The Philly Friendship Circle, a nonprofit connecting kids and young adults both with and without disabilities to foster connection in the Jewish community and beyond, has grown from one friend to about 300 since 2004.
At the organization’s 2022 Philly Friendship Walk on Nov. 13 to raise funds for the Friendship Circle, about 500 participants are expected to attend, a feat despite the organization “building back up” from before the pandemic, when more than 700 people participated.
The nonprofit’s true impact isn’t in the numbers. Philly Friendship Circle offers Sunday Circle, a weekly opportunity for kids under 17 to essentially partake in summer camp activities for the day. The Mitzvah Volunteer Program gives sixth and seventh graders a chance to become part of the Friendship Circle for their b’nai mitzvah project. Virtual happy hours allow young adults to continue to connect, even after aging out from other programs. All of the organization’s programming, from its birthright trip to its Teen Leadership Board, is open to individuals with and without
“We all may be different. We all look different; we all act different; we all have different interests, but each and every one of us has that same Godly soul inside of us,” said Rabbi Zev Baram, Philly Friendship Circle’s CEO. “When we can just look at it in that light … it allows us to break those barriers and make other people feel like, ‘Oh, you and I are one in the same.’”
Zev Baram, 43, and his wife Chani Baram, 42, founded Philly Friendship Circle with these values, congruent with Chabad’s philosophy of finding the commonality of humanity among cherished differences.
The organization is one of 66 chapters of the Chabad Lubavitch-affiliated Friendship Circle International, though Philly Friendship Circle operates financially independently of its parent organization, with programming designed to benefit local community needs.
When Zev Baram wanted to begin Philly Friendship Circle after moving to the city in 2003 and before founding the organization a year later, he made sure Philadelphia had the demand for the nonprofit.
“My main goal, really, was not wanting to come in and step on anyone’s toes or reinvent the wheel,” he said. “If we’re gonna focus as a community organization, we want to start off on the right foot, making sure that we are part of that community, either supporting the community or supporting other organizations in the community or starting Friendship Circle as a support for the community.”
Zev Baram has worked with individuals with disabilities for years. A Sheffield, England, native with Israeli parents, he ran educational workshops at yeshiva and at a friend’s Chabad in Livingston, New Jersey. He moved to Iowa for a year before starting his rabbinical training and worked with a child with a disability, at first meeting with him for an hour a day in the classroom and then shadowing him during lunch.
Their relationship “clicked,” and Zev Baram began working full time with the boy and his family from Passover through the summer. He continued to lead educational workshops and provide bar mitzvah training to young teens with disabilities as part of a Friendship Circle in Livingston.
“It was something I was really comfortable doing and really liked doing,” he said.
During his rabbinical training process, Zev Baram met Chani, whose background closely intertwined with individuals with disabilities.
Chani Baram is the daughter of Rabbi Menachem Schmidt of Vilna Congregation and the Center City Mikvah Mei Shalva. She grew up steeped in Chabad values and was the oldest of four brothers, three of whom had disabilities.
“The way that my parents kind of responded to having three kids with disabilities was just a very natural response of inclusion, which wasn’t the buzzword in those days,” Chani Baram said. “It was something that I think was just really tied in with who they are as people and tied into their philosophy of how they look at the world, that it was just natural for them to include my brothers in whatever was going on.”
Through COVID and the growth of Philly Friendship Circle, Chani and Zev Baram are still asking the same question from 19 years ago of how to best serve their community. As the friends from the circle age up but still want to be involved in the organization, Philly Friendship Circle has had to adapt. The Barams have set up opportunities for young adults to meet with one another and take on leadership roles, all while continuing to expand their reach to young children.
“COVID allowed us to do a reset, and really look at all the offerings for our younger families and families of kids with young adults as totally distinct offerings,” Chani Baram said. “And that’s a new thing for us.”