The Friendship Circle celebrates 25 years of making the world a better place by launching an endowment fund.

Sponsored by Friendship Circle

Bassie and Rabbi Levi Shemtov knew from the start of their marriage that their lives would be dedicated to making the world a better place. That commitment to each other, and their faith, led them to creating a circle of friendship that now encompasses thousands of individuals across the globe.

From young ages, Bassie and Levi grew up under the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, whose philosophy was of making the world a better place by revealing the good in the world. Under this philosophy, the good, or the special, can be found within the soul of each person.

“Our outreach began as the application of this philosophy of finding the good in the world,” Levi says. “The idea is that we are not reaching out to someone who is far and different to bring them back in, but instead we are reaching within to help them find their value in the world.”

Sam and Carol Sobel wanted to honor the memory of their late son, Daniel, who died in 1993 at the age of 28. They wanted to create a place where those struggling with addiction or other isolating conditions could find the support and companionship their son had received from a local rabbi. The Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House opened its doors in 1994, bringing Bassie and Levi to Detroit as emissaries of the Lubavitch movement to start the program and develop new ones.

Courtesy of the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House.

“I began working with Friendship House and had a passion to help those struggling with addiction and mental illness,” Levi says. “We were also committed to finding our mission in the community.”

Bassie and Levi began meeting with local community leaders and simply asking, “Who needs friends?”

“We defined real friendship as when people see each other not for their labels or exterior but for the beauty that is within,” Levi says. “One message that kept recurring was that people with special needs needed friends.”

The Shemtovs needed to find a way to create friendships to support those with special needs and their families. Bassie started gathering local teens to volunteer and befriend youth with special needs. They called these friends “Buddies.”

The Friendship Circle was founded in 1994 with just a handful of volunteers taking teens to meet with their Buddies each week in homes across the community. Their mission was a circle of friends that would help those with special needs be seen for their value in this world.

“We thought these teens were doing us such a huge favor by giving their time,” Levi says. “One day a parent asked why there was a delay in finding their teen a ‘Buddy’ to work with and it was only because we didn’t have enough drivers. The parent gladly offered to drive.”

It was then that the Shemtovs realized the true value of friendship was circling back and not only benefiting those with special needs. These teens’ lives were being impacted as they found their meaning. As teenagers came to volunteer, they were finding this was the only place they could go that no one was looking at them for how they look or dress, their grades or what kind of house they live in.

Friendship Circle volunteer with Allie Jacobs in 2013 - the two look at each other and smile nose-to-nose
Friendship Circle volunteer with Allie Jacobs in 2013; Lexie is now a behavior tech. Jackie Headapohl | Detroit Jewish News

“It was then there was a shift,” Bassie says. “We realized there was another population who could benefit from being seen for who they truly were and not their exterior trappings. That was everyone else.”

As Friendship Circle grew, it was time to find it a home of its own. In 2005, Friendship Circle moved into a new 5,000-square-foot building. This would later become the 23,000-square-foot Ferber Kaufman Lifetown on the campus of the Meer Family Friendship Center. Five years later, a generous gift created the Florene and Edward Elkus Memorial Gym.

Friendship Circle now has afterschool programs, respite services, weekend Sunday Circle, the Morrie and Sybil Fenkell volunteer club and many other family and “Buddy” programs.

Friendship Circle also houses the groundbreaking Lessons for Life Program. The Lessons For Life program enables teachers to use Friendship Circle’s cityscape, known as Weinberg Village, to teach valuable life and social skills. Run by volunteers, this fully functioning “town” welcomes thousands of students from schools across Michigan each year.

In 2016, the Friendship Circle Farber Center opened as the home of Friendship Circle Soul Projects. Soul Projects expands Friendship Circle’s services into the lives of adults with special needs. The center is home to the Dresner Soul Studio, Soul Cafe and Fetter Hall. The café, gallery and art studios allow young adults the opportunity to learn vocational skills and explore their talents.

Soul Cafe Courtesy of Friendship Circle.

“Friendship Circle has become a vital organ in our community,” Levi says. “It’s needed, essential and integral. It has also become an example for Friendship Circles across the country. As we celebrate 25 years of service, we know now more than ever it is our responsibility to ensure its sustainability.”

Creating the Friendship Circle Endowment Fund will ensure the organization will continue to sustain, grow and expand. It will also allow Friendship Circle to remove all financial hardship from anyone who wants to participate in its programs.

Coming Full Circle
Friendship Circle launches an endowment fund to ensure their programming continues and the friendships made last forever. Courtesy of Friendship Circle.

“This organization is a family,” Levi says. “A true circle of friends that extends to everyone who has been touched by someone within Friendship Circle.”

Thousands of individuals, now spanning across the globe, have had the opportunity to see their beauty within, all because one couple asked the question, “Who needs friends?” They then dedicated their lives to answering the question with everything they do.

See more stories about Friendship Circle’s programs in upcoming issues of the JN.

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