Normally, with Passover right around the corner, Friendship Circle branches around the world would be gearing up to help their families with getting shmurah matzah, teaching kids about the story of the exodus from Egypt and, in some cases, hosting model seders.

But because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, this year many traditional plans have been altered. While continuing to deliver shmurah matzah, the friendship visits that were so much a part of everyone's life are now taking place online.

For Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, director of Friendship Circle of Houston, that means the model seder he traditionally holds before Passover for a group with special needs will happen remotely this year. He will also be sending the 15 or so individuals in the program who live in independent living centers matzah, Passover food and the other Seder esssentials.

An international organization, Friendship Circle seeks to provide social opportunities for children with special needs by pairing them with teen volunteers from the local community for a variety of programs. Each Friendship Circle branch is run independently. There are more than 80 branches worldwide, though many are in regular contact and share best practices and ideas.

While social distancing and quarantine—whether government-mandated or self-imposed—are hard on most children and families, for those with a member who has special needs, it presents a host of additional challenges. Children who are getting one-on-one therapy to learn even the most basic skills are suddenly left without crucial resources and support. Other children who thrive on set routines are left adrift, unable to comprehend the changes around them.

Matthew Goldstein takes part in an online class hosted by Friendship Circle of New Jersey.
Matthew Goldstein takes part in an online class hosted by Friendship Circle of New Jersey.

No Respite for Many Parents of Vulnerable Kids

And for their parents, it means no respite, no support and not a moment to breathe.

“We’ve been in touch with everyone,” said Chani Majesky, co-director of Friendship Circle of Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband, Berel. “It is a very difficult time for our families. Everyone is stuck at home. The families are used to having a lot of support, therapy, respite and community rehabilitation nursing staff, and now they are basically on their own. It’s very hard, and most have other children to take care of as well.

“Some children have been working on toilet training or learning new skills, and now not only are they not working on that, some may be regressing,” she continued. “We have pictures of kids standing at the gate in front of their houses with their backpacks on and refusing to move for two hours because it’s a weekday, and they are supposed to be in school. Our heart really goes out to them. It’s very difficult not to provide them with assistance in the way we are used to.”

Still, the teen volunteers with FC Brooklyn are doing what they can. They are continuing their friendships either online or by phone, by playing games, sharing stories or simply talking with their buddies. “Anything they can do to continue the relationship and friendship,” said Majesky, “let’s the families know that we haven’t forgotten about them.”

It’s equally important for the Friendship Circle participants to know that their friends are still there for them.

For the last year, 17-year-old Alex Kimmel of Fox Point, Wis., has spent a few hours each weekend with Eli, a child with special needs who lives in his community. During those visits, the two would play outside, talk and just have fun together.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus and the subsequent stay at home and social- distancing rules that many states have enacted threatened to end those visits. But Friendship Circle in Wisconsin, which buddied up Alex and Eli as part of its “Friends at Home” program, came up with a solution, turning their physical visits into virtual ones.

“I’m sad that I can’t be there in person to play him and do the things we do outside, that’s why I’m trying to FaceTime him and make sure I can still spend time with him,” Alex told “When this epidemic is done, I am, for sure, going to spend more time with him and see him in person.”

Friendship Circle of Fairfield County, Conn., has launched a number of at-home projects like custom-designed Passover greeting cards.
Friendship Circle of Fairfield County, Conn., has launched a number of at-home projects like custom-designed Passover greeting cards.

Connecting With Families Is Crucial

Now more than ever, say Friendship Circle directors, connecting with their families is of the utmost importance.

“The commandment of V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, ‘Love your fellow as yourself,’ doesn’t require us to do so in person. We are not going to stop simply because we are not physically in the same space,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, co-director with his wife, Toba, of Friendship Circle in Livingston, N.J.

The Grossbaums, who openedLifeTown—a social, recreational, educational and therapeutic center—in September have seen their in-person programs at LIfeTown come to halt, but they are revving up online programs and had their first virtual Sunday-morning Torah Circle program this past weekend. More than 70 children, teens, and young adults participated in it.

“Having a child with special needs is difficult on a good day. Having a child with special needs during a lockdown could push many to the breaking point,” one parent said on Facebook. “How incredibly fortunate are we to have the Friendship Circle organization in our community. [They are] doing an amazing job of providing programming online. While it is heartbreaking that an incredible facility like LifeTown has to go unused for a short time, the spirit of LifeTown goes on through their efforts.”

