You Did It! The Friendship Circle Walks Again.

Exuberant cheers of “You did it!” greeting those crossing the finish line capped off a morning of joy, warmth, and community at LifeTown in Livingston at the annual Friendship Circle Walk and Run. 

“This is my favorite day of the year,” said Ellie Minsky, a longtime volunteer, college student, former staffer, and sister of a participant. “It’s the energy, seeing people I haven’t seen in a year, and seeing everyone come together for one day for a cause. And in a time like this, we all need to come together and have a reason to be happy.”

For so many people, the annual Friendship Circle walk is a day to celebrate a place that embraces them like no other. From its unique facility and programming, to respite camps and teen buddy home visits, to play spaces welcoming not only children with special needs but also their siblings, it’s a place where entire families can relax without explanation or apology. 

Over 2,000 people attended this year’s event, including 170 runners at the second annual 5K run, a 20 percent increase over last year. Volunteers stationed around the run cheered on participants and urged them forward. Music at short intervals provided a burst of energy for added motivation. The day encapsulated the organizational philosophy to “Be Amazing!” 

Among the runners at the 5K starting line, numbers pinned to their Friendship Circle jerseys, stretching, jumping, hugging and readying themselves, was Steven Waxman from Livingston. “It’s a good cause to come out and support the organization and get a couple of steps in,” he said, adding, “I would be here anyway but the context of the recent attacks on Israel gives a higher emphasis to showing up.”

Capturing the mood in the crowd, runner Abby Halpern said, “I’m excited to be here to support the Friendship Circle. Am Yisrael Chai!”

Walkers gathered under signs reading “Team Zach,” “Schechner Schleppers,” “West Essex High School,” even “Friends of Fang Gong.” Some are longtime participants. Others came for the first time this year. A few came to remember family members who once participated.

Brooke Czarka came with four of her children and her husband. They were “Team Batya,” named for a daughter who passed away 10 years ago. “Friendship Circle was very important in our lives and every year we bring everyone to the walk,” she said.

Matthew, 30, was joined by a large group of extended family. “It’s just a lot of fun,” said Matthew,  a participant since he was 9. “Matthew grew up with the organization,’ said his mother, Meryl Stone. “We’re all here every year and we’re glad the event wasn’t canceled this year,” she said, referring to recent events. “It’s more complicated this year, but we are happy to be together. We cannot allow terrorists to win.”

Ben and Angela Snipes were among the newest members, participating for a little more than a year. They arrived with their four young children including Cy, who has special needs. “Friendship Circle is so special. So few people understand us the way the people here do,” said Angela, who related that when she arrived at Friendship Circle for the first time, COO Toba Grossbaum joyfully held out her arms to Cy.

Like so many others, they commented on the inclusion of all of their children in Friendship Circle events. “You can find programs and therapists for children with special needs, but not places and spaces like this that nurture the whole family,” said Angela. As she spoke, her voice breaking as she welled up with tears, the song “I can be anything” started to play in the background. Just then, their son Abe ran over to shout, “This is the best day ever!” 

Israel was ever present at the event. 

The Weissberg family gathered under a “Team Holden” sign. Holden, 9, has been a participant for 6 years. Recent events, including the hostages taking by Hamas, hit the family especially hard, making participation even more poignant this year. “We think about someone like Holden–what would it be like for someone like him to be kidnapped?” asked mom Lauren Weissberg. “So, we are here to celebrate and also to pray together.”

While there were opportunities for community solidarity with Israel, the mood remained light and focused on the children and the mission of Friendship Circle.

Runners started crossing the finish line. Some, like Eddie Steinberg, who is used to running marathons, were barely winded. Others worked hard for the win. “I’m not a runner, and when I felt myself flagging, the music offered just the energy I needed to keep going,” said Rabbi Yisroel Rosenblum, Friendship Circle Living Legacy director and event organizer, who ran for the second year in a row. 

The countdown to the walk began. The crowd surged forward, crossing the street. Groups chattered, wandered, rolled and followed the crowd. As the music blared, longtime participant Robyn, walking with her father and an aid, grinned widely and started to dance.

Arriving back at the campus, the petting zoo was open, and the festivities were just getting started. Family fun day features included face painting, bouncy houses, rides, and a climbing wall, as well as the opportunity to write a letter to an Israeli soldier, and to lay tefillin to connect spiritually with people in Israel.

Evan Abraham, 16, from Millburn, took the opportunity to put on tefillin. “It’s a mitzvah, and it’s a nice thing to do,” he said. “I have a lot of family in Israel so this is very emotional and this action makes me feel connected to them.”

Finishing the walk, Monica, 27, a Friendship Circle participant since its inception, said, “I think Friendship Circle is a great program to help! I like being a part of it and I like being here with family and friends.”

Behind her, Larry Kaufman from Colorado, who happened to be in New Jersey, decided to join the walk in a show of solidarity. “If we don’t do these kinds of events, the terrorists win,” he said. 

“We are so grateful to be able to bring the whole community together, to celebrate our volunteers and our amazing participants, and to do mitzvot [good deeds], and share prayer and song for the people of Israel,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, Friendship Circle CEO and executive director. “So many of those in attendance expressed that the energy was so special and it was exactly what they need during these dark days.”

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