The Manhattan Institute granted its prestigious Award for Social Entrepreneurship to Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov, founders of the trailblazing Friendship Circle, which pairs teenage volunteers with children with special needs in an effort to help those with developmental disabilities to eventually live independently.

The pair, who established the Friendship Circle in suburban Detroit in 1996, received the award, which included a $25,000 prize, at a Manhattan Institute ceremony honoring five other non-profit leaders.

"The Friendship Circle is an institution founded and inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe," Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, Levi Shemtov told the crowd of 200 as he and his wife accepted the honor. "He said: G‑d could have created a perfect world, a world free of suffering, a world free of poverty and persecution, free of illness, injustice and inequality.

"But he didn't," continued the rabbi. "He made it imperfect, and he made us imperfect, so that we could perfect it ourselves, and thereby spiritually grow and perfect ourselves."

Bassie Shemtov then invited anyone who wanted to visit their trend-setting $5 million facility, which besides providing a venue for events and sessions between volunteers and client families boasts a working replica of a town shopping district, complete with a mock ATM, retail outlets, movie theater and library. Public school special education classes take fieldtrips to the center, called Life Village, so that children with special needs can practice the skills necessary to function as self-sufficient members of society.

Shemtov also praised the program for the effect it has on its teenage volunteers.

"These volunteers, who start out as typical teenagers, are transformed," she said, "into caring individuals."

The Soul Within

Friendship Circle innovator Bassie Shemtov accepts the Award for Social Entrepreneurship from the Manhattan Institute
Friendship Circle innovator Bassie Shemtov accepts the Award for Social Entrepreneurship from the Manhattan Institute
In an interview after the event, Levi Shemtov said that they were nominated for the award last year. Over the course of several months, Manhattan Institute officials visited their site, looked over financial reports and interviewed key personnel to determine whether the Friendship Circle – which has spawned 65 branches at Chabad Houses across the United States, and in Canada and Australia – was a non-profit worthy of their seal of approval.

In particular, according to a report published by the Manhattan Institute, they were impressed with the commitment of local donors to the project and the way it engendered a better acceptance of the developmentally disabled in the public at large.

"It is too early to judge the long-term impact of their work," concluded the report, "but there is much to like here, including Rabbi and Bassie Shemtov themselves – religious, sophisticated, funny, enterprising and dedicated."

Referring to Life Village, it stated: "They have built something unusual, stunning and, for a visitor, engaging."

Echoing his earlier speech at the Manhattan Institute, Shemtov expanded on how Chabad Chasidic thought made the idea of the Friendship Circle possible.

"We learn how to look at a person, to look at their soul instead of their body," he began. "For instance, we know someone may not keep Shabbos and keep kosher, but we now that their soul has an infinite potential.

"We wanted to take that a step further," he continued. "We're showing people how they can appreciate the beauty of a child with special needs. Every person is valuable and has a soul within."