Mayim Bialik told her international audience of more than 40,000 about how she’d been lighting Shabbat candles since she was a young child. Speaking Thursday evening, June 11, at the first-ever Global Pre-Shabbat Party, she introduced the “Circle of Light,” the online event’s highlight in which girls from around the world shared their Shabbat candle light.
Beginning with Joelle Nor, who is one of the first to welcome Shabbat each week from Nelson, New Zealand, the candle was virtually passed around the world making stops in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Belgium, France, Switzerland, England, Mauritius, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina before being handed to Ruth Green who is among the last in the world to light Shabbat candles at her home in Anchorage, Alaska.
Logging in from 20,000 devices in locations around the globe, the participants–children and adults with special needs, their families and friends–were entertained by a first-rate line-up of celebrities. A project of the Friendship Circle, an organization that provides friendship for children and adults with special needs, the half-hour party reminded families of children with special needs just how valued they are.
“Although we are still hosting a range of virtual programs to support our families, I wanted to do something on a larger scale that would let them know they are loved and cared for, and also give us a chance to highlight some of the incredible kids we get to work with every day,” Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, director of Friendship Circle of New Jersey, who initiated the Global Pre-Shabbat Party told Lubavitch.com.
For families of children with special needs who were left without the therapeutic, educational and social support critical to their lives, the isolation was especially difficult. Grossbaum, who recently opened LifeTown in Livingston, a village that simulates a real-life town in which children with special needs practice daily living skills, (see LifeTown: Reimagining Society, Redefining Inclusion) contacted some fellow Friendship Circle Directors in Michigan, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, and Los Angeles California, and the Global Pre-Shabbat Party idea was born.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Friendship Circle of Michigan, and the originator of Friendship Circle says he established the organization in 1994 when he noticed that those with special needs were often shunned, and looked at as lesser than, rather than being recognized for their unique abilities. “With the COVID pandemic these individuals and their families experienced isolation within isolation,” he says.
Producer Chaim Marcus lined up the talent, curated the script and brought the program together. He says they chose to highlight one aspect of Shabbat—candle lighting—during the 25 minute program after the organizers shared a moving story; A student Rabbi was sent to Alaska by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to reach out to the Jewish people in the State. At a school he visited in a small village he met a young Jewish girl who said she felt like her Judaism didn’t count on the far away and frozen tundra. Marcus turned this into an animated short that preceded the “Circle of Light” segment.
“This story resonated for us,” Shemtov said, “One little girl in Alaska felt insignificant as a Jew until she was shown that she completes the circle of Shabbat light for the world every week. Every child, no matter where they are and how society sees them, plays a vital role and the world is not complete without them.”
Howie Mandel emceed a line-up of Jewish and non-Jewish guests—among them comedian Lee Ridley, also known as The Lost Voice Guy, who uses a device to speak—who offered their Shabbat greetings. Master pianist Kodi Lee, who is blind and has autism, performed and Bentzi Marcus of the band 8th Day, and singer Yaakov Schwekey led the children in traditional Shabbat party songs, altering the lyrics to give them a stay-at-home twist. “Everyone I contacted was immediately on board once they heard Friendship Circle’s mission,” Marcus said. He commended Mayim Bialik especially. “She recognizes the platform with which the Almighty blessed her and uses it to spread the light (pun intended).”
The program was hosted and promoted by local Friendship Circle chapters via their own social media pages, and Grossbaum believes that 20,000 views is just the start. Many more, he expects, will join the party in the coming weeks and months and view the recording at www.GlobalShabbatParty.com.
The messages of this program are timeless, reflects Grossbaum. “We’ve kept Shabbat through the millennia. And the Friendship Circle reminds us of the possibilities of a truly inclusive world.”