised more than $70,000.
Marathon participants were treated to an inspirational Shabbat the day prior to the marathon, as well as a pre-race banquet Saturday night. This year, YouTuber and avid marathoner Meir Kay, whose videos emphasize the importance of being happy and kind to others, joined the gathering for a motivational pre-race pep rally.
“Friendship is not a luxury,” said Stacy Goto, mom of honoree Sam Goto, who was celebrated at the Team Friendship Miami pre-race banquet. Sam is a young man who was born with the genetic condition Koolen-de Vries Syndrome, a disorder characterized by developmental delay and mild to moderate intellectual disability. People with this disorder typically have a cheerful, sociable disposition; this is certainly the case with Sam, who radiates joy through his continuous and contagious smile. Though starting out as a participant in Friendship Circle where he made many friends, in recent years Sam has become a volunteer big brother to younger participants. He most recently took on a leadership role, serving as a board member of his local Friendship Circle chapter in central New Jersey.
Friendship Circle mom and local resident Noemi Garih shared that her daughter Solika doesn’t get invited to playdates or birthday parties, so participation in The Friendship Circle is “a way of her being able to go out and be social with other kids her age and to be with kids who are open and love her without judgement.” Often, kids like Solika do not attend Jewish schools — they may need a setting or resources that the schools don’t offer, or the cost of private school is too great a burden on top of care-related costs — and this can further isolate them from their peers, depending on the community in which they live. Friendship Circle steps in to provide that missing friendship and inclusion through their extensive programming.
In the Talmud, one sage argues that friends are so important that death is preferable to a life without friendship. What makes friendship so important for the Talmud to make such a statement? In the words of Mendel Groner, director of Friendship Circle International: “Friendship is the key which enables people to successfully journey through life, accomplishing their goals, and not swaying in the face of major challenges. Friendship is equally as important as other basic needs.”
By Lori Snyder
Lori Snyder is a first-time marathoner and Friendship Circle mom. She is the owner of Imaginary Spaces In Ordinary Places, a residential interior architecture and design firm. She enjoys helping parents connect to both public and private resources for children with special needs.