Barbara Warter, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, Gary Waleik
Gary Waleik 00:00
In the fall of 2017, a young special needs students named Ryan, rumbled into the end zone of a very special football field. He was arm in arm with a member of the New York Jets.
Barbara Warter 00:12
And I think just seeing the joy in Ryan, It like hit him and made him understand like, this is why we’re doing it.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 00:21
And we have this picture of Ryan. And that picture captured the moment of this incredible day.
Barbara Warter 00:27
And even when you look at it, you kind of can’t tell who looks happier Ryan or this sweet jets player. I feel very lucky that he got that experience for us as much as for him.
Gary Waleik 00:38
That field is just one of the facilities you’ll find it life town in Livingston, New Jersey. It’s the living embodiment of a revolutionary philosophy regarding people with special needs shared by Chabad Rabbeim, from the Alter Rebbe to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and to his emissaries.
Gary Waleik 01:00
I’m Gary Waleik, and this is Lamplighters stories from Chabad emissaries on the Jewish frontier. Life is about emissary is often joyous, but it can be unpredictable and even dangerous. Chabad has become a ubiquitous presence in every corner of the world. But behind every Chabad house are emissaries, regular people striving to transcend their circumstances and the community that supports and relies on them. These are their stories.
Gary Waleik 01:38
Rabbi Zalman and Rebbetzin Toba Grossbaum moved to Livingston New Jersey in 1996. They were prepared for what Shlichus usually requires.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 01:48
We began focusing on youth programs, educational programs in all the Hebrew schools and day schools and around the community.
Gary Waleik 01:55
That’s Rabbi Grossbaum.
Many of the staple Chabad school programs like the matzah bakery, Shofar factory,
Gary Waleik 02:01
but in some ways, Livingston is not what you’d call a usual place. In addition to the services all Chabad emissaries expect to provide to their communities, Torah classes, Shabbos dinners, pesach Seders, among many others. The Grossbaum’s quickly learned about another pressing need
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 02:20
the United States has the highest rate of autism in the world. New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the country and the area that we live in has large number of individuals with special needs in the States. So you One could say that we are in the epicenter of the autism Special Needs world.
Gary Waleik 02:41
At that point, neither Zalman nor Toba Grossbaum had any direct experience with special needs students,
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 02:49
but I think the experience that we both had growing upon Shlichus, is a commitment that is made to help your fellow Jew no matter what it is. And the rest is just details. And that’s why we made the commitment to look into this
Gary Waleik 03:05
the Grossbaum’s had heard about the work that Rabbi Levi and rebbetzin bassy Shemtov were doing in Michigan, through an organization they founded called Friendship Circle, which provides education and support for special needs students and their families. After learning more about the program, including the importance of training local teenagers as volunteers, the Grossbaums opened the country’s second chapter in 2000.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 03:32
We really wanted to start it on a small scale to help a few children a handful of teen volunteers, but the need was tremendous. And as we started reaching out to families, the response was really overwhelming. And programs continued to evolve. And as they evolved, more and more families responded and became engaged.
Gary Waleik 03:53
There were life skills classes, motor skills, exercises, family programs and sports activities. The demand was high, and more and more families signed up for friendship circle activities. It was not long after that the Grossbaum’s met an incredible young man and his equally amazing family.
Barbara Warter 04:15
Ryan was born in the year 2000.
Gary Waleik 04:18
That’s Barbara Warter. She says her pregnancy with Ryan was typical and healthy. But after Ryan was born, he was diagnosed with something called CHARGE Syndrome,
Barbara Warter 04:28
which is basically an acronym for different medical issues. He couldn’t hear he couldn’t speak. He had a feeding tube. He needed surgery, lots of different challenges in the beginning, and when we finally brought him home, the doctors had said, you know, just just make him comfortable. We don’t know how long he’s gonna live.
Gary Waleik 04:46
The Warters rejected that approach, and found doctors who, in Barbara’s words, could see beyond Ryan’s diagnosis. Ryan grew and though he had many challenges, he thrived. When he was four or five years old, Barbara began to bring Ryan to Friendship Circle, where he had the good fortune to count Toba and Zalman Grossbaum among his friends,
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 05:11
Ryan had an incredible energy. As a little boy, who had few words, he had a way of coming into a room into space, and lighting it up with this special energy he engaged you.
