“A model for a Jewish People unified by shared goals and ideals,” is how Dr. Talya Fishman describes Friendship Circle of Chabad of the Delaware Valley.
Before a crowd of 350 at the Friendship Circle banquet on Sunday night, Dr. Fishman, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at University of Pennsylvania, credited Friendship Circle, a project of Guideline Services-Lubavitch House, with helping the community, “discover that what we have in common must be cultivated together if we, as individuals and as a community, are to rise to our potential.”
Dr. Fishman’s daughter Elisheva, 18, has been enjoying weekly visits from Friendship Circle’s teen volunteers since the program began four years ago. Started with a handful of participants by Rabbi Zev and Chani Baram, leaders of Chabad of Old City Philadelphia, Friendship Circle has grown to include 115 volunteers from 15 schools helping 75 children with special needs.
Among them is Lane Tregerman, a handsome 16-year-old, who introduced Rabbi Baram at the dinner. Born with a chromosomal-deletion syndrome, Tregerman speaks through a talker-device. His mom, Sheryl Tregerman, said she was a nervous wreck before Lane came to the podium, but Lane did beautifully.
“He had a look on his face that he knew what he had to do. When he was done, everyone was shaking his hand, hugging him, like he was a rock star,” she said.
“It just shows that if you give a child support and love, he will rise to the occasion.”
Gail Simon, a teacher and chesed volunteer club advisor at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic Jewish prep school, was honored together with her husband Larry. After she invited Rabbi Baram to address the club, several Barack Hebrew Academy students signed on as Friendship Circle buddies.
“That is one of the wonderful things about Chabad rabbis. They reach out to people who can get overlooked,” said Simon, who also serves as sisterhood president at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, PA.
Barrack Academy hosts Friendship Circle holiday events, as do other local schools and synagogues on all points of the spectrum of Jewish observance.
“We come from different backgrounds, but our common thread is the Friendship Circle. It unites the entire Jewish community,” said Chani Baram.
This thread extends beyond Friendship Circle programs. Parents come together because of their common concerns. Dr. Fishman is concerned about her daughter Elisheva’s future. With every birthday, Elisheva gets closer to the cut off age for state-funded educational programs. At the dinner, she swapped info with another potential advocate who is occupied by the same issues.
This community of parents, children and volunteers is influencing Barams’ vision for the Friendship Circle.
“We feel such a strong connection with the families, we don’t feel it will fizzle away as the children get older,” said Mrs. Baram.
They’ve expanded their teen programs, and hosted outings for teens. This week, three older participants will be joining a special Friendship Circle Birthright Israel trip for young adults with special needs.
Children with special needs require care from specialists, teachers and relatives, but they have given the gift of unity to the City of Brotherly Love.
“Instead of thinking about the pathos, the attitude should be how these special souls are good for everyone,” said Dr. Fishman. “They demolish what divides Jews, and help everyone get to a much more noble place.”