February 28, 2020

Friendship Circle Celebrates Tu B’Shevat

Photo by Ryan Torok

In one room, children lined up at tables with small succulents and buckets of plant food, including volcanic sand, and stuffed soil into pots. And in the recreation room, kids enjoyed arts and crafts, decorating frames with butterfly stickers.

The activities were part of the Feb. 9 “Tu B’Shevat in the Desert” program by Friendship Circle Los Angeles (FCLA), the organization that works with Jewish children with special needs. 

Rebecca Suissa, owner of Le Petit Garden, brought her DIY potting business to the event at FCLA. A longtime volunteer, Suissa said, “I would do anything for the Friendship Circle, for children with special needs.” 

The event’s focus on the desert was an acknowledgment of the arid climate in Los Angeles, so Suissa brought succulents and taught the children how the plants are able to retain water in dry climates. 

The succulents were kept in “children-preferred” pots made of recycled plastic. The plant mix included coarse sand, perlite and soil, Suissa said.

“We’re going to give your roots a haircut,” one of the FCLA volunteers explained to the children as he cut some of the stringy fiber dangling from the bottom of a plant. 

Esti Krintzman, 29, who has a form of autism known as a pervasive developmental delay, was among the approximately 300 people who turned out for the day’s activities. 

Krintzman was busy decorating her artwork with stickers alongside Neshamah Ben-Yehuda, a 10th-grader from Bais Yaakov School for Girls. Krintzman has been involved with FCLA since its inception in 2003, while Neshamah began volunteering with the organization a couple of weeks ago.

“It gives me energy,” Neshamah said. “If I had a hard week, I look forward to coming here. I love being with Esti, and I have a really good time.”

UCLA School of Dentistry students came by to offer dental demonstrations for the children, reinforcing that the holiday of Tu B’Shevat ought to not only be about caring for the earth but also self-care.

The Tu B’Shevat program is one of many holiday gatherings FCLA holds. Past events have included a Lego-inspired Hanukkah and a Moroccan-themed Purim. “Each of the programs, we theme it and it makes it super fun for the kids,” said Gail Rollman, FCLA’s development director.

She added the events also provide respite for the parents. While the children were enjoying various Tu B’Shevat-themed activities, their parents attended a workshop on “How to Organize Your Home,” a skill, Rollman said, that may elude parents who face the all-consuming challenge of raising special needs children.

UCLA School of Dentistry students came by to offer dental demonstrations for the children, including teaching them how to properly brush their teeth. The dental demos reinforced that the holiday of Tu B’Shevat ought to not only be about caring for the earth but also self-care, Rollman said.

Miriam Rav-Noy, who co-founded FCLA with her husband, Rabbi Michy Rav-Noy, said FCLA creates bonds among special needs families who are otherwise “socially isolated. This becomes, for many families, their community,” she said. “Ultimately, these kids and young adults with special needs, they want to belong.”