Barbara Warter 05:25
And he had the opportunity to do sports or cooking or any other kind of activities. It was an opportunity to just be a typical kid. And Ryan loved that because I don’t know that he saw himself as having special needs.
Gary Waleik 05:38
The Warters enrolled Ryan in the ‘friends at home’ program, which sends pairs of teenage volunteers to the homes of special needs children for playtime, and to give parents much needed breaks,
Barbara Warter 05:51
and Ryan loved those visits. These boys would come to the house and they’d play video games and wii and do just dance with him and take pictures and follow all of Ryan’s interests and he was able to see them week after week.
Gary Waleik 06:05
Barbara says that Ryan’s relationship with the volunteers allowed him to form what she calls a “beautiful connection to people outside the family”.
Gary Waleik 06:19
After about 10 years friendship circle had served over 300 families. Grossbaum says they were renting or borrowing facilities to run many of their programs, which required a lot more space than was available. At first they catered only to Jewish families. But they were getting requests for help from non Jewish families as well. But at that time, they couldn’t accommodate everybody.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 06:44
We were a roadshow. We could fit everything in the back of a pickup truck, or minivan, and we were constantly running and setting up. So we knew that it was something that if we wanted to really be able to help the families, we needed to create a home where the community can now come together and be part of an experience
Gary Waleik 07:03
in 2013. The Grossbaum’s raised enough funds to purchase an abandoned warehouse in Livingston.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 07:10
And we were able to run some of our programs out of the center as it was. And we were able to do a lot of incredible things,
Gary Waleik 07:16
but being Chabad emissaries and knowing that the Lubavitcher Rebbe always expected them to double, and redouble their efforts, the Grossbaums began to envision ‘LifeTown’. They reached out to the community, local businesses and corporations, and they raised $19 million. Construction on LifeTown began in the summer of 2016. The Grossbaum’s who had, by this time become very conversant with special needs education, we’re envisioning what LifeTown would be
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 07:48
about creating opportunities both for individuals with special abilities, but also for other children, other teens and other adults in the community to come here to interact, to create opportunities for mainstreaming and integration. In a very natural setting.
Barbara Warter 08:06
this was going to be a place that we didn’t have to go to basements and we didn’t have to rent space and get canceled of other you know, this was a space purely dedicated. So the idea of it was exceptional,
Gary Waleik 08:17
Ryan kept a close eye on the buildings progress,
Barbara Warter 08:21
they had, you know, brochures, sort of like a floor plan of what was going to be, and we used to keep it in the back pocket of the car. And so every time we would drive down the road, he’d whip out his brochure of life town and you know, go through and tell me all the rooms he wanted to use and all the places he’d want to see,
Gary Waleik 08:37
In late 2018 construction was finished on the 53,000 square foot life town. Because it would take hours or even days to fully experience a facility of that size, scope and ambition. There’s simply not enough time to describe all of it. But here’s a sampling of what it offers.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 09:02
See, when you walk into the building, you walk up the stairs and it’s the musical stairs of joy. You could dance your way up the stairs as you play music.
Barbara Warter 09:10
So whether it’s one person walking up it or a school of children walking up it it’s a different kind of Symphony. So you walk into that building and you just already feel some happiness,
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 09:20
you walk into LifeTown itself, and the hallways are filled with interactive screens that respond to touch and to movement. We have an alphabet wall, which has the Hebrew/ English alphabet with corresponding sign language and Braille.
