Planning outings and trips for children with special needs is nothing unusual for the Friendship Circle of Michigan, but a recent weekend retreat for the mothers who care for these children certainly proved a novel experience.

The women were expecting a few days of respite and a relaxing getaway; they left with more than 20 new sisters and a fresh perspective on their children, each other and themselves.

The retreat, called “Shabbat at the Spa,” took place Feb. 28 to March 2 at the Riverwalk Place in Gladwin, Mich.—a spacious hotel/conference center with a full-service spa, luxurious rooms and suites, and an accommodating staff. Attendees enjoyed spa services on Friday afternoon and Sunday, and participated in a variety of Shabbat-oriented activities, beginning with a group candle-lighting on Friday night and continuing through Havdalah on Saturday night.

Susan and Gary August of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., volunteered to underwrite the weekend. They were familiar with Friendship Circle through their sons, Mitchell, 17, and Matthew, 13, who are active volunteers with the West Bloomfield-based organization. Susan August, who attended the retreat, said she was inspired by the women’s stories and by a video clip of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—addressing a group of people with disabilities. Upon her return, she and her husband decided to set up a $10,000 matching fund to ensure that future retreats will continue to take place.

“I went home and told my husband the Rebbe said these are exceptional people, and we are supposed to help,” said August, “and he agreed.”

‘All Standing in the Same Place’

The women came from different neighborhoods, lifestyles, economic circumstances and Jewish backgrounds. But none of those differences mattered when they joined together to talk about their lives and share their collective pain at having children with daunting challenges.

Julie Zorn, Sue Hodess and Debby Suris enjoy a scrumptious dinner.
Julie Zorn, Sue Hodess and Debby Suris enjoy a scrumptious dinner.

One of the attendees was Milaine Grossbard, an observant woman who has six children, three with special needs. It was the first time she had been away by herself in 21 years.

“It was amazing to be with all these women who have such different lives than mine, yet we are so connected … I felt it immediately … we are all standing in the same place,” said Grossbard, who lives in Southfield, Mich.

Carolyn Morris of West Bloomfield talked about what it was like when her son Sam, now 21, was first diagnosed with autism. “There was no Friendship Circle, no community programs for children with special needs,” she said. “I felt so alone.”

With more than 79 locations worldwide, the Friendship Circle, run by local Chabad centers, has cultivated friendships between 5,000 children with special needs and nearly 11,000 teen volunteers.

‘Special on So Many Levels’

The weekend was planned in meticulous detail by Friendship Circle’s Life Town director Bassie Shemtov, and staff members Sarah Schectman and Bayla Blumstein, with on-site assistance from staffers Chanchie Shemtov and Casey Coden, whose fruit-infused sangria and chocolate martinis were cocktail-hour favorites.

The spa treatment included in the package was only the beginning of the nonstop pampering the mothers received. Welcome gift baskets were followed by a continuous stream of treats throughout the weekend: pillow-soft spa socks, personally engraved silver bracelets, rhinestone-encrusted water bottles and electric neck massagers donated by the health and wellness company Homedics. Each gift was accompanied by a printed card with an original poem.

One of the beautiful table settings at the Friendship Circle Retreat in Michigan
One of the beautiful table settings at the Friendship Circle Retreat in Michigan

The meals, including a complete Shabbat dinner, consisted of delicious kosher fare prepared by Bayla Blumstein, served against a backdrop of magazine-worthy table settings, courtesy of former Friendship Circle staffer Reva Liebowitz. The menu included such dishes as Asian Ginger Steak Salad, elaborate breakfast buffets and even a mid-afternoon ice-cream bar with all the toppings.

“The weekend was special on so many levels—new friendships were made, old friendships were strengthened and most valuable to me, it feels like the beginning of a circle of support that will be a much needed addition in my life,” said Lisa Menuck of Birmingham, Mich.

In between meals and snacks were enlightening and entertaining group activities: small group discussions about various ethical issues, a lively Zumba class, a pajama party complete with telephone charades, and a song fest led by Friendship Circle mom and talented children’s musician, Marlowe Bechmann of the “Swingset Mamas.”

“It [the weekend] was something I needed that I didn’t even know I needed,” said Sarah Rosenzweig of West Bloomfield, who was able to release some of her feelings about the challenges facing her 3-year-old daughter Ellah.

The guest speaker was Chana Weisberg, editor of TheJewishWoman.org, the women’s satellite site of Chabad.org, as well as an author and worldwide lecturer on issues relating to women, faith, relationships and the Jewish soul. Through a mixture of Jewish teachings and personal stories, she encouraged the women to find balance in their busy lives through prayer and spiritual connection.

Lisa Menuck, Maggie Egrin, Jill Menuck and Susan August (in red), who volunteered to underwrite the weekend costs with her husband, Gary.
Lisa Menuck, Maggie Egrin, Jill Menuck and Susan August (in red), who volunteered to underwrite the weekend costs with her husband, Gary.

“The amazing group of women who attended shared openly, and bonded honestly and genuinely … the environment was imbued with an aura of out-of-this-world holiness,” said Weisberg.

Words like “life-changing,” “transformational” and “awe-inspiring” were heard throughout the weekend, but the overriding sentiment was how refreshing it was to be with other women who “get it” in a way that even well-meaning friends and family members do not.

“I felt inspired to keep going amidst the chaos, celebrate the little milestones, remembering to cry when I need to, and appreciate all the amazing things our special ones do for the world and those who live in it,” said Jodie Jacobs of West Bloomfield.

For more information on the Friendship Circle of Michigan, or to donate to the August fund for future retreats, visit the Friendship Circle’s web site, www.friendshipcircle.org.