Winter break, while eagerly anticipated by students, causes consternation for working parents. For parents of children with special needs, there is an added variable with a break from school. “Kids with special needs thrive on structure,” explained Bergen County Friendship Circle Director Zeesy Grossbaum. More than 10 years ago, Grossbaum saw this need and put together a winter camp for the days between Christmas and New Year’s when many schools close. The response was positive and they quickly outgrew one environment after another, eventually partnering with The Frisch School six years ago.
Rabbi Joshua Schulman, a rebbe at the Frisch School who also serves as the director of chesed programing, had a vision to integrate the Friendship Circle camp into the Frisch environment. Previously, student volunteers staffed the winter camp, and Rabbi Schulman hoped to continue this dynamic, but instead of making it open only to the students who step up, he found a way to involve every student in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades. With an intricately organized rotation of volunteers, over the course of the winter camp, every student in those grades will have had the chance to work with their friends in the Friendship Circle camp. “We now have around 500 students participating each year, and even the 9th graders who aren’t participating this year know that they will in future years, and are the beneficiaries of being exposed to the environment of kindness and warmth that the camp helps breed in our hallways and classrooms,” Rabbi Schulman explained.
The ruach and enthusiasm throughout Frisch is contagious, and spreads to anyone walking through the school. While Frisch may be a “host” school to their Friendship Circle “guests,” the overall sentiment is one of partnership. All the campers are included in Frisch activities such as the Chanukah chagiga, special events and shows, and sit together with the students at tables for lunch.
“This is very much the soul of our yeshiva,” explained Rabbi Eli Ciner, principal of The Frisch School. “It’s not just about doing chesed outside of the school walls, but actually bringing it into our environment and making it a part of our culture. Rabbi Schulman has done an extraordinary job integrating the students and the program.” For his part, Rabbi Schulman’s nachat comes from “getting to watch students take advantage of this opportunity—seeing all students jumping in and having a great time together.”
The camp is run with the unique blend of professionalism, warmth and love that Friendship Circle is known for. A one-to-one or two-to-one ratio of Frisch students to campers helps the special activities, sports, baking and daily field trips run smoothly. A behaviorist and various support professionals are on hand to assist when needed.
“Zeesy and her staff do an amazing job planning the activities, trips and entertainment,” Schulman continued. “I partner with them to schedule it into our regular school day and to figure out how to pair up our students with the Friendship Circle participants.”
This year’s Friendship Circle winter camp was sponsored by Frisch parents Josh and Robyn Hartman of Englewood in memory of Josh’s mother, Bonnie Hartman. The Hartmans see the Friendship Circle camp as a kind of program they wish had been available to Josh’s older brother Aaron, who suffers from William syndrome, a genetic developmental disorder. Growing up in Atlanta, he did not have access to a yeshiva education or Jewish programming geared to students with special needs. The Hartmans’ son Addison and daughter Bailey are in the 10th grade at Frisch.
“I saw this program as a chance to help provide a Jewish education through the Friendship Circle,” said Hartman. “And as a chance to fill a void from my own childhood.” As 10th graders, Addison and Bailey volunteered with the Friendship Circle camp as well. “This was very meaningful that my family sponsored a program for kids with special needs,” expressed Addison. “We already know from my uncle that there may be limitations to what someone can or can’t do and we just go with it. All we want is to make the best experience for our Friendship Circle friends. And for my friends at Frisch to see how we can do so much with them.”
Sophomore Hayley Greene of Teaneck echoed Addison’s sentiments. “I always wanted to volunteer, and really looked forward to this opportunity,” she said. “It’s amazing to see how everyone interacts. They have so many stories to share and I love listening.” Sammy Volodarsky, a sophomore from Englewood, was bursting with energy and could not wait to share his positive experiences. “With the Friendship Circle camp, everyone thinks they’re giving, but actually we’re receiving. We learn so much from our interactions,” he remarked exuberantly. Addison Hartman explained further, “Even if someone can’t talk, you learn to pick up on other details to communicate. At dismissal, when they don’t want to leave and stay by your side, you know they had a great day.”
Rabbi Schulman and Rabbi Ciner are tremendously proud of the successful interactions and the positive week. “Because of programs like Friendship Circle, our students are much more comfortable in diverse environments and with differently abled individuals,” Rabbi Schulman said proudly. Added Rabbi Ciner, “Everyone walks away a little bit changed—and that’s both unique and gratifying.”
By Jenny Gans