A Small Piece of Heaven

We recently released a new music video, starring the siblings of children with special needs, as well as highlighting a few of our past programs and events.

Composed by Abie Rotenberg, this timeless tune is sung by the siblings of children with special needs.

The beautiful lyrics teach us to look beyond the facade to see everyone for who they truly are, and to recognize the G-d given abilities that are unique to each individual.

Special Artists Stun the Crowd

This past Sunday, the Friendship Circle of Brooklyn hosted their fifth annual “Art of Friendship” Gallery, featuring a stunning collection of artwork created by members of the organization.

After many months of working on these creations, hundreds of people from the community and beyond came to view the beautiful gallery. The exhibition displayed three collections covering the theme of Shabbos: Women of Valor Canvas Collection, A Day of Light Candlestick Collection, and Nourishing the Soul Challah Board Collection. Friendship Circle also unveiled their unique, limited edition Bentcher Set, a vibrant and modern collection.

Guests were treated to custom Friendship Circle swag bags as they entered, and delighted in an afternoon of mingling while enjoying the delicious spread of food, fine wines and entertainment. The children were enthralled and got busy with face painting, arts and crafts and balloon art.

Rabbi Berel Majesky, director of Friendship Circle, addressed the crowd, paying tribute to the memory of Pavel H. Lampert, the late husband of Dianne Lampert. He spoke about the unique contribution the artists shared with the community, emphasizing that “it is so much more than just a gallery of artwork: We may never know the TRUE value of this art, but we know each and every one of our children represented here today are priceless; an intrinsic part of the Jewish nation, of our community.”

Heartfelt thanks go to the visionaries behind this unique EmpowerArt program: Joe Sprung and Dianne Lampert of the Bear Givers Foundation, true believers in putting children with special needs in the driver’s seat of giving. Thank you to all those who came to show their support for the Friendship Circle and its members – the talented artists. Each of the art pieces were created under the guidance of the FC volunteers, whose genuine care and love, bring out the talents in these special children, making magic happen every day.

The event may have passed but the echoes of the beauty of that afternoon continue to reverberate as friends and supporters visit FC Brooklyn’s website, viewing and purchasing the few remaining pieces that made up the Shabbos collection. Would you consider being a buyer too? See the artwork and Bentcher sets for sale online: Artwork can be viewed on Facebook, Bentchers can be purchased at fcbrooklyn.com/Shabbos or email office@FCBrooklyn.com.

Bentcher Set Features Special Art

 A limited edition set of “Bentchers” featuring artwork by children and young adults with special needs, has been printed and available for sale at the Friendship Circle’s upcoming art show.

Under the guidance of the Friendship Circle team, volunteers assisted each member of the Friendship Circle in creating a beautiful masterpiece in the theme of Shabbos. The workshops gifted each participant the opportunity to express his or her inner creative vision.

‘The Art of Friendship’ event on June 3rd, 2018. 3:00 – 5:00pm at the Jewish Children’s Museum, will feature a full gallery of these creative pieces. Open to the public and child friendly, the annual event brings the community together in celebrating the abilities and talents of all children and young adults.

The “Bentcher Collection” and all original artwork will be sold on a first come, first serve basis.

Artwork Photography: Nachman Blizinsky Design: P-Graphics Printing: Empire Press

      

Torah Marks Boy’s Bar Mitzvah

Crown Heights residents Dovi and Racheli Chaimson have commisioned a new Sefer Torah to be written in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of their son, Baruch Schneur.

Family, friends and members of Friendship Circle Brooklyn participated in the ceremony held in the backyard of their home on Thursday, Lag BaOmer.

The boy’s uncle R’ Gershon Chaimson, a sofer stam, conducted the writing of the first letters in the scroll and invited community members to inscribe them.

The parents expressed their appreciation to all who came out to honor the occasion and celebrate with them.

The Torah will be dedicated to Friendship Circle. Some of its members were on-hand to participate in the dancing around the bonfire that followed the ceremony.

