Staff Reporter


 Kate Greggo




Friendship Circle Executive Director Rabbi Yossi Marozov recalled the Shabbat morning in winter 2011 when he read in the Cleveland Jewish News that the former Congregation Bethaynu building on Gates Mills Blvd. in Pepper Pike was for sale.

"In an instant, it flashed up to my mind," Marozov said. "I said to my wife Estie, ‘Friendship Circle has a new home.'" A day later, negotiations began.

Marozov announced the final deal to a cheering audience during the organization's teen volunteer award ceremony May 22 ("Bethaynu to be Friendship Circle's new home," CJN, May 27, 2011). On Labor Day weekend, the nonprofit Friendship Circle, which raised $325,000 mostly through private donations for the purchase, moved into its new 12,500-sq.-ft. facility, doubling the space for hundreds of participants.

Now in its ninth year, Friendship Circle brings together some 250 teenage volunteers and 130 children with special needs for hours of fun and friendship. Several adult volunteers also participate regularly.

Plenty of space

Friendship Circle's new building provides ample room for a variety of programming taking place each week, from its bright yellow game room, equipped with board and video games, to its teen lounge with popcorn maker, gross motor and sensory rooms, parents' lounge, and the former synagogue sanctuary, which has been remodeled into a multipurpose room. Programs range from Sunday Circle, a bimonthly event pairing children and volunteers for social fun; to martial arts; dance; and moms' get-togethers. Another program is Teen Scene, in which teen boys and girls create separate, themed dinners in Friendship Circle's kitchen.

Marozov said his favorite program is Friends at Home. "These are weekly visits by over 100 teenagers to the homes of children with special needs."

Touching close to home

The program is near to his heart, said Marozov, who met Estie (née Alevsky) when both were volunteering at the home of a family with an ill parent. "Volunteering at home built our family and gave back tenfold in benefits," said Marozov.

Marozov and Estie, who is Friendship Circle's co-director, have five children. "Friendship Circle is part of our family life," Marozov said. "It's who we are."

The program started with a core group of five children with disabilities and 10 teen volunteers, Marozov said. "It quickly soared." At first, administrators worked out of offices and rented facilities for events. The last four years, Friendship Circle occupied the old Workman's Circle building on Green Road, which provided 5,000 sq. ft. of space.

"We quickly outgrew it," Marozov said.

The extensive involvement of teenagers in the program is rewarding in both directions, Marozov said. "Teenagers today are very challenged, with all the electronics creating isolation. Children with special needs can also feel isolated. I think we're popping those bubbles, bringing them together for interaction.

"The key to our success is motivating the teen volunteers," he said. "My goal is for every teen to know about Friendship Circle and utilize it as an opportunity to develop character and become a better person. I won't be comfortable until we double our numbers."

Keeping teens involved

Perks and recognition encourage continued involvement, said Marozov, who mailed out 200 scarves to teen volunteers with the message that they were "warming the heart of a child." Teens get "mileage points," based on participation, he said, and outstanding volunteers are recognized at the end of the year with plaques and letters from public officials, all the way up to President Obama.

Beyond the perks, the program itself steals the hearts of many teens.

"It's become a big part of who I am," said Meytal Misrahi, 17, of Beachwood, a three-time winner of Friendship Circle's Donald J. Goodman Fellowship Award for outstanding service. A student at Hawken School, she is in her fifth year as a volunteer.

"My favorite part is meeting people," said Meytal, who volunteers three times a week. "Most volunteers don't realize how much they'll get out of it until they're here. What helped motivate me was my relationship with Chayi," a 9-year-old child with Down syndrome, developed through the Friends at Home program. "She's really a good friend, and I thank Friendship Circle for that."

Chayi "has really taught me a lot," Meytal said. "People that judge the least are judged the most. Friendship Circle helps reverse that."

Meytal also worked with children recently at Chai Five, a three-hour, after-school program held several times monthly, providing one-on-one homework help and special programs for children and a respite for parents. Several volunteers participated, from Sondra Martin, who recently retired as a teacher from Shaker Heights High School, to other teens like Meytal.

"I love helping out, meeting new friends, and I'm happy to make an impact on their lives," said Raquel Rosenberg, 15, of Orange Village, a Hawken School student, during Chai Five.

Social interaction isn't the only benefit of Friendship Circle. "We really are working on enriching their lives more than just socially," program director Ashley Doringo said. "We work on goals that bring meaning not only to the children, but also to teens. The teens feel good when they help a child meet a goal."



Raquel Rosenberg, Meytal Misrahi and Catie Kornblut



Abby Segal and Hannah Levine