With the COVID-19 pandemic worsening this holiday season, many people who never had to worry about how they would pay for a holiday meal are now turning to food banks for the very first time. Feeding America says that 80 percent of its food banks are serving more people than they were at the same time last year.
Friendship Circle is one of the fastest growing Jewish organizations in New Jersey, providing a wide array of innovative programming which helps to promote a greater awareness and understanding of both the unique needs and the unique gifts of those with special needs.
LifeTown is a 53,000-square-foot, fully inclusive and accessible center for children with special needs, where they can listen to religious lessons, take cooking lessons, and many more activities.
And with New Jersey having the highest rate of special needs in the country, Friendship Circle’s holiday miracle is helping keep each child’s spark lit. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 24% of New Jersey state residents have a disability.
“I hope that what we are doing here can also be an inspiration to others,” Grossbaum says. “We think of issues like this, where vast numbers of people are facing isolation, you would think there’s nothing we can do. But every single person can do something. Pick up a phone and call somebody. Think of someone who lives alone. Drop off a package at the door. It doesn’t have to be a large package. A small little thought can make such a big difference.”
The children were “in need of some holiday spirit,” Grossbaum emphasized, “even if it’s a small gesture in the face of a larger problem.” With COVID-19 forcing everyone into isolation, Grossbaum recognizes the difficulty for the tens of thousands of children who regularly take part in his programs. “They have been isolated too long,” he said.
LifeTown was born from Friendship Circle’s social mission, transitioning from religious programs to a more “secular mission.” The enclosed village of storefronts aims to be a place where children with special needs can go to take part in everyday activities that many take for granted. You can see a video of how LifeTown works here.
But while many holiday celebrations are virtual this year, Friendship Circle New Jersey added a new spin on helping these children celebrate the holidays with its Chanukah Fun Truck. The Truck comes complete with a large dreidel display, crafts, VR games, an instant photo booth, and holiday treats and prizes. But more importantly, the fun and educational truck is already helping children with special needs and their families celebrate the holiday, making stops at the houses of many Friendship Circle families during Chanukah.
On December 10, the first night of Chanukah, the Chanukah Fun Truck kicked off its tour of home visits to children in Morristown, then leading a Menorah car parade through Morristown, Livingston, and West Orange. Over the course of Chanukah, the Truck is visiting over 100 homes and other locales for its celebration, with more than 250 families expected to visit the truck during the eight-day holiday.
“The lights of Chanukah remind us that even during the most difficult situation we can kindle a light and make the world a better and brighter place,” Rabbi Grossbaum told Jewish Journal. “The challenges that we face this year call on us to be more creative to bring the spirit of Chanukah to people who would otherwise feel isolated and lonely. The smiles on the kids’ faces make the effort worthwhile.”
Friendship Circle New Jersey prides itself in providing exciting, interactive programs that bring to life the spirit and richness of the Jewish traditions, bringing parents and siblings, children and teens with special needs together during the holiday season. And during this pandemic, it couldn’t be a better time.