Session Two for After School Clubs

Friendship Circle of Brooklyn has opened registration for Session Two of its after school clubs for girls and boys of all abilities.

After running a successful pilot program, the Friendship Circle of Brooklyn will be offering two simultaneous after school clubs for boys and girls, starting mid-February. Both sessions will foster an inclusive environment and will be open to both children with disabilities and typical children in the community.

With the majority of children with disabilities attending school out of Crown Heights, it became increasingly clear to FC Directors, Chani and Berel Majesky, that a new program that includes all children in the community needed to be created.

The initial pilot program of Martial Arts for boys and Cooking Club for girls was met with such excitement and sold out sessions, and left parents begging for more! Session two will be offering Woodworking classes for boys and Ballet for girls. Classes will be run simultaneously at the NEW Friendship Circle space at 540 East New York Ave, on Tuesdays from 5.30-6.30pm.

Programs will have a number of volunteers on hand to ensure the environment is one of inclusion and a great social experience for all in attendance.

Innovative AfterSchool Program brings 8- to 10-year-olds together

‘There Are No Kids With Special Needs Here’

Innovative afterschool program brings 8- to 10-year-olds together

Written for Chabad.org by Shmuel Loebenstein

 

Crêpes will burn if you don’t pour the batter evenly and quickly. On a blustery afternoon in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mussie Procel watched as her class of budding chefs tended to their bubbling pans with the intensity and single-mindedness that only 8-year-olds in a kitchen can possess.

Two girls worked side by side, their little chef hats and aprons askew as they laughed and peeked at each other’s pooling messes. Theirs was a shared childhood experience—those ineffable strands of camaraderie that together weave the fabric of friendship so strong and so tight that adulthood cannot undo it.

Like backyard baseball, a birthday party or camping trip, the afterschool cooking class seemed typical of any of those experiences, another shared moment whose details would get lost in the mists of time, but never its effect.

Typical, except that one child has autism, and the other does not. In fact, about half the class had a range of special needs. But during those moments in the kitchen, those distinctions were lost.

What drove the Friendship Circle of Brooklyn to launch its inclusive afterschool program in 2017? It now offers karate and ballet classes alongside cooking, and I set off in search of the nexus between martial arts, the performing arts and the culinary arts.

I found it in the story that Chani Majesky, co-director of the Friendship Circle, tells about her son.

‘Kids Don’t Look at Each Other Differently’

The Friendship Circle generally distinguishes itself from other organizations serving children with special needs in that it focuses on social, and not therapeutic, needs. The immensely popular “Sunday Circle” program, for example, pairs children with teen volunteers; together, they share a variety of activities.

For the volunteers, these programs are often their first introduction into the world of special needs. Their minds are already molded to maintain strict conceptual boundaries. The volunteer is a volunteer, and the child with special needs is a child with special needs; while the twain do meet, they do not merge. At the program’s end, they disentangle themselves and go back to their respective familiar places.

Chani was somewhat discomfited by conversations she had with her son, Mendel, when he was about 6 years old. Mendel had grown up in the embrace of the organization that his parents run (his father, Rabbi Berel Majesky, is the other co-director), attending every program and joining every outing. Chani would ask him: “Mendel, what do you think of the children with special needs? Do they enjoy it? How can we make it better for them?”

Mendel did not—could not—understand her question. What kids? Who is “them”? Don’t we just play together every Sunday and sometimes go on cool trips together?

Chani says that his innocent confusion led her to realize that “kids don’t naturally look at each other differently.” She thought that if young children could experience enjoyable things together on a “level playing field” at an age when they don’t really recognize any differences, it would help them develop an outlook of equality that would last for life.

“I want to raise a whole generation who sees things like Mendel does,” she says.

‘The Root of Learning’

That’s why the afterschool program is offered only to 8- to-10-year-olds. “Teenagers already see children with special needs as different,” explains Chani. “But when the children in the program become teenagers, they’ll be able to continue to do these kinds of activities. Hopefully, they’ll see things differently.”

