The soul of LifeTown
By JOANNE PALMER, NJ Jewish Standard
The point of LifeTown, the extraordinary place in Livingston that offers programs for people with — and without — special needs in an environment that is safe, stimulating, educational, clever, and fun, is not to double as a venue for birthday parties.
Not even almost.
But I went there last Sunday for my 7-year-old grandson’s birthday party, and I was astounded by what I saw.
Because LifeTown is all about inclusion, neurotypical children can use the facilities when they wouldn’t be used otherwise; that demystifies the place, exposes the children and their parents to it, and maybe plants a seed in their brains that might blossom into becoming a volunteer there once they’ve become teenagers. Because another amazing benefit to LifeTown is the way it helps teenagers become genuinely open to volunteering, not for credit but for growth and love.
Love is a word that comes up often when you talk about LifeTown.
We’ve talked about inclusion for people with special needs quite a bit recently; we’ve mentioned the Sinai Schools and Yachad. Both those organizations do fantastic work, which overlaps; Sinai focuses mainly on school-age participants and works with them during the school day, and Yachad takes over after school and with people who’ve aged out.
Now we can add LifeTown to this group of institutions that works for inclusion, not only for participants but for everyone.
“LifeTown is about making a space where the community can celebrate and enjoy life together,” its cofounder and CEO, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, said. He and his wife, Toba Leah Grossbaum, LifeTown’s COO, founded the local Friendship Circle, a Chabad Lubavitch program, in 2000; it’s kept growing, and they opened LifeTown in 2019.
While there are about 90 Friendship Circles in the country — like LifeTown, Friendship Circles are Chabad-Lubavitch outreach programs — this is only the second LifeTown, and it’s bigger than the first one, in Michigan. It’s fitting that there should be such a large LifeTown here, Rabbi Grossbaum said. “New Jersey has the country’s highest rate of autism and special needs, and Essex County has the largest number of people with autism and special needs in the state. So we see ourselves as at the epicenter of special needs in the world.”
The center “is highly specialized,” Rabbi Grossbaum said; it’s fun with a purpose. “It’s all about making a space where the community can celebrate together, from the little children who play here through the teenagers and adults who volunteer.”
The teenagers who volunteer — there have been 10,000 of them, he said — “have gone back and impacted their communities. We have watched as the area synagogues and temples have become inclusive. We believe that it’s because of the teens who have gone on not to preach inclusion but to teach it; they show it can be very natural and very beautiful.
“That’s what inclusion is all about. It’s finding ways for everyone to feel part of the community. LifeTown is about finding creative ways for people with special needs to welcome everybody else into their word.
“LifeTown has a soul,” he continued.
He’s right. It does.
The rooms where the kids at the birthday party played “are sensory activity spaces and therapeutic spaces,” Rabbi Grossbaum said. That’s far from obvious when you look at them, though. “They are built to be very welcoming. They look like a park.” The tactile therapy room — the sand room — is painted and decorated to look like a beach — specifically, the Jersey shore. “It allows for programs to happen here in a very safe way, without it feeling therapeutic.
“LifeTown has a soul,” he said again. “I truly believe it, and the people who come here feel it.”
He’s right. It does. They do. I did.
Learn more about LifeTown at lifetown.com.