More than 700 people gathered for the first "Friendship Walk" at the newly-renovated Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, N.J. Participants in wheelchairs, baby carriages and on foot, were able to walk a one- or five-mile course in the Sept. 9 event; both routes wound past the new Reptile House and Red Panda exhibit.

But the highlight of the walkathon benefiting Friendship Circle of New Jersey, an affiliate of a national Chabad-Lubavitch organization that pairs teenagers with children with special needs, was undoubtedly the appearance by undefeated Jewish junior welterweight boxer Dmitry Salita. The "Hebrew Hammer," as Salita is known, was on hand to motivate the walkers, but also sparred on stage with some participants as he offered professional boxing tips.

The Ukrainian-born Salita, who does not compete on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, explained how his return to an observant Jewish life helped him achieve fame and success as a pugilist. He also inspired the crowd, exhorting them to continue looking after those ignored by many segments of society.


"All of us have a certain place in this world," said Salita. "And with our random deeds of kindness we can make this world a better place."

Livingston, N.J., resident Randi Parness, whose 14-year-old son benefits from the Friendship Circle's offerings of home visitations and group programs, said that her family came out to draw attention to an organization that has brightened the lives of so many children.

"We really enjoyed the Friendship Circle walk and participated as walkers, donors and event volunteers," said Parness, who has a 12-year-old daughter who just started volunteering. "The organization is great. It offers a social outlet to my son, a place where he can play sports, participate in Jewish holiday programs and just hang out in a friendly and comfortable setting."

On top of the zoo's attractions, musical entertainment, a scavenger hunt and refreshments completed the Sunday walk's offerings.

Teenage volunteers provide the bulk of the Friendship Circle's services. (Photo: Julia Kaplan)
Teenage volunteers provide the bulk of the Friendship Circle's services. (Photo: Julia Kaplan)
"It was really uplifting to see the demonstration of support at our first annual walk, which exceeded all expectations," according to Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, executive director of the Friendship Circle. "Beyond the fundraising aspect, the event brought together the circle of participants, families and volunteers for a day of community awareness and solidarity. And most importantly, it was loads of fun!"

A project of the Rabbinical College of America and supported by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, Friendship Circle of New Jersey offers social and educational programming to children with special needs and daily respite to their families. The organization's services are provided through a corps of 800 trained teenagers who collectively volunteer more than 30,000 hours annually. The walk this month mirrored similar walkathons across the country, from across the East Coast to Michigan – where the first Friendship Circle began in suburban Detroit – to California.

"There are many great organizations out there, but I have to say that the Friendship Circle is truly exceptional," attested Ellen Zimiles, a parent of a child in the program and CEO of Daylight Forensic and Advisory, which helped sponsor the walk.

"It's made a huge difference in our lives," she said. "Every interaction, whether it's a weekly home visitation, Jewish holiday program or Sports Night, has a significant impact on the lives of children with special needs and their families by providing them with social opportunities in a nurturing and inclusive environment."