Rabbi Majesky believes that the special-needs community is moving in that direction. Inclusiveness and integration are the new goals: children with special needs attend regular schools, go to regular camps, and now go to the same cooking classes and karate classes as their friends. Those who work in the field note the Willowbrook State School scandal in the 1960s as producing waves that continue to ripple through the Jewish community. The first wave took children with special needs out of the shadows and into the spotlight; now, the next one moves them out of the spotlight and into the normalcy of everyday society.

Tobey Lass-Karpel, BCBA, a behavior analyst who consults for the Majeskys, explains that such inclusiveness further propels the development of children’s skills. “Motivation is the root of learning. Having peers and fun activities, and being in a setting where they are simply one of the kids just like everybody else—that feeling of belonging—could motivate them to try something new, to communicate something they haven’t before.”

At the Friendship Circle, the integration is likewise seamless. When Esty Raskin’s typically-abled daughter, Chana, returned home from the afternoon program, she told her mom about the hilarity and hi-jinx of her cooking class. Esty fired off a “thank you” email to the Majeskys, but was perplexed: “Were there any kids with disabilities in the girls’ class?” she asked. “If there were, Chana didn’t know about it.”

Adoptive Mother to Two Children with Down Syndrome

This article was written by Miriam Karp for TheJewishWoman.org

Meet Yaffa Leba Gottlieb. Her petite status and soft voice belie her giant spirit. Yaffa is a creative, quietly confident maverick. A barrier-breaker. A jumper. A believer. A passionate doer. An original thinker and jokester.

Two aspects of her fruitful life are particularly intriguing. She is a prolific author of both whimsical children’s and more reflective adult books. And some 24 years ago, she and her husband adopted and raised two infants with Down syndrome only 4½ months apart in age.

First, the backstory.“I always knew I would be a writer”

Yaffa grew up in Akron, Ohio, where her love of literature and writing was stimulated by her teachers.

“I started writing at 8, and just always knew I would be a writer,” she recalls.

The same love of ideas that was nurtured by literature eventually drove this open-minded thinker into the world of Torah. She went to the University of Michigan for undergraduate studies and then to grad school at Washington University in St. Louis, where she worked as a teaching fellow. “An advisor once commented, when I was perhaps overly zealous in my teaching about the placement of semicolons, ‘It’s just grammar. You don’t have to teach a way of life.’ ” This innocent comment got under her skin.

“This gave me pause. If I can’t teach something as substantial as a way of life, what’s the use? I was preparing to teach a course in ‘Literature and Law,’ and started to think that St. Louis wasn’t the place to find a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of justice. I traveled to Israel, as I thought it would be a good place to do research. While there, of course, I went to the Kotel like all good tourists. Someone approached and asked me if I’d like to be set up with a family for a Shabbat meal.

“I had already spent a weekend with a Christian Arab family, whose daughter I had met on the plane. Her family owned a hotel in Beit Jala. So I agreed, figuring I might as well try a Jewish Shabbat, too.”

Yaffa was brought to an observant family in the Old City. She remembers the father as a striking, unique figure. “He had a bright-red beard, and was about my height [petite]. Before I even entered the apartment, he looked into my eyes really intently. He had a powerful holiness; it was practically tangible.”

Yaffa took it all in. “As the meal unfolded, I had a clear thought: I’m going to do this. I saw a scenario in my mind’s eye: the mother/father/babies/children—the whole nine yards. It reminded me of a picture in my second-grade Hebrew-school book, calledHappy Holidays, which I’d always thought of as a fairy tale. But here I was, sitting in just such a scene. I almost had to pinch myself and sat there thinking, ‘This is real. I’m in it.’ ”

Smitten by a glimpse of this idyllic world, Yaffa soon started studying at a seminary program for newcomers to Judaism. On the first Shabbat at the school, she met Ruchoma Shain, celebrated author of All for the Boss. “She asked me what I did. I told her I was a writer, and I might write children’s books.” Like Yaffa’s graduate-school advisor’s remark, Mrs.Shain’s simple reply was profoundly impactful. She nodded her head, smiled and told the fledgling author: “We need that.”