Virtual meetings, workshops and classes are increasingly being utilized to create connections, and Friendship Circle of Michigan has been leading the way in that regard. Within days of the first social-distancing orders, the staff of FC Michigan came up with a slate of online programming—some geared just for their local FC participants and others that would benefit Friendship Circle participants around the globe.

“When this first started, we got our staff together and said we may have to close everything down and started brainstorming. Then I went onto a WhatsApp group for all the Friendship Circle branches, and asked if they wanted to join together and see what we can do get online, and seven or eight jumped right in,” said Bassie Shemtov, who along with her husband, Levi, founded the first Friendship Circle in the late 1990s. “I didn’t think it would be so streamlined and so professionally done so quickly.”

“I don’t think the parents could have dreamed that their kids would have the patience to sit and interact with [Friendship Circle] on the computer,” she continued. “I think it’s just been amazing—wild and crazy and amazing all at the same time.”

In addition to the programming for the Friendship Circle participants, FC Michigan has also hosted virtual programs for the moms. They had a virtual challah bake last week and a babka bake is in the works; the ingredients will be dropped at the door of participants so they don’t have to go out to get supplies.

The Friendship Circle in Las Vegas is among those utilizing online programming. On Monday, they hosted a virtual program for their adult members where they did craft and baking activities. Just moments after director Nechama Harlig ended the 40-minute program, the texts started pouring in.

“Why did you hang up? It was too short?” they told her. So Harlig is already planning for more online group programs.

But it isn’t just online where those connections are being made, as several Friendship Circle branches are utilizing personal deliveries—at a distance, of course.

Teen volunteers can't visit many of their buddies with special needs these days, but they can meet up online.
Teen volunteers can't visit many of their buddies with special needs these days, but they can meet up online.

Sending Care Packages of Toys, Food and Other Gifts

Friendship Circle in Brooklyn, N.Y., for instance, collected new toys and delivered them to each of their Friendship Circle families in the borough. The gifts were delivered by volunteers wearing masks and gloves who left them at the door. Once back in their cars, the volunteers called the families to let them know about the gift and then watched from the window as the families collected their presents.

Meanwhile, the Friendship Circle in Wisconsin sent care packages that included homemade goodies from its Friendship Cafe to local families. On any given week, some 150 to 200 people will visit the cafe, which isn’t possible in the current climate. The cafe is offering curbside pickup and delivery, though the number of people utilizing those services is very small.

“Canceling a program is something I take very seriously, and it’s not something I like to do, especially because Friendship Circle is really a fight against isolation. And then, when you tell participants to stay home, it’s counterproductive,” explains Levi Stein, co-director of FC Wisconsin with his wife, Rochel Leah. “The sense of isolation is by far the biggest challenge.”

To address it, the Steins have relied on their teen volunteers like Alex Kimmel to stay in touch with their buddies. They are also utilizing online virtual programs—both those from Michigan and some they are creating locally with their own Friendship Circle staff.

With a commercial kitchen, they realized that they could do even more. Stein applied for a local grant that would allow them to use the Friendship Cafe to cook meals for many in their community who are homebound or in need of a hot meal.

In the past, Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh’s 6-year-old daughter, Abi, has participated in programs from two different Friendship Circle branches in the Los Angeles area. When the coronavirus outbreak began, an email from Doonie Mishulovin, educational director of Hebrew school at Friendship Circle in Los Angeles, announcing a FC virtual Hebrew school, the family felt as if they were getting a gift.

“We had started Abi at a Hebrew school at our local synagogue a couple of months ago, and that was a very big step for us. She has multiple disabilities and isn’t very verbal, but she loves Hebrew school,” said her mother. “When she couldn’t go [because of the coronavirus], it was a big letdown because she was having such success, so to receive this email from Friendship Circle was so inspiring and uplifting.”

Abi watched FC’s virtual Hebrew school on a recent Sunday morning, where she learned about Passover and then helped her mom sweep the room for chametz, the leavened bread prohibited on Passover.

“It’s incredible that there’s a group that assumes children with diverse needs can, should and will do Hebrew school—so much so that they created this virtual Hebrew-school community. To me, that’s very moving to even think about,” said Kiffel-Alcheh. “For a typical community, that would be a given, but they didn’t think twice about sending it to atypically developing kids as well. It’s just very moving.”

The email from Friendship Circle and Chabad was also the only one that said: “If you or anyone in your family is sick or showing symptoms, reach out to us because we are here to help you.”

“No one else has written that,” she continued. “We’re so used to hearing stay at home, keep your distance, but that’s why it’s Chabad.”