From Strength to Strength: 2023 Gala Inspires

The oohs and aahs kept coming all evening. Some of those attending the 2023 Friendship Circle Banquet at LifeTown experienced the facility for the first time, wandering through the LifeTown Shoppes, exploring specialty areas like the Tactile Room that recreates the Jersey Shore experience, even touching the sensory wall and admiring the portraits of Friendship Circle participants. Making the biggest splash of the evening, however, was the long awaited zero-entry accessible pool, completed in the days leading up to the May 1 event, and dedicated in a special ceremony preceding the gala.

“Have you seen the pool? Let’s go see it,” many said upon entering the building, before even stopping to sample the carving stations and sushi. “I am just floored,” said one woman visiting LifeTown for the first time, standing in the pool area and taking in the experience. “This is such a special place, a place you want to come and spend time. It’s so inviting. It’s like a community center for people with special needs!”

Balloons in the pool area announced its opening and there was plenty to celebrate as donors, participants, volunteers, and supporters hobnobbed and kibitzed and toured the facility.

Among those proudest to share this special place with other guests were the evening’s honorees, a special group who share a deep commitment to the Friendship Circle mission, and go above and beyond to ensure its accomplishments continue and grow. Max and Julie Silbermann, who have been involved with Friendship Circle for over 20 years, acknowledged that “You just don’t say no to Friendship Circle.” Eugene Negrin, honored in memory of his beloved wife Jane Negrin, added that Zalman and Toba “have a beautiful way of making everything more beautiful.”

Diane and Robert Goldberg, in whose memory the pool was dedicated, set an example for their children and grandchildren, and their children accepted the honor in their memory. And honoree Mark DeFazio, who has become part of the fabric of LifeTown, said, “The Friendship Circle is doing G-d’s work.”

Making a Splash: the Diane and Robert Goldberg Pool

The accessible zero-entry pool features interactive pods, an “endless pool” that provides a current enabling swimmers to keep swimming without ever hitting the wall, and even a specially designed ceiling to manage the acoustics for sensory sensitivity.

Even as the pool was celebrated, a new challenge grant was announced to bring the planned bowling alley on the ground level to life. And a Tree of Lights, in memory of children murdered in the Shoah, allows children to dedicate mitzvot: 1.5 million of them, matching the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust. Each time a child dedicates a mitzvah, the tree will illuminate.

Of course, at the Friendship Circle, it’s never just about the dollars raised or even the facility itself; it’s always about the work to be accomplished, not just for people with special abilities but for the broader community as well.

As Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, CEO of Friendship Circle and LifeTown taught at the gala, when it comes to our spiritual lives, to helping others, the famous teaching from Pirkei Avot– Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot– flips on its head. “Spiritually, it’s a mitzvah to be jealous. Someone who is never content with their spiritual standing and is constantly looking at the spiritual character, the moral character of other people so they can grow– that’s positive and productive jealousy. It’s going to send you into spiritual pursuits to reach a more meaningful, holier place,” said Grossbaum. 

He likened it to what King David says in Psalms: One should continually go from strength to strength. “At Friendship Circle, we are inspired each and every day by the incredible children, teens, and adults who continuously push themselves to overcome and overpower any challenge or obstacle that is placed in their way.” 

Longtime fans who have come on the Friendship Circle journey from fledgling organization to community gem dotted the crowd. “Friendship Circle just blows me away,” said Barbara Feigenberg, who has been involved with Friendship Circle for over twenty years, helping found the soccer circle that brought together sports and the Friendship Circle. “It creates connections for kids and volunteers and makes the whole community a better place. And where would we be without LifeTown? It was a dream and a vision and now it’s a reality that is beyond incredible.”

This year alone, over 1000 teens and adult volunteers made a difference for over 1000 families involved with the Friendship Circle and over 9000 students who visited. 

They are all part of the circle because, as Ashley, a participant, put it in her opening video, “I love it here!”

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