There’s a famous story in the Talmud about a man who implored G‑d to end a severe drought. Choni the Circle Maker drew a circle around himself and refused to leave until the desperately needed rain fell. Bassie Shemtov is another kind of circle-maker, creating a circle that has grown in ways no one could imagine—setting off rippling waves and expanding concentric circles of acceptance and love.

If you drive around northwestern Detroit suburbs around August, especially West Bloomfield, you’ll see a sea of purple lawn signs at many corners, urging you to join the Walk for Friendship/Friendship Circle. The name and logo areWho can be against friendship? universally appealing. Who can be against friendship? And a circle, denoting equality and a mutually beneficial relationship that gives and gives, around and around. You may notice the same logo on the bumper of many cars and vans. Whatever this Friendship Circle thing is, it’s got great press and is a really popular organization, you may rightly assume.

Should your curiosity get the best of you and you walk into the Friendship Circle-Meer Family Campus in West Bloomfield, Michigan, or the Farber Soul Center a mile-and-a-half away, you will be impressed. Nay, amazed. Guaranteed.

Both are modern, cheerful, state-of-the-art facilities, at once professional and personal, built to support two very special populations: children with special needs and their families, and adults with a variety of special needs. Both centers are built around a philosophy of love, acceptance, empowerment and inclusion. These important words are so often overused that they may seem like clichéd buzzwords.

But at these places, they are very real concepts, manifested daily in numerous tangible ways, making dramatic difference in the lives of all who walk in the doors; volunteers, staff and participants alike.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Greater Detroit’s Friendship Circle has become one of the most well-known and beloved Chabad organizations, serving about 3,100 people a year—2,500 from school groups of kids with special needs utilizing the Weinberg Life Village, and 600 Friendship Circle and Soul Center clients. Moreover, the Friendship Circle concept has been adopted by 90 Chabad Centers in the United States and around the globe, serving about 15,000 people a year.

Founders and co-directors Bassie Shemtov and her husband, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, are not your prototype organization directors. Bassie is a slight, almost teenage-looking woman, while Levi sports a lively smile, and is a bearded, slightly burly rabbi. Non-executive image notwithstanding, the powerhouse duo have garnered notice and accolades, winning the prestigious Manhattan Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2007. They are the driving force behind this endless font of creative ideas, well-executed in beautiful physical surroundings that support and enhance the mission. How does the spirit and warmth not get lost, not become yet another institution with baggage and protocol that too often overshadow the mission?

I spoke with Bassie about her life as co-director of a large, multifaceted organization, about its humble beginnings, rapid growth, and what challenges and inspires her.

Humble Beginnings

Did you expect this to get so big? I asked.

“We were not at all thinking in terms of, ‘What can we do that will really get big?’ We were focused on one step at a time, on shlichus, on figuring out what the needs of the community were and how we could meet them.

“When we first came to Detroit as a young couple, some 24 years ago, Levi was busy It grew from this simple, grassroots beginningcreating the Friendship House, working with people struggling with addictions. I frankly wasn’t as involved. I thought, ‘OK, I support you, but it’s not really my area of expertise.’ I was, honestly, a bit bored.

“Friendship House was built on the idea of extending friendship and personal support to the addictions and recovery community. My husband met with local leaders and asked, ‘Who else could benefit from this approach?’ They felt that the special-needs community could use more support. We got a phone call from a family with Down syndrome who needed some help. I organized a few teenage girls in our community to visit and give the mom some respite, and it grew from this very simple, grassroots beginning. It didn’t cost anything. This approach remains the core of our program and is the model used in other communities, well before they may be ready to establish a physical center. It’s called ‘Friends at Home.’ Teens are paired with a child with special needs and regularly visit them, playing, coloring, whatever the child enjoys, giving them undivided attention.

“Now that we are big—it’s important to mention that that never was our focus. It was taking one step after another, not numbers or stats. My goal always has been—I want to make the Rebbe proud.”

Two ‘Aha!’ Moments

Bassie explained how the Chabad ethos is the magic ingredient that has sparked it all. “What fuels this whole program is an amazing perspective that we who are raised in Chabad sometimes take for granted. It’s incredibly revolutionary and important. It’s the viewpoint that the Rebbe has developed in us: that every person has a neshama—an infinite, beautiful, shining soul—even if the vessel, the body, is imperfect. We saw these children that way, and these Chabad-raised teens saw these kids this way, and that was the magic that made this work.

“Honestly, I really didn’t fully get the full magnitude of this message in the early days. I was focusing on respite for the parents. These parents were on 24/7, maybe we could give them a break.”

“A few years after the Friendship Circle began, something clicked for her. “I saw the famous video of the Rebbe speaking to disabled Israeli war veterans in 1976. The Rebbe told them that their name should be changed from disabled to exceptional, since when G‑d takes away the ability in one realm, He gives extra in another.

“While I had known this subconsciously, hearing the Rebbe speak really struck me with heightened meaning. It was an ‘Aha!’ moment. I opened my eyes and more fully realized that these kids not only need our help, they are incredibly special. We continue to see this profound truth in ways we never imagined.”

