A New Sisterhood



3_13_JN-Cover_800pxI came for a massage and a few days away from the daily grind of motherhood and life in general. I left with 20 new sisters and a renewed spirit.

The Friendship Circle Moms Spa Retreat, which took place Feb. 28-March 2, was unlike anything I expected or imagined.

For 48 hours, we laughed until tears ran down our faces and our sides hurt. We ate gourmet meals at tables that could grace a magazine cover. We shared stories about our kids. We cried. We played charades. We sang like children. We danced like teenagers.

By the time we left, a new sisterhood was born, comprised of women so diverse we might never have met if not for one common bond: our children with special needs who participate in programs at Friendship Circle of Michigan.

The scene of our retreat was Riverwalk Place in Gladwin. It was the perfect venue; a spacious hotel/conference center with full-service spa, luxurious rooms and suites, and a gracious staff who took our midnight karaoke/dance session in stride.

The weekend was underwritten by Susan and Gary August of Bloomfield Hills, whose sons, Matthew, 13, and Mitchell, 17, are active Friendship Circle volunteers. Susan, who was invited to attend the retreat, was so inspired when she left that she and her husband set up a $10,000 matching fund to ensure that future moms retreats will continue.

“It was a transformational weekend with a group of exceptional mothers; I feel grateful and honored I was able to participate,” said Susan August. “These miraculous women don’t just deserve a weekend like this; they need it. It’s more than a luxury; it’s critical to their survival.”

Kindred Souls

We came from different neighborhoods, lifestyles, economic circumstances and religious denominations (Orthodox, Lubavitch, Conservative, Reform and more). But none of that mattered when we got together to talk about our situations and share our collective pain at having children with such daunting challenges.

I met remarkable women I did not know before, such as Milaine Grossbard, an observant mother who has six children, three with special needs. It was her first time away by herself in 21 years, and her remarkable strength and wonderful sense of humor inspired us all.

“It was amazing to be with all these women who have such different lives than mine, yet we are so connected — we are all standing in the same place,” said Grossbard of Southfield.

Carolyn Morris, Ronelle Grier and Jodie Jacobs, all of West Bloomfield, Stacey Larson and Hayley Snyder, both of Farmington Hills, and Tali Wendrow of Commerce Township


My own daughter, Molly, who has autism, is almost 27, making me one of the “old moms,” as we jokingly call those of us whose children have been involved with Friendship Circle since its inception in 1994. Spending time with so many mothers at the relative beginning of their journeys reminded me how important it is to help each other along the way, to share what we have learned and to support those who have not yet walked where we have been.

Another member of our group, Carolyn Morris of West Bloomfield, talked about what it was like when her son Sam, now 21, was first diagnosed with autism.

“There was no Friendship Circle, no JARC programs for children, no special needs department at the JCC,” she said. “I felt so alone.”

Nonstop Pampering

The weekend was planned in meticulous detail by Friendship Circle’s Life Town Director Bassie Shemtov and staff members Sarah Schectman and Bayla Blumstein, with on-site assistance from staffers Chanchie Shemtov and Casey Coden, whose fruit-infused sangria and chocolate martinis were cocktail hour favorites.

The spa treatment included in our weekend package (my masseuse managed to work out all the kinks) was only the beginning of the nonstop pampering provided by the Friendship Circle staff members. The welcome basket that awaited us when we arrived was followed by a continuous stream of gifts and treats throughout the weekend: pillow-soft spa socks, beautifully wrapped silver bracelets engraved with our children’s names custom made by local artist Jodi Warner of Jodi Lynn Designs, Voss water bottles decorated with our initials in rhinestones, electric neck massagers donated by Homedics. There were formal printed menus and programs, and every gift and goodie bag was accompanied by a card with an original poem. We felt like royalty, far removed from our respective daily grinds and motherly duties.

Delicious kosher fare prepared by Bayla Blumstein and gorgeous magazine-worthy table settings, courtesy of former Friendship Circle staffer Riva Leibowitz, awaited us at every meal. We were continually delighted by tables festooned with glittery runners, color-coordinated cloths and satin napkins, and the piece de resistance: napkin rings made from miniature loaves of braided challah. We dined on dishes such as Asian Ginger Steak Salad with Julienned Peppers over Baby Kale, enjoyed an elaborate breakfast buffet with yogurt, fresh fruit and homemade granola, and indulged in a mid-afternoon ice cream bar complete with toppings.

Friendship Circle supporters Ron and Ronda Ferber provided a Saturday night dinner featuring grilled Ahi tuna and curried bisque served in hollowed-out acorn squash bowls.

Fun And Inspiration

When we were not eating, we kept busy with fun and enlightening group activities: small group discussions about various ethical issues, a lively Zumba class where I released my inner klutz, a pajama party where a game of telephone charades had all of us howling with laughter, and a songfest with Friendship Circle mom and talented children’s musician, Marlowe Bechmann of the “Swingset Mamas.”

Weekend pampering included individualized welcome baskets in each mom’s room
Weekend pampering included individualized welcome baskets in each mom’s room

My personal favorite activity was a panel discussion called “Ask the Rebbetzen,” where Bassie, Bayla and Sarah revealed answers to questions we submitted prior to the retreat. These brave and terrific women told us everything-we-wanted-to-know-but-were-afraid-to-ask, and nothing was off limits — well, practically nothing.

“The weekend was something I needed that I didn’t even know I needed,” said Sarah Rosenzweig, who was able to release some of her feelings about the challenges facing her 3-year-old daughter Ellah.
Our guest speaker was Chana Weisberg, author, director of editorial management at the Jewish website Chabad.org and worldwide lecturer on issues relating to women, faith, relationships and the Jewish soul. Her wisdom and inspiring stories encouraged us to find balance in our busy lives through prayer and spiritual connection.

“The amazing group of women who attended shared openly and bonded honestly and genuinely,” Weisberg said. “Their striving for growth and spiritual perspective through their challenging situations is inspirational … the environment was imbued with an aura of out-of-this-world holiness.”

Words like “life-changing,” “transformational” and “awe-inspiring” were heard throughout the weekend, but the overriding sentiment was how refreshing it was to be with other women who “get it” in a way that even well-meaning friends and family members do not.

“The weekend was special on so many levels — new friendships were made, old friendships were strengthened and, most valuable to me, it feels like the beginning of a circle of support that will be a much-needed addition in my life,” said Lisa Menuck of Birmingham.

We watched a moving video clip of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson talking about how every soul is special and how important it is to treat people with disabilities as equals.

“I felt inspired to keep going amidst the chaos, celebrate the little milestones, remembering to cry when I need to and appreciate all the amazing things our special ones do for the world and those who live in it,” said Jodie Jacobs of West Bloomfield.

The Rebbe’s words provided a new perspective to some of the moms, who began referring to their children as “exceptional” rather than different.

“I think it was life-changing because it made me fall back in love with my children,” said DeAnna Granitz of Walled Lake.

Maggie Egrin of Huntington Woods expressed her gratitude at being able to come together with other like-minded mothers.

“My daughter Kailey has made me a better person, and being with a group of moms who just ‘get it’ filled my soul,” Egrin said. “These women inspired me in a way I did not think was possible.” ■

For more information on Friendship Circle of Michigan or to donate to the August fund for future retreats, contact (248) 788-7878 or visit www.friendshipcircle.org.

Ronelle Grier | Contributing Writer

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