LIVINGSTON, NJ – Thousands of people flocked to 10 Miracle Way in Livingston on Monday to celebrate the grand opening of LifeTown, a 53,000-square-foot facility that features a simulated downtown among other functional spaces. LifeTown was built by Friendship Circle founders Rabbi Zalman and Toba Grossbaum to help individuals with disabilities to experience inclusion while mastering life and vocational skills.
The festive and musical evening began outside, where attendees enjoyed knishes, hot dogs and hamburgers as children jumped in the bouncy house, had their faces painted, received balloon animals and played air-powered T-Ball.
Y-Studs A Capella, a student singing group formed at Yeshiva University that has toured internationally and performed at the White House Hanukkah party since achieving YouTube fame, rocked the stage as audience members got settled in their seats.
Yaakov Shwekey, who was introduced to the crowd as the most famous Hebrew song singer and is a volunteer at the center, also performed some of his hits. His wife, Jenine, is the co-founder of the Special Children's Center in Lakewood and has been volunteering for special needs organizations since she was 16.
Levi Grossbaum, LifeTown Director of Operations, expressed his joy that LifeTown is now built and operating after years of planning. He thanked the many donors, volunteers and employees who helped make the dream of building a state-of-the-art recreational, therapeutic and educational facility a reality.
Rabbi Grossbaum also spoke to the crowd, explaining that special needs individuals are special because they have unique perspectives and special talents. He stated that “mitzvahs [a commandment which is usually a good deed] are like miracles” and that “energy and good deeds create miracles.”
According to Grossbaum, Friendship Circle’s mission is to show the world how incredible people with special needs are. By nurturing individuals with special needs and providing vocational training for them, LifeTown strives to show Livingston, New Jersey, the United States and the world that “special souls can do wonderful things.”
He also expressed gratitude to all staff members, therapists and major donors by name.
“Your gifts made this possible,” he said. “This is your building.”
Mayor Al Anthony, who attended the grand opening event with fellow council members Michael Vieira, Rudy Fernandez, Sean Klein and Ed Meinhardt, said it was an honor to be present “on such a monumental day.”
“I was on the planning board when Friendship Circle submitted the application for LifeTown,” said Anthony. “I was blown away by it then and am still blown away by it today. Being at the LifeTown Grand Opening makes me the proudest mayor in the history of New Jersey. Days like this you remember forever.”
Anthony then read a proclamation stating that Sept. 9 will now be known as “LifeTown Day” in Livingston.
Other dignitaries in attendance included Rosie Driscoll from Senator Menendez’s office and Jill Hirsch from Mikie Sherrill’s office.
Although he died two years before being able to see the project come to fruition, Jerry Gottesman, a prominent real estate developer and philanthropist who was among the first supporters of LifeTown, had several family members in attendance to accept the township’s recognition of his contributions.
His widow, Paula, said that Jerry believed in LifeTown and was impressed that the organizers planned to raise all the funds before breaking ground. She expressed gratitude to all those who worked so hard to create LifeTown, which now includes a section that was unveiled as the “Jerry Gottesman Center.”
Nathan Orbach, grandson of donor Charlie Kushner, spoke about playing sports, baking and creating art with children when he volunteered at the Friendship Circle. He described how wonderful it felt to “see the kids’ faces filled with joy and excitement.”
“LifeTown is unique to the world,” said Orbach, whose mother also volunteers at Friendship Circle/LifeTown every day. “Mazel Tov to everyone. Friendship Circle’s past 20 years have been impressive. I can’t wait to see what the next 20 years bring.”
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Shwekey invited the crowd to dance in front of the stage while he sang prior to allowing everyone to enter and explore the building. Inside, children enjoyed a performance from a magician, played in the indoor playground, gym and laser tag and participated in art activities.
Over the last two decades, the Grossbaum family and members of Friendship Circle have worked year-round to raise funds to open LifeTown, which is described as a replica “Main Street.”
The facility provides special needs individuals with an opportunity to familiarize themselves with common outings by visiting its bank, doctor’s office, ShopRite, [words] Bookstore, Laundromat, florist, bowling alley, beauty salon, theater, realtor, car dealership, art gallery, pet shop and more.
In addition to simulated public places, there is an indoor playground; a pool; a gym with sound insulation that protects people who are sensitive to loud sounds; a sand room with a beach mural on the walls; a kitchen; a small street with traffic lights, where bikes and small motorized cars can ride; a dimly lit sensory room for individuals who sometimes need an atmosphere of reduced stimulus; a volunteer lounge; a parent lounge; and more.
Friendship Circle has achieved the feat of planning, fundraising and building LifeTown while simultaneously providing its regular services to the special needs community, including support, peer friendship, inclusion, sports, religious school, social skills, education, vocational programming and respite for weary parents. The organization also delivers weekly Sabbath meals.
Friendship Circle parents Heidi and Keith Lerner—whose son, Max, was one of the first five children to join Friendship Circle 20 years ago—echoed Orbach’s statement about the organization making special needs children and young adults happy.
“Friendship Circle and LifeTown are magical,” they said. “Watching our son, Max, interacting with others, making friends and participating in activities is something we never thought would happen. Max has the biggest smile on his face every time he walks into LifeTown.”
Shana Shua, whose child has also been involved with Friendship Circle for many years, also praised the organization.
“The Friendship Circle is an amazing organization that provides services and programs to special needs kids in a warm, nurturing environment—judgment free,” she said. “Now with LifeTown, so much more will be available to the special needs community, from children to adults—recreational and educational programming, life skills training, socialization opportunities—it’s very exciting.”
LifeTown and Friendship Circle are considered separate entities. LifeTown is nonsectarian while Friendship Circle will continue to provide Jewish education and experiences to participants.