Barbara Warter 09:34
The kitchen is like a restaurant level kitchen where kids do Shabbat cooking, like Challah making
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 09:41
LifeTown shops is the 11,500 square foot indoor city, with 15 fully functioning stores, where individuals with special abilities could come and learn life skills based on their level. So they go to the bank, they withdraw real money in the budget their money budget their time as they make their way around the stores, from anything from getting a haircut, to getting their nails done, visiting the pet shop doing an art program, beautiful 50 seat theater that’s accessible, and so many other opportunities where they learn and practice real life skills in a real setting
Barbara Warter 10:16
that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Gary Waleik 10:18
There’s also a shul and a 3d replica of the Kotel. There are lounges for parents who need a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. And a lounge for the hundreds of teenagers who volunteer at LifeTown. There’s a zero entry pool and a basketball court made with acoustically absorbent ceiling tiles to decrease the echoes for kids who are hypersensitive to sound.
Gary Waleik 10:44
All of this says Rabbi Grossbaum, is designed with one goal in mind,
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 10:50
it breaks down the barriers is such a natural way. Because nobody is role playing. Nobody’s doing therapy. Everyone is just experiencing life together in a beautiful, meaningful way.
Gary Waleik 11:05
But there’s one more feature of LifeTown that holds special significance for the Grossbaums, the warters and the entire life town community. In the late summer of 2017, before LifeTown officially opened, the Grossbaums had secured large donations from the NFL, the New York Jets and United Way to build a football field. Once Rabbi Grossbaum had the funding and the permits approved, he and his team had just six weeks to build it, after which members of the jets would visit for the dedication ceremony in late October. But the ‘miracle field’ came together quickly
Barbara Warter 11:47
and kids were invited to participate.
Gary Waleik 11:49
It was Tuesday, October 24. And it was raining hard. The forecast called for the same well into the night. But still about 250 showed up including LifeTown students, staff, volunteers, and a dozen members of the New York Jets. And of course, the grossbaums and the warters.
Barbara Warter 12:10
And as soon as Ryan saw the football players, the Jets football players, any aches, pains, weather kind of just went out the window.
Gary Waleik 12:18
There were speeches under a tent. And then the rain stopped.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 12:22
And after the speeches, we decided, You know what, fields out there, let’s go try it. So as we’re walking up the ramp to the field, and I’m not making this up, literally the clouds parted. And the sun comes out.
Gary Waleik 12:36
Ryan Warter, who loved football, met some of the Jets at the various stations where kids could learn to pass, run and catch. He was thrilled.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 12:45
And then one of the players decided he wanted to allow each kid to start scoring touchdowns. And they were handing the ball off throwing passes. And kids are scoring touchdowns and they were celebrating.
Gary Waleik 12:57
It’s there that Ryan paired up with former jets defensive back, Jeremy Clark,
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 13:02
the player hands the ball off to him. And he’s literally holding his hand walking to the endzone. And he scores this touchdown, this incredible celebration.
Barbara Warter 13:11
I don’t think he expected Ryan to dance in the way Ryan did because his ambulation was you know, not as graceful. And I think just seeing the joy and Ryan. It like hit him and made him understand like, this is why we’re doing it and seeing his joy was so clear to see the joy on this player’s face.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 13:33
And we have this picture of Ryan. And that picture captured the moment of this incredible day.
Barbara Warter 13:39
And even when you look at it, you kind of can’t tell who looks happier, Ryan or this sweet jets player.
Barbara Warter 13:47
He’d been, you know, planning for it since his bar mitzvah. So I feel very lucky that he got that experience. And to be honest that my family got that experience, all of us were able to see his joy and have that for us as much as for him.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 14:05
And that was the only part of lifetime that he ever was able to see. And that was the only part of lifetime that he was ever able to experience. And just a few months later,he passed
Gary Waleik 14:26
in May 2018, after suffering a series of acute complications. Ryan Warter left this world. He was just 17 years old.
Gary Waleik 14:39
Ryan’s passing was an especially difficult blow because his father Oren had passed away just three years before at the age of 45. Barbara had been raising their three boys by herself.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 14:53
And I know that she took a lot of solace and was very inspired by the Rebbe’s words about loss and taking the energy’s of loss and creating something positive about that.
Gary Waleik 15:03
Here’s what she did. In 2017. She remarried. Barbara and her new husband Jeff made a decision right away.
Barbara Warter 15:12
We did not take wedding gifts we chose to donate to life town instead. thing you know, I don’t need another gravy boat. Let’s help someone else.
