Making the World More Beautiful: FC Banquet 2022
By Rachel Jager and Johanna Ginsberg
The Friendship Circle Banquet is always a special evening, yet this year’s event was particularly joyous, as over 450 people shared in the excitement of being able to gather together at LifeTown for the first time since 2019.
The energy was electric as Sam Prince, 19, a Friendship Circle participant-turned-volunteer took the podium to kick off the program on June 21. Until recently, Sam might have been best known for his role on the stage opening the 2016 Friendship Circle Banquet; however, he recently won the hearts of sports fans everywhere with his exuberant announcement of the Giants first-round draft pick at the NFL draft.
Prince, who received a heart transplant when he was eight, said, “Every day I think a lot about the priceless gift of life that was given to me. Shouldn’t we all be thinking about the beautiful, priceless gifts of life, love, family and community? That’s what tonight is all about – giving back!”
The annual event celebrated the work of Friendship Circle and LifeTown, which offer an array of educational, social and recreational programs for individuals with special needs children and their families, as well as volunteer opportunities for teens.
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum joked about having the misfortune of following Sam’s unmatched stage presence, and then turned the enthusiasm back on the audience. “The magic, the energy, the life of LifeTown is all because of you,” he said. “It’s all about the community coming together to care for each other and to be there for each other.”
While Sam Prince exulted in the (almost) fully completed center, Grossbaum announced that LifeTown had just received the permits necessary to complete its swimming pool, to thunderous applause.
Because the pandemic closed LifeTown soon after it opened, this past year marked a restart of so many of its original programs along with some new ones: educational experiences at LifeTown Shoppes, UMatter mental health training, school visits, vocational life skills training, afterschool enrichment, outdoor sports, Fabulous Friday Nights and Shabbat@Home observance, a new music center and outdoor basketball court, and opportunities to partner with JESPY House and Jewish Services for the Developmentally Disabled.
The audience was enthralled by the videos featuring the stories of the evening’s honorees, Ed Zinbarg, Erica and Steven Gendel, Andrea and Phillip Bershad, and Marisa and Jeffrey Bershad, who shared the real impact the organization is having on people across the community.
“Friendship Circle is making the world a little more beautiful one day at a time,” said Phillip Bershad. The Bershad brothers, who own the wallcovering company Phillip Jeffries Ltd., were inspired by their own family involvement in Friendship Circle to hire Eric Helweil to work at their business. Helweil’s father, referencing the company’s policy of planting a tree for every wallpaper order, said that in hiring Eric, “You have planted a life.”
For Erica and Steven Gendel, whose son Josh was born with cerebral palsy and quickly had other medical issues, Friendship Circle became their world. Here was a place, Steven said, where “He was just like everyone else.” Josh participated from the time he was two until he passed away a year ago, and Josh’s Club was created to honor his memory. It’s a way for young adults to continue to connect through the virtual programming that helped Josh connect during the pandemic. “It was indescribable what that opportunity was to him and to us, as if we were in this building,” said his father.
Barbara Zinbarg volunteered across the community for many years, but her husband, Ed Zinbarg, related that Friendship Circle was a special place for her. “She would come home from this place, beaming, and saying, ‘It’s the most gratifying thing I ever did.’” He endowed Fabulous Friday Nights in her memory.
Grossbaum invited everyone to make sure that the joy and inspiration of the evening lasted well beyond the moment, by visiting and volunteering while LifeTown is in action. As he put it, “’Love your fellow as yourself,’ is not just the opening line of our mission statement. It’s what happens here each and every day.”
Like many others, Livingston resident Ruth Bash was blown away by the evening. “The banquet was a spectacular showcase of what can be accomplished when the community comes together,” she said. “It is a privilege to be involved and work with individuals with unique abilities and their families.”