A second such moment came several years later. “The program had grown to the point that we had more teen volunteers than special-needs kids. We realized that it wasn’t a question of bribing and cajoling a few teens to do a mitzvah and give the parents a break, which was how we had thought of things in the beginning.”

Who Needs Who?

“We now realized that our teen volunteers need our kids with special needs to help them grow and teach them this lesson more than the kids need the teens. Being involved in this program has changed every person. The teens receive non-ending inspiration from the kids. The kids give them such an important next piece in their lives—to learn to share with everyone and to see everyone—the way the Rebbe sees them.”

Bassie went on, in an uncharacteristically pensive voice to say, “I had a sad and Being involved in this program has changed every person telling experience recently.

“I was invited to speak before the sisterhood of a temple. I asked them what comes to mind when I say ‘special needs.’ They answered with words like, ‘challenged, wheelchair, limited, handicapped, low functioning.’

“I knew that if I asked the same question to any of the hundreds of teen volunteers we currently have, or the thousands we’ve had over the years, they would say things like ‘my fave, celebrity, non-judgmental, so loving.’ ”

A video plays in the teen lounge at the Friendship Circle, where the Rebbe is talking to the father of a teenage boy who has autism. The Rebbe is explaining that those with special needs have a stronger and deeper connection to G‑d, that their souls have a greater measure of spirituality. “I know this message has been integrated by our teens, and they are ambassadors for a new world of inclusion and acceptance,“ Bassie says with conviction.

“Our goal is to have as many teens and adults in the general community learn to accept people who are different, to see that they have lessons to teach us that can’t be learned from any professor in the world. If there was less judgment of people, we would have a better society. We are trying to give people a passion and the training to love these kids.”

I asked Bassie how things had changed for her since the Friendship Circle has become so big—a long way from arranging some volunteers to help with a few kids from her kitchen phone.

“I am much more involved in administration now. While this work is very exciting, I totally miss that hands-on, personal involvement. I don’t know most of the volunteers. But I am so fortunate to have an amazing staff who work together on every level,” she says.

Most of the teen volunteers and children with special needs are not Chabad or observant. In fact, one of the many beautiful side effects of the popularity of the Friendship Circle is the opportunity for people from all different walks of life to interact in such a meaningful way. Bassie says that her staff blends a warm, embracing and positive Chabad feeling with a high level of professionalism.

Good Art, Good Food, Good Vibes

In 2014, a groundbreaking new development emerged, the Farber Soul Center, which includes the Dresner Foundation Soul Studio and the Soul Cafe. The upscale center serves Friendship Circle “grads”—young adults who aged out of the program, with a state-of-the-art cafe and multi-discipline art studio and gallery. The participants can join several programs: receive food-service training, work in the cafe, create art, and have an opportunity to show and sell their unique creations. How did the metamorphosis into adult programs happen?

Bassie laughs. “Up until six years ago, we preached that we were here for children, We expected 100 to 150 women, and 450 showed up!for Friendship Circle only. People would occasionally ask about the next age group, but we insisted, ‘We’ve got enough going on.’

“But parents of the young adults came to us—people we had become very close with, as some of their children had been with us since the very early days. ‘My child is sitting home. He’s depressed. He has nothing to do and nowhere to go.’ Finally, we realized, ‘OK. We have to do something.’ We said we’d make something small and simple, as we really didn’t have the experience. We started with several artists working with some of our young adults in an empty office space.

“Three years ago, this vacant building became available, a dilapidated place. We made a women’s event we called a baby shower, to start to raise some funds and to prepare to birth this baby, our new project. We expected 100 to 150 women, and 450 showed up. It was insane!

“Guess this isn’t going to be small and simple, we realized.

“People from every part of the community joined and continue to join together in this effort. Everyone feels good. This is a very engaged Jewish community, where people really take responsibility.

“Today, our center is open and is honestly, a very special place. Random people come in, sometimes just for the good food. And even if they didn’t know about the larger purpose, they feel it; it’s more than a cafe, it’s a unique environment. Our workers are such pure people, and the center gives them a chance to give and to show who they are, to share it with the world.”

On the Home Front

I asked Bassie how she integrated her Friendship Circle work with her family—if her five kids sometimes resented their preoccupation or having many different kinds of people as guests.

She answered simply. “Shlichus, being the Rebbe’s emissaries, is our life. Shlichus and our family is one. Obviously, if my child is crying or in need, that’s priority No. 1. But our kids are shluchim, too, and really feel that way. This is their life; they are very proud of it. I hope, that through our work they have developed an openness and sensitivity to clearly realize that every soul, every neshama is equal. We ‘normal’ people are no better.

“I’m excited every day. Thank G‑d, I’m very lucky. This is an incredible place to be and to work. Being a shliach is the best life you could possibly have. I really say and feel, ‘Thank you, Rebbe, for allowing me to be in your army.’”

Bassie with her daughters at this year's gala.
Bassie with her daughters at this year's gala.