Gary Waleik 15:22
Then in July 2018, Barbara and Jeff created the Warter strong foundation, which honors Ryan’s memory by supporting charities that support people with special needs. The Warter’s also run the “do happy project”, which encourages people to rethink what makes them happy, and then to do it. That’s Barbara’s approach to life these days.
Barbara Warter 15:44
So no matter what each day brings me and not every day is a happy day and not every day is a sad day. But every day I can do something for happiness.
Gary Waleik 15:55
Barbara’s middle son Zach volunteers at life town in honor of Ryan. And remember the football field in which Ryan scored his touchdown? in November of 2021, It was rededicated as ‘Ryan’s field’. Barbara says that event which attracted hundreds of kids, parents and volunteers, and even the mayor, was emblematic of life town’s mission to benefit not just people with special needs, but the entire community
Barbara Warter 16:24
to see dozens and dozens and dozens of kids pair up with children with special needs and wheelchairs and walkers and little kids just going on the field was so beautiful, like just so special. I’m definitely getting choked up. But like when I imagine Ryan kind of looking down at the whole thing. I mean, he would just, he’d be beaming to see what’s happening.
Gary Waleik 16:53
Barbara is very busy these days. In addition to raising her two sons, she’s writing a book about the lessons she learned while raising Ryan. Her continued presence at life town is consistent with the Grossbaums vision to create a facility that involves an entire community of volunteers. And by the way, Rabbi Grossbaum estimates there have been well over 7000 of them. Since Friendship Circle began in New Jersey, they carry with them the message and the values of life town to other people. In other parts of the world.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 17:28
We’ve seen a direct correlation between the teenagers and how they’ve transformed their families. They’ve transformed their synagogues. They’ve transformed the community. It shifted the entire mindset of how people see individuals that have special abilities. These teenagers have gone into careers in special needs by the hundreds, or other careers where they’re now creating inclusive opportunities for individuals special needs in their businesses or other experiences that they have. So the impact of friendship circle, and now the impact of LifeTown is not just about what happens in these walls.
Gary Waleik 18:09
Grossbaum won’t take credit for this. He says life towns approach is attributable to the Lubavitcher rebbe who wrote a letter in late 1980 to a doctor who used an antiquated term in referring to his patients. In that letter. The Rebbe said
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 18:25
I would prefer to refer to these individuals as special, because it better portrays who they are and the opportunities that they have.
Gary Waleik 18:33
That doctor would later say that he believed the Rebbe was the first to coin the term ‘special needs’.
Gary Waleik 18:40
Rabbi grossbaum says that same insight can also be found in the writings of the Alter rebbe who in one discourse says that those with special needs have bodies that might be overwhelmed by their special souls, and the Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok interpreted a verse of the Zohar with
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 19:01
where the Zohar writes that “there are neshamas of tzadikim, the souls of the righteous, ‘v’shar neshamas kedoshim,’ and other holy souls”. And the Rebbe’s father writes over there, “v’shar neshamas kedoshim,” the “other holy souls,” these refer to the souls of those with special needs.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum 19:21
And I think that was the underpinning of the Rebbe’s outlook on this whole subject, and the Rebbe’s positivity of wanting to create every single opportunity possible for inclusion. If we invest energy to connect to these special souls, it will have an impact on the world at large.
Gary Waleik 19:44
Because Barbara warter and family share that positivity. They’re still very involved in life town and still committed to seeing kids like their beloved Ryan get all the education, support and love they need.
Barbara Warter 19:57
And I think my philosophy, the Grossbaum’s mission, and Friendship Circle together, as just you know, we all work together
Gary Waleik 20:16
I’m Gary Waleik. Thanks for listening to Lamplighters, stories from Chabad emissaries on the Jewish frontier.
Gary Waleik 20:26
We welcome your questions and comments about what you’ve just heard on Lamplighters, please email us at email@example.com. And if you know of a great story involving Chabad emissaries or the people they inspire, please let us know about them.
Gary Waleik 20:42
Gary Waleik 20:53
This is a Lubavitch international podcast.