Yaffa was stunned. “It was the first time someone had told me that my writing was needed.” Back in grad school, she had found the world of the writer to be competitive and exclusive. A resident poet laureate at Wash U. often exclaimed, with a touch of arrogance; “Well, everybody can’t be a writer.” Yaffa says, “I listened to Mrs. Shain’s refreshing words and soon after started writing for children.” Finally, her talent was not only acknowledged, but needed.

Yaffa continued developing both as a writer and a practicing Jew. She eventually met her husband, Yaakov, a quiet refined man, passionate about Torah study, and settled in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1976, as one of the early ba’alei teshuvah (“returnees to faith”) in what would continue to grow as a burgeoning movement and vital part of the community.

The couple was blessed with a lovely daughter. As she grew into a teen, Yaffa yearned for more children. “We started contemplating adoption. But we had three personal criteria. First, since we did have a child, we only wanted a child that no one else wanted. I didn’t want to take a child that a childless couple might otherwise be able to have. Second, I only wanted a Jewish child. I felt it wasn’t fair to put all the mitzvot and obligations on a child who wouldn’t have them if he/she wasn’t part of our family. And third, since we were going to take a child who wasn’t wanted, who needed a home, we shouldn’t have to pay for the adoption.” They obtained foster-care certification in case they might be called upon to take in children who needed temporary placement. This paved the way for the formation of their expanded family.

At about this time, Dr. Eliezer and Chana Goldstock moved into the neighborhood. They had a 2-year-old with Down syndrome. Their doctor had urged them not to take her home. In response, they founded an organization called “Heart to Heart” to advocate for these special children, and break through the thick stigma and ignorance that surrounded the condition. Yaffa met them and their child, but did not feel this path was for her. “I’m not doing this,” she remembers deciding. “It wasn’t what I wanted; I didn’t feel a connection.”

A week later, the Goldstocks called with an urgent situation. They had learned of a Jewish infant with Down syndrome who was about to be placed into a non-Jewish home. They took the child from the hospital and brought her to the Gottliebs since they were foster-care certified.

They placed her gently on the dining-room table. “She lay there in her bunting . . . and she looked like an angel,” says Yaffa.

“My husband looked and me. I looked at him. That was the whole conversation. We kept her.” The clarity of that moment still rang in her voice two decades later.

“She was angelic and beautiful. And she hasn’t changed. In that instant, we saw her neshamah, her soul.”

After that shining moment of truth, everyday reality started settling in. “I started reading the literature about children with Down syndrome, and it wasn’t too enthusiastic,” acknowledges Yaffa. “But then, Chana Goldstock showed me a book called David that really opened up my eyes and perspective. It was written by a 30-year-old man with Down syndrome named David, together with his best friend, a Ph.D. student. These authors gave me the insight that Chana was going to do normal things and be normal; it would sometimes just take longer. My husband’s perspective was that a child is a child. He wasn’t thrown by all the issues, developmental delays and all that. I felt pretty much the same.”

Challenges withstanding, Yaffa settled back into mothering an infant. How did she come to take in a second bundle several months later?

“This may sound silly, but I really wanted a double stroller,” she responds with a chuckle.

“The Goldstocks were trying to find an adoptive family for a baby whose birth family didn’t feel they could keep him. We met this 4½-month-old cutie, Dovid, and he looked like a philosopher. OK, I said, I think you’re ours.”

With two infants so close in age, life became intense. “Everyone thought we were nuts,” she says with a laugh.

“How did we manage?” She pauses for a moment. “I never thought about it. I was just in it and just did it.”

As they grew, the Gottlieb children continued the family tradition of opening new paths and seeing opportunities instead of obstacles. Chana was the first child with Down syndrome in a mainstream setting in Crown Heights, a neighborhood day-care center. “The teacher, a Holocaust survivor, looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and said, ‘OK, we’ll do it,’” recalls Yaffa.

