Zalman & Toba Grossbaum of LifeTown: “Anything is possible”

Anything is possible. The cards we are dealt, are the cards we are dealt. We can’t do anything about things that are out of our control, the question is what we will do in response with the things that are in our control. We are constantly inspired by the children and families who accomplish things […]

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Anything is possible. The cards we are dealt, are the cards we are dealt. We can’t do anything about things that are out of our control, the question is what we will do in response with the things that are in our control. We are constantly inspired by the children and families who accomplish things they were told are impossible, because they don’t accept the status quo as the end to possibilities.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum & Toba Grossbaum.

Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, CEO of Friendship Circle New Jersey and LifeTown, and wife Toba Grossbaum, the organization’s Chief Operating Officer are lifelong educators and special needs activists. In 2000, they created Friendship Circle, which offers innovative programs that promote a greater awareness and understanding for children with special needs and their families.

As an extension of their mission, in 2019 they created LifeTown, a nonsectarian, fully inclusive, educational, social and recreational center. The 53,000 sq. foot, 19 million dollars project located in Livingston has received acclaim from educators and families throughout New Jersey and beyond.

In addition to their work with LifeTown and Friendship Circle New Jersey, Toba manages a number of additional nonprofit endeavors including Mikvah Chana, Chabad of Livingston and the “Shabbat Kit” program. Zalman is a co-founder and trustee of Friendship Circle International and is involved in several other nonprofits, including Chabad of Livingston.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It was actually a combination of factors that led us to working to make the world a better place for people with special needs.

Twenty-four years ago, we met a family in our neighborhood with a then 7-year-old son who has autism. Avi blew me away with his incredible savant abilities and his capacity to figure out dates and equations at the drop of a hat — and then remember them forever. What this wonderful, brilliant child didn’t have were playdates and friends. He also didn’t have the skills to independently navigate in public spaces. Because New Jersey has the highest rates of autism in the country, we figured there were many other children like Avi who were missing out on the benefits of friendship.

Meanwhile, our dear friends in Michigan, Bassie and Levi Shemtov, had started a program to give teens a positive outlet by having them volunteer and participate in fun activities with children with special needs. They called it “Friendship Circle.” Knowing that Toba was teaching in a special-education classroom, they encouraged us and inspired us to be the second branch of Friendship Circle.

What brought these elements together for us were the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of blessed memory, who spoke often about the importance of inclusion and stressed that every individual, including those with special needs, has a unique mission and purpose in this world. How we could help them fulfill that mission and become a meaningful part of society, has since become our mission.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

ZALMAN: The first day that we opened LifeTown, I was walking around enjoying the sights and sounds of the kids exploring all the unique spaces. When I stopped to see how things were going at the indoor park, there were kids all over the playground — climbing, swinging, and jumping. There were a couple of kids who had been taken out of their wheelchairs by their teen buddies and were bouncing on the tumble track. Watching all of this was Jason, our therapy director at the time, and one of the many angels who runs all of our programs. Jason turned to me and said, “This is the best therapy I have ever seen, and it is even better because there are no therapists working with the kids… just kids being kids — it’s real life, and it’s amazing!”

TOBA: Among the many schools that visited LifeTown since its opening in September 2019, was a school that helps children who are visually impaired. It was amazing to watch them navigate LifeTown and enjoy the stores, the sensory spaces and playground. Seeing the joy on their faces brought tears of joy to my eyes. I was especially moved when one of the teachers commented about how the design and energy of LifeTown made learning and playing so natural for these children. While we had put so much thought into each detail, it meant so much to see the impact that it had on children of all abilities.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

ZALMAN: We don’t see things as mistakes, rather we see them as opportunities — growth opportunities, learning opportunities, change opportunities. But since you asked, when we were just starting, I went to visit one of our first Friendship Circle children while he was in the hospital. He had just had brain surgery and was bandaged and hooked up to numerous tubes. I was a very young rabbi at the time and was not used to seeing a child in this state. I must have turned green; a fact that his mother jokes about to this day.

While it is not easy to see children like this, it is so important to be there for the children and for their parents, so they know they are not alone. There are no magical ‘right’ words to say in tough situations, but just by calling or visiting someone, you have already made a huge difference. This is something I wish other people understood. You can make such an impact by just smiling at someone, reaching out to them or simply saying hello.

TOBA: After being inspired by our friends in Michigan, Zalman and I agreed to do this, but we did not realize the scope of the need. From the very beginning, we were inundated with phone calls and requests from families. While we wondered if we had gotten in over our heads, we also made the decision and commitment that we would never say “no” to a family who needed us. That same commitment ultimately led to us creating LifeTown, which allowed us to expand to nonsectarian programs and be open to the entire community.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

At LifeTown we see unlimited potential in every person and celebrate their unique abilities. Our goal is to give each individual the proper support to help them thrive. Together, we are making the world a place where people of special abilities are valued for the unique skills they have and the beauty they bring to the world.

