Special friends, indeed

Every child needs a buddy – Friendship Circle makes it happen.

Friendship Circle Central Jerusalem is made up of children, volunteers, staff, parents and supporters (photo credit: Courtesy)
Friendship Circle Central Jerusalem is made up of children, volunteers, staff, parents and supporters
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” – Albert Camus, 20th century philosopher.
More than one in 12 children today has some form of special needs. It may be cerebral palsy or autism. It may be learning disabilities or pervasive developmental disorders.
The common thread between most disabilities is the fact that they make children seem different to their peers. At times – even more painful than the stares – is the phone that does not ring, the empty afternoons longing for a playmate. For a child with special needs, that loneliness is a part of life.
“How many times a week does a typically developing child speak on the phone with/tweet/ SMS/WhatsApp/ hang out with a friend?” asks Chanie Canterman, MSW, director of Friendship Circle Central Jerusalem.
“My bet is a number in the hundreds! When asking a child with special needs how many times they do those things with a friend in their after-school hours, the response is close to zero.”
Polish-Jewish educator Janusz Korzak said that every child is special. The needs of each child are different and require attention. A child with special needs requires special attention. We must respond to those needs.
The Friendship Circle is the fastest growing international Jewish organization for children with special needs, with 79 locations worldwide.
The first Friendship Circle branch was opened by Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov in 1994 as a program under the auspices of the Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan.
The Shemtovs were inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s unconditional love for every human being and his belief that no person is complete unless everyone is included.
Starting with eight families and 16 volunteers, the Friendship Circle of Michigan has today grown to include 300 families and more than 1,000 volunteers.
Although its inspiration and roots were planted in the local Jewish community, the organization was created for the benefit of people of any religious denomination or background, working to better the lives of children with special needs.
It has always served every disability, from mild to severe.
The Jerusalem branch was founded in 2008, starting with 10 families and 20 volunteers. Over the past eight years, it has grown to include 80 families and 150 volunteers.
Friendship Circle’s concept is simple, yet profound.
Based on the commandment of “V’ahavta lere’acha kamocha” (Leviticus 19:18) – loosely interpreted as love your friend as you would want to be loved – FC provides and facilitates friendships between children who have special needs and local teen volunteers through its flagship program “Friends@ Home.”
Together, in the child’s natural home setting and neighborhood, they engage in weekly hours of camaraderie and fun. FC brings the teen friends to the children in their homes, as opposed to bringing the children to another environment.
Imevet, a volunteer whose family made aliya from Ethiopia, explains.
“Like typical children who have play dates, these children don’t have to go out and find fun. We bring it to their homes in a very natural, easy and seamless way and they feel just like their siblings.”
After becoming acquainted with their friends, the volunteers help them participate in programs such as sports, religious and cultural events, music, art and social skills programs.
In a true win-win-win, the children gain much-needed confidence, their parents have much-needed time off, and the teens discover the magic of giving.
“Our FC buddy who has befriended Joey has absolutely no agenda, other than that of pure friendship,” says Sigal, a parent who lives in Ma’aleh Adumim.
“Nothing makes children feel better about themselves than spending time with friends who are there for them.”
And the feeling is mutual.
“I need to thank Friendship Circle,” says volunteer Avigail, of the Evelina Tehila high school.
“I spend time each day concerned with the way I look, in a quest for the approval of my peers. This pressure can be explosive, and yet, once a week, I am accepted and loved unconditionally. My little buddy, Idit, waits for me at her home, embraces me as I reach her doorstep, and tells me how much she loves me.”
FC volunteers – teens from 12 Jerusalem high schools – receive regular training sessions throughout the year, as well as fun nights out. They also meet with professionals to discuss their experiences, as well as specific challenges and joys of their visits.
Sometimes there are heartwarming “Aha!” moments, such as last week when one of FC’s volunteers invited the family of his special friend to his home for dinner.
“That means we are getting somewhere,” smiles Canterman. “FC is a way of life, not a project! This volunteer internalized that message.”
This year, FC has taken its work to the next level, embarking on a number of new concepts, such as the introduction of “Buddy Baseball,” for which Dean Klassman of Chicago will be making his first-ever visit to Israel.
“I felt my plate was full to the brim,” notes Canterman, “and then I received a call from a man in Chicago who introduced himself as Dean Klassman, an expert in life and health insurance, specializing in providing financial planning for families of people with special needs, who has a special affinity for baseball and Israel.”
Klassman grew up near Chicago. As a hobby, he would coach children with special needs in playing baseball. He loved enabling the children to play, create friendships with teenage typical buddies and attain a sense of accomplishment.
Klassman helped Keshet – an organization that provides educational, social and recreational opportunities for individuals with disabilities – develop their Buddy Baseball over the past 14 years.
Now, he wanted to bring it to Israel.
“I spoke to my friend, director of FC Illinois Rabbi Zelig Moscowitz, and he suggested that I contact FC Central Jerusalem.”
The rest is history.
With jerseys, trophies, baseballs and Klassman himself flying in from Chicago to direct the game, Friendship Circle Central Jerusalem invites all children over the age of eight to sign up for the first Buddy Baseball all-star game at Kraft Stadium on Thursday, March 31 at 5:15 p.m.
This will launch a full summer season of Buddy Baseball, a league that invites boys and girls with physical and developmental disabilities to play baseball with a teen buddy, while having the thrill of being a winner.
“The more community members in attendance to cheer them on, the better,” says Klassman.
“I hope that Friendship Circle Central, and specifically the Buddy Baseball program, remains another of the many golden threads from which Jerusalem is woven.” 
For more information on Friendship Circle Central Jerusalem and the upcoming Buddy Baseball program, visit www.fcjerusalem.org