Especially for special needs
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Especially for special needs

Friendship Circle at Frisch School partners student volunteers with campers 

Leora Barkai, who will graduate from Frish in 2018, works with a camper. (Photos courtesy Frisch)
Leora Barkai, who will graduate from Frish in 2018, works with a camper. (Photos courtesy Frisch)

For the parents of 400 Jewish special-needs children, the week-long Friendship Circle Camp hosted at the Frisch School in Paramus was a godsend during public-school winter recess.

For the 400 Frisch sophomores, juniors, and seniors who all were assigned shifts as camp counselors during their school day, the program was a hands-on exercise in chesed — in kindness.

For the campers, it was a fun week of outings and activities geared to their abilities and interests.

Frisch juniors Joshua Dukas, Daniel Elbaum, and Yaron Schneider stand with a camper. 
Frisch juniors Joshua Dukas, Daniel Elbaum, and Yaron Schneider stand with a camper. 

The Friendship Circle, an international Chabad-Lubavitch initiative, brings together an estimated 11,000 teenage volunteers and 5,000 children with special needs in several countries.

Zeesy Grossbaum of Paramus, the Friendship Circle coordinator in Bergen County, said that more than 200 children with special needs, ranging from newborns through 21-year-olds, take part in different aspects of the local program. About 700 teens volunteer over the course of the year, including 125 who visit the children at home every week.

“Every program we start is on a needs basis to fill voids that the parents express,” Ms. Grossbaum said. “A few years ago, parents told us that their kids are off the whole week of winter break and they wanted a camp. We had eight children the first year in a camp run at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck.”

There is now a mini-camp during President’s Week as well, and the program moved to Frisch about five years ago.

Sophomores Shoshana Jeselsohn and Sarah Elimeliah with a camper.
Sophomores Shoshana Jeselsohn and Sarah Elimeliah with a camper.

Rabbi Joshua Schulman, Frisch’s director of chesed programming, said that the school arranges the volunteers in shifts, “so we can get all the kids involved and exposed to this program.” Freshmen are given an opportunity to observe the camp first; so that they know what to expect when they are old enough to become counselors.

“Zeesy and her staff pair up the kids and our students one on one, and our students are told everything they need to know about the children they will be paired with,” Rabbi Schulman said. “Staff members are available if they have questions or concerns. It is a learning experience, and it’s amazing to see how quickly they jump in and form relationships.”

Gabi Moskowitz of Teaneck said that her daughter Meira, 13, goes to a public special-needs school in Ho-Ho-Kus and had two full weeks off for the Christmas-New Year’s break.

“She is not a child who can amuse herself, and down time is not good for her,” Ms. Moskowitz said. “The camp was amazing because it ran from 10 to 3, similar to her school day, and the counselors made it so much fun. I have two kids at Frisch, so they were able to spend time with her, and it gave their friends an opportunity to get to know Meira. I think the Frisch kids got a lot out of it as well.”

Frisch junior Zachary Comet and a camper have fun together.
Frisch junior Zachary Comet and a camper have fun together.

Sigal Levine, a 12th-grader from Teaneck, already had volunteered in the Friendship Circle’s Friends @ Home program. “Every year I look forward to the Friendship Circle Camp in school, and seeing some of the kids again,” she said.

Among the activities she helped with — all led by professional teachers — were yoga, sports and challah-baking. The camp schedule also includes daily field trips to places including LEGOLAND Discovery Center, Pump It Up recreation center, and a bowling alley.

“I think the children really see the love at Frisch,” Sigal said. “They got to experience a more normalized and free environment and had the ability to express themselves in a whole new way.”

Speaking for herself, she continued, “I gained an understanding about the everyday struggle these children endure. I gained a sense of pride, knowing I gave these kids an amazing week. I had the benefit of seeing how truly special and amazing these kids are.”

Frisch sophomore Evan Chesner works with a camper.
Frisch sophomore Evan Chesner works with a camper.

Rabbi Schulman said that the high school’s teachers don’t object to students missing some classes that week. “They understand it has a major impact on the culture and environment in the school, and how important it is for the students’ overall growth,” he said.

He added that being involved in the Friendship Circle Camp “deepens the kids’ sensitivity not only to children with special needs but to people in general. It opens their eyes to different life circumstances, makes them grateful for all the things they have in their lives, and hopefully inspires them to become more involved in assisting those who need it.”

The Friendship Circle also sponsors the weekly evening Teen Scene Club at Frisch and at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a once-a-month Cooking Circle at Ma’ayanot, among other offerings for special-needs children and teenagers. This year, a Friendship Circle Sunday school program began at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge.

Sara Taragin of Teaneck said that her son Hillel, 16, loves the Teen Scene. He was happy to go to camp at Frisch, where one of his favorite Friendship Circle volunteers, Sara Gdanski, is a student. “She doesn’t talk to him like a special-needs teenager; she is warm and attentive and friendly, and he views her as a friend,” she said.

Eliana Krinitz and Leora Moskowitz flank camper Meira Moskowitz. (Courtesy Gabi Moskowitz)
Eliana Krinitz and Leora Moskowitz flank camper Meira Moskowitz. (Courtesy Gabi Moskowitz)

Ms. Taragin said that if not for the camp, she would have had to take time from work while Hillel was home during winter vacation. “He does very well in a structured routine, and the Friendship Circle is very well organized,” she said. “He can read the schedule and know what to expect. He told me he looked forward to seeing the Frisch students because they’re teenagers like him, and he enjoys their company.”

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