Rabbi Yale and Rickelle New began Friendship Circle of Atlanta in December 2011, soon after the couple married. From their home in the Toco Hills neighborhood near the heart of Georgia’s capital city, they have worked tirelessly to grow the program from its infancy to a thriving resource, matching teenage volunteers with children who have special needs.

“When we first started, we had about 10 participants and 20 volunteers,” says Rickelle New. “We now have 80 participants and 120 volunteers!”

A native of Atlanta, the rabbi grew up 25 minutes north in the suburb of Sandy Springs, Ga., where his parents, Rabbi Yossi and Dassi New, have run Congregation Beth Tefilah and Chabad Lubavitch of Georgia for the past three decades. Rickelle New is originally from Melbourne, Australia.

Friendship Circle is one of the fastest-growing Jewish organizations for children with special needs. With 79 locations around the world and growing, it has forged friendships between 5,000 kids and nearly 11,000 teen volunteers.

“The teens are craving to make a difference,” says Rickelle New. “They are so dedicated to their special friends. Some started for the community-service aspect, but they continued for that unparalleled feeling of impacting someone’s life in a positive way. It changes not just their special friend, but themselves as well.”

A Community Opens Its Doors

The young Chabad couple also works to spread the word about their mission. “One of our challenges is getting Friendship Circle out there. We want to make it a household name,” explains New, “so that even if you don’t have a child with special needs or don’t volunteer, you still know who we are and what we do.”

Volunteer Ruthie Tanenbaum and Etai
Volunteer Ruthie Tanenbaum and Etai

Many local synagogues and schools have opened their doors to Friendship Circle and have encouraged the community involvement, she adds. “They see the importance of acceptance for all, as well as for empowering our teens to be leaders and institute change.”

And, of course, part of the program is also intended to offer some respite to the parents.

“Receiving calls from parents describing the impact their volunteer has had on their family goes beyond words, and email from volunteers and their parents expressing how much volunteering has brought to their lives makes it so rewarding,” she says. “It’s this kind of feedback that makes the hard work, late nights and challenges well worth it.”

And one of the highlights, she adds, is being at the programs and “seeing those smiles.”

During their annual volunteer recognition event, the 300 attendees gave thunderous applause and a standing ovation to guest speaker Richard H. Bernstein of the Michigan Supreme Court, the first-ever blind man to be elected to such a position. He took office on Jan. 1 of this year.

His being there, affirm the News, was “a true celebration of overcoming adversity.”

Rabbi Yale and Rickelle New, co-directors of Friendship Circle of Atlanta
Rabbi Yale and Rickelle New, co-directors of Friendship Circle of Atlanta

‘He Can Be Himself’

One mother (parents asked that their names not be used out of concern for their children’s privacy), says of her daughter’s experience with Friendship Circle: “Rachel loves belonging to a warm and caring group of people. This has given her a feeling of self-confidence when she approaches others in the community, as well as new situations.

“She’s not as shy, and she is willing to strike up a conversation more freely,” says this parent from Atlanta. “She lights up when she sees someone from Friendship Circle outside of one of the programs, whether it’s in shul or at the store.”

Another mom from Cobb, Ga., writes: “My son, Zach, has a group to go to that accepts him as he is. He doesn’t have to worry about saying or doing something odd, and he can be himself.”

Indeed, the program is equally beneficial for the volunteers, with lots of similar testaments as to how their lives have changed through their involvement.

“Through this program, I have had the chance to get to know Marla, and learn about the obstacles she and her parents face,” says volunteer Michelle Nelkin. “I believe that forming a relationship with Marla has made me a better person because she and her loving family inspire me to be more accepting, caring and patient. In all, I’ve gained perspective, appreciation and a whole lot of friends!”

Volunteers like Jules Shelkoff, center, also work with adults, inluding Erica St. Lifer, left, and Beth Lafferman.
Volunteers like Jules Shelkoff, center, also work with adults, inluding Erica St. Lifer, left, and Beth Lafferman.
As Rickelle New explains of the teen volunteers: “Some started for the community-service aspect, but they continued for that unparalleled feeling of impacting someone’s life in a positive way. It changes not just their special friend, but themselves as well.” From left are Ben Massey, Avi Greene, Michelle Nelkin, Robyn Fox, Rachel Colonomos, Menucha Sperlin and Chaiky Lipskier.
As Rickelle New explains of the teen volunteers: “Some started for the community-service aspect, but they continued for that unparalleled feeling of impacting someone’s life in a positive way. It changes not just their special friend, but themselves as well.” From left are Ben Massey, Avi Greene, Michelle Nelkin, Robyn Fox, Rachel Colonomos, Menucha Sperlin and Chaiky Lipskier.