Between Friendship Circle and LifeTown we have had more than 7,000 teens who have discovered the joys of unconditional friendship by volunteering and spending time with a child, teen or young adult with special needs. These teens have become advocates for inclusivity in their houses of worship, their schools and their social spheres.

By playing and working side-by-side, LifeTown offers the community a window into how people with special abilities see the world. Our hope is that people will use that knowledge to make their stores, their homes and their communities more welcoming and accessible. At the same time, we hope that people with special abilities will learn, grow and unleash their true potential in this world. That will be our true measure of success.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There’s a local family who has a son with a mild form of autism. They had heard about Friendship Circle, but specifically chose to stay away because they didn’t want their child labeled and stigmatized. One day, the mother overheard some chatter coming from her son’s room. She thought that to be very strange, considering that her son — who was 12 at the time — never had any friends over; never had any play-dates; never spoke to anyone on the phone. She peeked into the room and saw that he was indeed engaged in a very animated conversation — with himself!

Stepping into the room, she gently asked, “Sam, who are you talking to?” To which he replied, “I’m talking to my friend — to my ‘imaginary friend.” It was at that moment that she realized how desperate he was to have friends! She didn’t waste another moment and contacted us and he started coming to Friendship Circle. Suddenly, a whole new world opened to him! He made not just one real-life friend, but an entire circle of friends — kids his age, as well as scores of teen volunteers.

His mom later related to us: “You know, all those years, I thought that Friendship Circle would label and stigmatize him, what I have found instead, was that Friendship Circle doesn’t apply labels — it strips them away! It doesn’t create stigmas — it obliterates them!”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

As a society, we need to work towards a simple, yet monumental goal; to make every person feel welcome and valued. This can be accomplished on a large scale if every person just took the time to reach out to someone on their block or in their neighborhood and engage them in conversation. Check in and see if there is anything that you can do for them. The smallest gesture can literally transform someone’s life.

Recognize that each person has a unique gift and ability. If everyone thought of ways that their business or social circle could become inclusive, it would create endless opportunities. And the best part is that everyone will see how they — and not just the person with special needs — benefit from this interaction.

It is not just people with special abilities that we should share moments of kindness with. In school, at work, or even in the street, treat everyone the way that you would want to be treated. A simple “hello,” a kind word or a helping hand will make the world a better place and has the power to save a life.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Too many people conveniently ignore the things going on all around them, especially if those things aren’t in the media spotlight. A true leader, however, will see those challenges and work to find a solution. In doing so, a true leader will be making a difference.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Be present. You don’t have to have all the answers to solve challenges for people, you won’t magically make difficult moments go away, and there are times when there is nothing that you can do to help a person get through a specific crisis — but you can always be there for them. You can stand by their side and hold their hand. Years later, they won’t remember what you said or did, but they will remember that you were there.
  2. Start with simple acts. Organizations and movements are not built on huge transformative events and undertakings. Rather, doing one act for one person, over and over again builds the energy to create transformative moments and opportunities.
  3. Every person is important. It is cliché to say that every person is important, but it is even more true than one can imagine. When we treat each person, at each moment, as the most important person in the world, it always comes back in ways that surprise us.
  4. Be a lamplighter. Change begins with one person taking one action, but it can grow exponentially with the help and support of others. People want to help, but may not know what to do. The flame on a candle does not become weaker when shared; it actually becomes stronger when clustered with other flames to create a bonfire.
  5. Anything is possible. The cards we are dealt, are the cards we are dealt. We can’t do anything about things that are out of our control, the question is what we will do in response with the things that are in our control. We are constantly inspired by the children and families who accomplish things they were told are impossible, because they don’t accept the status quo as the end to possibilities.

You are both people of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We would love to see the core message of inclusion and friendship become universal. A world where people are constantly helping each other, caring for each other and being kind to each other. People just need to shift their mindsets about those with special needs and understand that the smallest gesture of inclusion could literally change the life of an individual and their family. The model of LifeTown shouldn’t be unique, rather, it’s something that could benefit people with special abilities all around the world. We would love to inspire others to create similar centers to help every person discover their unique spark and talent.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

ZALMAN: One of my favorite quotes is from the Lubavitcher Rebbe who said, “Through unconditional random acts of goodness and kindness, you create light in the world.” There is so much negativity in this world, but each of us has the power to change that. Every good deed we do, no matter how large or small, tips the scales of goodness and brings light into the world. Each good deed also has the power to inspire someone else to act.

TOBA: The Lubavitcher Rebbe likened his followers to lamplighters and often said “A little bit of light dispels much darkness.” If one lamplighter lights a candle it has a dim glow, but if that lamplighter shares their flame with others the light expands brightening more and more of the world. The flames are our actions and deeds, the more they benefit others, the more joy and happiness they bring to the world.

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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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