A Taste of Heaven: FCNJ/LifeTown Gala 2024

It was a night of mixing and mingling for donors, volunteers and families, honorees and their guests at the Friendship Circle Banquet 2024, held May 20 at LifeTown in Livingston. The evening celebrated all of the people that make the magic of LifeTown happen every day throughout the year, bringing over 35,000 people through the door. 

Scattered through the throng of well-wishers and supporters, longtime participants exuded a sense of belonging and delight. Dressed in a suit, Matthew Cohen, now an adult participant in the over 21 group activities, had an extra spring in his step and a wider smile than usual. “This evening is fantastic!” he said, “Tonight, just being here, I’m having fun.” After a brief conversation, he wandered off to greet other familiar faces.

Hundreds of guests milled about the 53,000 square foot facility specifically designed to meet the needs of its clientele, people with autism and other special needs. They wandered through the hallway noticing the fidget toys on the walls meant for touching and sensory input; the participant artwork; the sand room, the art area, the sensory room, the playground, and of course, the heart of the facility, the LifeTown Shoppes, where hors-d’oeuvres and a bar, and later dessert, had taken over the town’s Main Street area for the evening. 

“It means so much just to be here,” said Roxanne Zsido of Blairstown, whose adult son is another longtime participant. “I think being part of the community that has done so much for our son, anytime I have a chance to give back, I’m here. This is my son’s world, and places like this are few and far between.” 

The evening honored Jody and Bruce Friedman, Laleh and Brian Harper, Ilene and Bruce Jacobs, and Linda and Sam Sidhu.

Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, CEO of LifeTown, summarized the essence of both the work and the beauty of LifeTown and Friendship Circle. Calling LifeTown “an oasis in the midst of the chaos of the world,” he said, “Amidst the heightened sensitivity and pervasive discord of our times, the true miracle lies in how people set aside their differences upon entering LifeTown. Here, united in purpose, they join together to uplift and support the children, adults and their families…The feedback we receive consistently reflects the warmth and inclusivity they experience during the time spent here. Perhaps LifeTown is a slice of heaven, where perfect harmony and love exist.”

Ron Segev opened the evening’s program, bringing the wrenching events of this year into the gala. A survivor of the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, he described his experience at the NOVA festival, and concluded, “The struggle has only begun. Since that day me and my friends, we are doing everything in our power to make sure that all the survivors will go back to normal life. Since that day we made a pledge that we intend to keep: We will dance again.” 

It’s a mission shared by LifeTown, which has sponsored a variety of events throughout these last months designed to bring light to dark times in Israel, from Challah Bakes to Fabulous Friday Night Dinners. As Grossbaum said, “Where there’s hate, we respond with love. Where there is divisiveness, we respond with unity, and when there is anti-Semitism, we respond with more Jewish spirit.”

The evening focused on the miracles LifeTown brings into the world every day, including the 1,000 teen and adult volunteers who make every program possible, the people who donate to LifeTown, and the honorees, now helping to bring to life yet another piece of the vision of LifeTown: a bowling alley on the ground level, now nearing completion.

Steven Levy, an officer of both the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest and of the Jewish Community Fund Board and a trustee of the Gottesman Family Foundation, commented on the unique role of Friendship Circle and LifeTown in the larger MetroWest Jewish community. ”I’m constantly amazed at the work that is done here, and I’m blown away at the impact of Friendship Circle and LifeTown, especially on the people who need this service. It’s such a valuable resource in our community for special needs families; but even more, it exposes others to people who have special abilities and does it in such a compassionate manner; it teaches everyone to accept people as they are.”

As Ilene Jacobs, one of the evening’s honorees, said, “If you want to know how to treat a child with special needs, look at their siblings. They will show you.”

Walking around LifeTown that evening it was clear that the families, volunteers, and visionaries at LifeTown understood that message.

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