November 12, 2018

Ethan and Me

Nothing makes me feel better than seeing Ethan smile. He glows when he sees me and I glow too. As I greet him, I can’t help but erupt into an enormous grin.

Ethan has Downs syndrome, and we met at Friendship Circle of Los Angeles.

Like any friends, first we catch up. I ask him what he learned in Hebrew school, we discuss sports — typically basketball or football — and we sing his favorite song of the moment. Last time it was “Despacito,” but it can range anywhere from a new Taylor Swift hit to Nick Jonas.

Ethan is incredibly entertaining and likes being the center of attention. People gather around because Ethan, with the help of music from my phone, is singing. No, not singing — entertaining. He makes hand gestures, facial expressions and somehow knows every word to every song he requests. He never fails to make everyone at Friendship Circle laugh.

He also loves telling jokes. One of his favorites is: “Yesterday, a clown opened the door for me. I thought it was a very nice jester.”

He also loves telling jokes. One of his favorites is: “Yesterday, a clown opened the door for me. I thought it was a very nice jester.”

Ethan attends public school, where there are resources and individualized attention to help him learn. Ethan’s family wants him to get a Jewish education, as well. This poses a dilemma for many Jewish parents of special needs children. Religious schools don’t generally have the ability to educate students with significant cognitive differences. Enter Friendship Circle.

I have been volunteering there for 2½ years. It started as my bat mitzvah project. I picked Friendship Circle because I had previous experience with special needs children at Camp Ramah, a Jewish sleepaway camp that I attended. There, a unique program exists called Amitzim for people ranging from children to young adults with various forms of special needs, similar to Friendship Circle. I had always enjoyed being with the Amitzim campers, especially when my bunk/tent got to participate in tefilah (prayer) with them.

When I decided to volunteer at Friendship Circle, I imagined I would make some friends and maybe learn a little. What I didn’t know is the depth of the friendship I would develop with Ethan.

My first day volunteering, I knew from the start that it was a perfect match. Ethan is friendly and enthusiastic, as am I. Further, we both love telling jokes, making people laugh and entertaining those around us.

Everyone at Friendship Circle knows Ethan. It always makes my day when an administrator asks me, before the program starts, who my buddy is. Usually, they will stop themselves mid-sentence and say, “Oh, right, you’re with Ethan!”

In the months before my bat mitzvah, my mom and I were sending out invitations. One day, we were in the car, and I asked her if she had invited Ethan yet. We hadn’t previously discussed it, but it was obvious to me that he had to be there.

Typically, once you have your bar or bat mitzvah, your mitzvah project ends. I didn’t exactly think about whether I wanted to continue with it before my celebration, but once I saw Ethan arrive at my party with his family, I realized, for both of our sakes, that I must continue volunteering.

The faculty and teachers at Friendship Circle are incredible, and with their help, Ethan was able to read Torah at his bar mitzvah this past November. He even delivered a drash, a short ethical teaching, that moved all of us to tears.

There are multiple programs at Friendship Circle that enable children with all sorts of cognitive differences to form close relationships with young volunteers. And when I say relationship, I don’t mean a friendship where it is a one-way street. Ethan recently got a smartphone, and when he calls to FaceTime, it’s a treat for me and my entire family, because he insists on talking to everyone!

If you are nearing your bar or bat mitzvah and need a mitzvah project, or you are simply looking for somewhere to volunteer, I suggest checking out Friendship Circle. I don’t consider what I do volunteering anymore. I consider it hanging out with a friend and helping him learn and grow while watching myself do the same.


Molly Litvak is a student at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. Her father, Sal, is the Accidental Talmudist.