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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Close to 3,000 supporters crowded the front landscape of Livington’s LifeTown Center Monday evening to celebrate the center’s dedication ceremony. Attendees wore festive yellow LifeTown shirts and white hats and the air was thick with enthusiasm. A spirit of joyfulness, pride and encouragement was palpable.

Highlighting the evening were songs performed by Yaakov Shwekey, who rocked the crowd with familiar tunes like “Ani Ma’amin” and a moving new piece written specially for the occasion. Shwekey delivered a riveting rendition of his inspirational tune “I Can Be” to a mesmerized audience. He closed out his performance with the boundless energy for which he is known, and the front stage area filled with dancing, clapping and waving fans.

LifeTown New Jersey is a 53,000 sq. ft. facility designed with intricate, compassionate and thoughtful detail for participants to learn a varied set of real-world life skills in a safe, professionally designed and managed environment. “LifeTown Shoppes” is a simulated Main Street, USA, that prepares participants with special needs for
independent living. LifeTown also has a synagogue, an indoor park and other vocational and recreational therapy spaces. There is also a yet-to-be completed aquatic center and bowling alley. Prominently featured in the center of town is even a mini-“Lazy Bean Cafe,” sponsored by Dani Secemski and Glatt Express Supermarket, which will be fully operational soon.

One has to see it in person to believe and understand what LifeTown truly means. An on-site visit is the best way to realize what a place like LifeTown can mean to children, teens and adults with special needs and their families. Both functional and pragmatic, as well as a source of recreation and respite, LifeTown has and does it all in one magnificent setting. When one walks into the entrance, they also step into a world unto itself.

There are two other LifeTowns around the country, in Detroit and Columbus, though LifeTown’s New Jersey campus is now the largest, encompassing many best practices and strategies learned at the other locations. While each operate separately, LifeTown is a project of Friendship Circle, a Chabad-Lubavitch-sponsored resource for families with children or teens who have special needs. Friendship Circle has many outposts nationally and internationally, often run in partnership with Chabad houses, shluchim or programs. Friendship Circle offers a distinctive approach of pairing participants with teen volunteers who serve to motivate and inspire. The Friendship Circle mantra is the perspective that each individual is a productive member of the community and all of us benefit from inclusive programming.

Thousands of professionals and friends combined resources to transform LifeTown from a great idea into an amazing reality. It certainly takes a village to build such a village. Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, CEO and director of Friendship Circle MetroWest, who served as master of ceremonies, said the following as he presented a gift of appreciation to his brother, Rabbi Levi Grossbaum, who is director of operations. “LifeTown is a place for people with abilities, not disabilities; and it will have an enduring impact on the town, the state, the country and the world.” After describing the multitudes of miracles that converged to transform the dream of LifeTown into reality, we learned the exciting news that the address of LifeTown has been officially changed to 10 Miracle Road.

One of the major driving forces behind the planning and funding of LifeTown were Paula and Jerry Gottesman. Paula herself took up the mantle after the passing of Jerry two years ago. The dedication fell out on Jerry’s second yartzeit. Charles and Seryl Kushner and their extended families provided major funding, along with the Lefkovits, Halpern, Mandelbaum, Schall and Simon families, and many others. In fact 2,547 individual gifts were made to LifeTown, in addition to multiple in-kind donations, totaling about $18.5 million. Mayor Al Anthony of Livingston, joined on stage by other municipal officials, expressed that he was “the happiest mayor in the country.” Nathan Orbach, a grandson of Seryl and Charles Kushner, spoke eloquently of how volunteering with Friendship Circle has enhanced and transformed his life.

The evening concluded with the ribbon cutting, followed immediately by an open visit of LifeTown for the guests. It was truly a breathtaking experience to set foot into this place, strolling the town center and its real-life vendors, and absorbing the therapeutic learning spaces. Even the artwork and décor are designed to pique the attention of participants and visitors alike.

When one steps into the beautiful little shul, you might even be tempted to compose a note, as if to place it between the giant stones of the “kotel” that surrounds the aron kodesh and graces the eastern wall of the shul. Or just sit down and contemplate the achdut and the efforts that converged to create this place of compassion, inclusion, joy, encouragement and accomplishment that speaks to everyone’s heart.

One may contact LifeTown (https://www.lifetown.com/visit/) to visit in person. There are also a few donor and dedication opportunities left, so that all funding raised going forward focuses on programming, to keep costs for participants as low as possible.

By Ellie Wolf