Two weeks ago, Tal Cohen of Kiryat Bialik stood before the Torah and uttered the words common to bar mitzvah boys around the world. For Tal, whose speech and learned abilities lag far behind due to pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), it was an uncommon accomplishment.
“Everything Tal did at his bar mitzvah is in Rabbi Pini’s merit,” said his mother Esti Cohen.
Chabad of Kiryat Bialik’s representative Rabbi Pini Marton met with Tal and nine other boys with PDD at the Kadima public school at regular intervals during the school year to prepare them for their bar mitzvahs.
Now, Rabbi Marton will open Israel’s first Friendship Circle, taking the social benefits of the club for boys with developmental disorders one step further.
“Everyone needs a friend,” said Rabbi Marton.
Friendship Circle, a Chabad sponsored program with 70 branches worldwide, pairs up teen volunteers with children of special needs through visits at home and social programs year round. Kiryat Bialik’s new program will be the first non-school-based Friendship Circle in all of Israel. (Currently, the only other Friendship Circle in the country is a school-based variation run by Chabad of Ashkelon.)
If Chabad Bialik’s Friendship Circle is successful it may start a trend. Chabad of Bavli in Tel Aviv is on track to start its own Friendship Circle around the same time, or shortly afterward. A fringe benefit of the Friendship Circle is its tendency to unite people regardless of social, religious barriers.
“When you work with people, the mask comes off, and you see there’s not so much difference between us,” said Chabad House of Bavli’s Rabbi Shalom Glitsenstein.
On the square of space on Rabbi Marton’s synagogue office desk not snowed under by Chabad Bialik flyers, Jewish books, computer gadgetry, he lays out his plans for Friendship Circle programs. His goal is to begin the first year with 20 volunteers and 10 children. The friends will meet once a week in the children’s homes, and come together for a monthly group activity like bowling.
Parents of children with special needs, most of them members of the bar mitzvah club, have already signed up. “My son cannot express himself,” warned one mother on her application.
Teen volunteers on the other hand are more challenging. Mrs. Esti Marton, a talented graphic designer, prepared attractive computer-based presentations to help make the message of the Friendship Circle interesting to the online generation.
One of the Martons’ neighbors, a friend of Chabad Bialik, is the volunteer coordinator for ORT Bialik, the area’s largest public high school. Students are obligated to fulfill a number of volunteer hours before they can graduate. But the Friendship Circle will be up against the allure of volunteering for the ambulance corps or the fire department, both of which are options for teens in Israel
The obstacles don’t scare the Martons. Since their appointment to their post five years ago by Chabad of Haifa Bay’s Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Oirechman, they’ve surmounted what others considered not doable. They’ve opened the neighborhood’s first public religious preschool. When they moved to the mostly secular Givat Harakefot neighborhood in Kiryat Bialik on the eve of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, there were no synagogues. People gathered to pray in private homes.
“In times of war, more people feel the need to pray,” said Mrs. Marton.
Chabad opened its doors for High Holiday prayer services, hosted in a large bomb shelter (not an uncommon venue in space-starved Israeli cities). Hundreds attended. Continued interest in the Martons’ prayer services convinced the city to grant them a space to pray. Today Rabbi Marton leads the “Community Synagogue of Givat HaRakefet” in a bright, airy building constructed by the municipality.
On the edge of the synagogue’s property stands a building topped by what looks like a large Parmesan cheese grater. It’s the crusher Kiryat Bialik’s original settlers used to pulverize stone into street-grade gravel for the new town. Chabad Bialik is paving roads towards greater understanding and acceptance of religious Jewish life.
When Rabbi Marton crosses the road from the synagogue to a preschool across from the synagogue, the four-year-olds greet him like a rock star. They cluster around his knees.
A preschooler in a pink sundress runs over. “Rabbi Pini, do you remember we came to your house?”
Throughout the year, Rabbi Marton visits the children to bring them classic Chabad holiday workshops: shofar factory, matzah bakery, Chanukah olive oil pressing.
“They feel like I am their friend,” said Rabbi Marton. “For children to see a rabbi and feel that he is a normal part of their lives is an accomplishment.”
The workshops have become a feature appreciated by local public schools. Ami Reuben, director of Kiryat Bialik’s education department, thanked Rabbi Marton for “enriching the knowledge of many students, especially with regard to Jewish values, Torah and mitzvot” and expressed hope that he “would continue and expand” his activities.
Mrs. Cohen wants Chabad Bialik’s latest program, the Friendship Circle, to meet with the same success.
“I hope Tal will have friends and learn to be a friend.”