Original Article Published On The Jewish Ledger
Teenagers in Westport, Wilton, Weston and Norwalk are learning the true meaning of (the song lyrics) “You’ve Got A Friend.” Every week, a team of two teenagers visits with their same “special friend” in his or her home as part of the “Home With Friends” program.
Zach Zorfas of Westport spends an hour or more every Monday afternoon with his 11-year-old Weston “friend.”
“I thought it would be good thing to do,” reports Zorfas, an 11th grader at Staples High School in Westport. “We do homework, activities, play video games. My friend is happy to have someone to play with and his parents are extremely grateful when we come.”
Home With Friends is part of the Circle of Friends Program, started in September 2004, for children with special needs and is a project of Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk and the Schneerson Center for Jewish Life Connecticut. Freida Hecht, director of the Circle of Friends Program and wife of Beth Israel’s Rabbi, Yehoshua Hecht, tells her teen volunteers, “You will give a lot, and you will get even more!”
Hecht recounts how volunteers exhibit a sense of maturity and responsibility and feel so needed.
“It puts everything in perspective,” notes Rebbetzin Hecht. “Everything is a blessing.” Hecht reports that the Circle of Friends Program has 60 volunteers and 30 participants with special needs.
“We have participants from ages 4-16 – and we are getting calls all the
time,” notes Hecht proudly. “People call and ask if we are full. We are never full! We are always looking for new kids.” Hecht has worked hard to spread the word; she has visited public schools, learning centers, synagogues and other Jewish organizations, and she has assembled an advisory committee of five professionals.
The Circle of Friends Program also offers the Children’s Circle, a respite program held one Sunday a month.
“Parents can leave their child in the hands of qualified professionals and loving volunteers,” reports Hecht. “He or she will be with a teen friend and enjoy music, art, sports and story time, and he or she will learn about their Jewish heritage, holidays and traditions.”
The Jewish Holiday Program offers children with special needs, parents, siblings and teen volunteers an opportunity to share Jewish holidays together. A Tu B’Shevat program of music, crafts and sports taught participants about the Jewish New Year for Trees. A Purim program is scheduled for March 13.
Rabbi and Rebbetzin Hecht have been serving Beth Israel Synagogue and the larger community for 20 years. While the synagogue is affiliated with the Orthodox Union and its literature refers to it as “A Modern House of
Torah and Tradition – serving the communities of Westport, Weston, Wilton and Norwalk,” the Hechts are Lubavitchers and are clearly influenced by the teachings of the Rebbe.
Rebbetzin Hecht notes that her husband “has always taken children with special needs in to the Hebrew School and has prepared them for bar and bat mitzvah. We believe that “No Child Shall Be Left Behind!” Rabbi Hecht states passionately, “People with special needs often feel abandoned, ostracized and left out through no fault of their own. Our programs are a wonderful way for a community shul to say, Look – this is part of our community. We realize your child as special needs, but he or she is a special diamond – with a soul, a Yiddishe neshamah.. No child shall be left behind.” The Circle of Friends Program, as well as the range of programs at Beth Israel and the Schneerson
Center for Jewish Life – from Aleph Bet Preschool, to Talmud Torah Hebrew School, Sunday Teen Torah Youth Group, Mommy and Me Program, Junior Congregation and various holiday programs are some of the ways the Hechts and the shul are living this motto.
Beth Israel Synagogue is located at 40 King Street in Norwalk, CT., (http://www.bethisraelct.org), Tel: 203-866-0534; Call Rebbetzin
Hecht at the same number or email her at email@example.com for information about Circle of Friends and to learn about teen volunteer opportunities.