When it was time for elementary school, the principal was in his first year, but rather than be afraid of innovation, he and the teacher agreed to try to include Chana on a trial basis. At the end of the year, the teacher confessed: “Honestly, I had my reservations. But now I thank you so much for this opportunity. I and the class learned and grew so much.” Yaffa credits the principal, Rabbi Levi Plotkin, with starting a wonderful trajectory that still bears fruit today. “Chana is beginning to assistant teach in her alma mater’s preschool now. Rabbi Plotkin beams with pride. We owe so much to him. He gave her the edge that helped her to step out of the category of ‘people with special needs.’ Special she is. Different. But not any more needy than anyone else. Just differently needy.”

When asked to describe Chana and Dovid’s personalities, Yaffa sparkles with pride. “Chana is such an amazing person. She’s way up there, with a great sense of humor and is so much fun. She’s smarter than me in a lot of ways.” (That doesn’t take much, Yaffa adds with self-deprecating humor.) “She’s got this little disguise, she’s got Down syndrome and a little speech issue. But when it comes to diligence, perseverance, tact and sensitivity, she’s totally loaded. There’s nothing ‘special-needs’ about her. She has some developmental delays, but people who get to know her are fortunate.”

As for Dovid, “He is out of the box. He is out and about in the community. He has his own ways to express his intense caring for others.” Yaffa describes how Dovid left before she woke one day. He was paying an early-morning visit to a friend, and when he found his pal in bed, insistently urged him to get up and get to his program.

“Both of these kids are very deep people. I am fortunate that they share so much of their depth with me. Perhaps people don’t expect that, so perhaps they don’t try to connect with them and don’t see it. I know who they are. They are people on a very high level. I would say they have extra sensitivity and perception.”

One Shabbat, when Dovid was 9, he and Yaffa were at a lavish Kiddush reception. Everyone was pushing towards the table. Yaffa saw Dovid position himself well and start putting food on a large plate. She assumed he was going to sit down and eat it. As she watched, he brought it to an older woman, who was sitting on the sidelines. “She had only a few teeth and looked lonely,” Yaffa recalls him saying. Dovid gave her the plate and exclaimed, “I love you!”

“I just watched. The woman broke into a big smile and looked so happy,” relates Yaffa.

The Gottliebs are working on finding fitting vocational opportunities for Chana and Dovid. “People need to be givers and not just takers, whether they have special needs or not. It’s counterproductive to keep them as takers.”

These days, Yaffa picks up her pen with more frequency, and her creative juices continue to find expression, as she has ventured into adult books. In 2011, she co-authored a warm exploration of searching and growing Jewish women, Around Sarah’s Table. Her newly released book, Last Day Laughter, is about women undergoing personal redemption and overcoming personal barriers, based on real people.

Yaffa explains why she continues to work: “Writers have to. It’s not a choice. It’s like breathing.”

When asked to elaborate, she shares her powerful vision. “G‑dcreated the world with words. And the writer creates a world with words. I like to create works that read like a novel with the soul of a prayer. The pen is the quill of the soul, and our souls are connected to redemption, so just getting that down on paper would help reveal this awesome era we are all waiting for.”

With a smile in her voice, she stresses: “What I work to do is to bring redemption to our world.”

A Special Time For Siblings

New for this year, the Friendship Circle of Brooklyn held the Sib’s Circle kickoff event. At Sibs Circle, siblings of children with special needs get together for their own special time.

Following a day in school, over 20 girls ages 7 to 12 gathered together in the Jewish Children’s Museum for facilitator led games, baking, and to connect with other siblings.

The girls were treated to fresh hot waffles topped with heavenly ice cream with a variety of toppings, and a engaging icebreaker was played with an ice block to begin the program.

The girls then shaped and braided challah while lively music played in the background. Followed by an exciting selfie hunt, where the girls raced to take selfies with all the required objects and individuals.

It was amazing and it was all around smiles and laughter for everyone.

The Sibs Circle will hold a number of special programs, geared for the siblings of children with special needs throughout the year. A separate program program for boys is organized by Yossi Smoller, director of the FC Boys Division. Special thanks to Hinda Rapapport who arranged and assisted with this event.