2020 Friendship Circle Virtual Banquet Recap


They gathered in Livingston, in Randolph, in Short Hills and in cities around the world. From kitchen stools and living room sofas, more than 1,000 people joined together online for the Friendship Circle Annual Banquet, COVID-style.

After joking that Friendship Circle was “upgrading” the banquet with sofa seating, Rabbi Yisroel Rosenblum, director of Living Legacy, started off the virtual event, acknowledging that “While we are celebrating this banquet with social distancing, we truly feel social closeness with all of you joining us tonight.” 

Though not an in-person dinner, the event had all the hallmarks of the annual Friendship Circle Banquet. This year’s honorees were the Friendship Circle participants—children, teens and adults—and FC volunteers. 

Video clips from various media outlets showcased the year that was at Friendship Circle and LifeTown. Starting from the grand opening in September and moving into the usage of LifeTown by local schools and finally the spring car parades after the pandemic outbreak, the clips from news stations gave a picture of just how Friendship Circle and LifeTown impact people’s lives.

Beth Skolnick knows that impact firsthand as her daughter, Rebekah, participates in Friendship Circle programs. Skolnick shared her thoughts during the banquet, praising not just FC, but the teen volunteers.

“The Friendship Circle volunteers that have come into our lives have been amazing,” Skolnick said. “During this hard time we are all facing with Covid-19, our volunteers are still checking with us via text and video calls all facilitated by Friendship Circle.”  

Noting the many programs and events that Friendship Circle has hosted since the lockdown went into effect in March—among them are car parades, holiday and Shabbat-food distribution, online cooking and exercise classes, virtual Torah Circle and more—Skolnick said Friendship Circle is “fostering a sense of community without the possibility of meeting in person, which is not easy to do.”

Also sharing her personal experience, and speaking on behalf of other teen volunteers, was Liat Cohen. Liat was 10 when she first learned about Friendship Circle and as soon as she was old enough, she joined as a volunteer. Several years into her volunteering, she was paired up with Benji.

“Although Benji is in a wheelchair and only says a handful of words – it was quickly obvious that Benji is more similar to other kids than he is different,” Liat said during her speech. “When the quarantine began, I was sad to realize that I was not going to see Benji for a while. Video calls have allowed me to see him virtually, which I love.”

The dinner also paid tribute to Rita Waldor, whose first yahrzeit was during that same week. Rita and her husband, Jerry, had been longtime Friendship Circle supporters. After her husband Jerry passed away in 2005, Rita started an award for FC Teen volunteers in his memory. During the banquet, it was announced that the annual award will now be known as the Rita and Jerry Waldor Fellowship Award.

Addressing everyone watching the Banquet, Friendship Circle/LifeTown CEO Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum said, “We started the year with the opening of the LifeTown: The Jerry Gottesman Center … from that moment things went through the roof.” 

“The LifeTown story was in the news worldwide, the coming months were so promising as the LifeTown story went viral — that is until the world decided to go viral and out of the blue everything came to a screeching halt,” he continued, promising that Friendship Circle and LifeTown will continue to create innovative programs to reach its families.

Grossbaum also announced creation of a new LifeTown Endowment Fund thanks to a $1 million challenge grant from LifeTown supporters. 

“While we are, of course, focused on the immediate future, the financial crisis has highlighted the importance of long-term financial stability. To that end, we are beyond grateful to some very special people who stepped forward to create a challenge grant.” 

A video documentary from JEM (Jewish Educational Media) showcased the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, and his belief that people with special needs also have special missions in life and need to be welcomed into the community, not isolated.

“That is a directive and inspiration that keeps us moving toward a world of true inclusion and opportunity,” said Grossbaum, wrapping up the Banquet’s broadcast.

Some of the people who joined the broadcast, couldn’t wait to share their thoughts. Said one viewer, “Amazing program. Tears and ending with a great laugh! Kol HaKavod everyone!”

Melissa Scerbo, a Friendship Circle parent, encapsulated the reaction to the online event. 

“I just wanted to reach out and say thank you again for all that you do. The banquet was so beautiful. I sat there reflecting on how much being part of Friendship Circle has changed our lives this past year.

I felt so alone and I felt like my family didn’t fit in or belong anywhere. Not even with relatives,” she said, adding that with Friendship Circle, “[a]ll that changed. 

“No one looks twice if my kids are having a rough time. Everyone always has so much love and positivity to offer. I feel like we belong,” Scerbo continued. “I can’t put into words how that’s impacted me. … I just sat there crying watching the Lubavitcher Rebbe talk about special kids like mine. I thank G-d that he chose such special people with such big hearts to befriend children like mine, who are so often left behind. You inspire me.”

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