Nearly 2000 people gathered in Livingston on the newly renamed Miracle Way (formerly Microlab Road) for the grand opening of LifeTown: The Jerry Gottesman Center, on Sept. 9.
As major donors cut the ribbon and pulled a curtain down to unveil the center’s name on the side of the building, a spray of confetti shot up in front of the crowd.
“LifeTown is a place where everyone will come together, celebrate, and experience life together,” LifeTown CEO Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum told the crowd. His remarks were interspersed by his dancing with Orthodox recording star Yaakov Shwekey.
A project of the Friendship Circle of New Jersey and affiliated with Rabbinical College of America-Chabad Lubavitch, LifeTown is a 53,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art building designed to provide real-world interactions in a controlled environment for people with special needs. It took three years to build on the site since the groundbreaking in June 2016, at a cost of about $18.5 million.
LifeTown includes an array of stores, LifeTown Shoppes, staffed by volunteers in a mall-like setting, including a pet shop, bookstore, supermarket, bank, and a movie theater, as well as a sanctuary. Along the way there are large areas for other activities — a dance and music studio, basketball court, playground, sand room, sensory room, and separate lounges for parents and teen volunteers.
“I’m so proud to live in a community that can do this,” said Mariela Dybner of Maplewood, whose children have volunteered with the Friendship Circle.
The vision for LifeTown was hatched in New Jersey about six years ago by Grossbaum and his wife, Toba Leah. The started the Friendship Circle of New Jersey about 20 years ago to provide social and recreational programs for people with special needs and respite for their families.
There are Friendship Circles around the United States. The first LifeTown in the country, a 20,000-square-foot center in West Bloomfield, Mich., opened in 2005. The Livingston site, named in memory of Jerry Gottesman, an early and significant supporter, is the second. His wife, Paula Gottesman, was among those who cut the ribbon at the grand opening.
Meryl Stone of Short Hills and her son Matthew Cohen, 26, attended the celebration. Cohen started participating in Friendship Circle activities when he was 9 years old. “The Friendship Circle was like an alternate universe,” said Stone. “We had community. It was a place for him to come. He came here, and he was [like] Brad Pitt. The volunteers got to know him, and he got to schmooze with other people, and he got undivided attention from people and he was just happy.”
The new LifeTown facility adds another dimension, she said. “Now, we’ve got the shops and that’s where he’s hoping to work and be a part of [everything] and give back, and hopefully one day get a paying job with the experience he could get here.”
Stone and Cohen were inside LifeTown as volunteers staffing the popcorn concession stand near the movie theater. “It’s a nice place with really nice people and a lot of shopping,” said Cohen.
While all of the shops provide the experience of being on a Main Street or in a mall, they are mostly staffed by volunteers and run by the Friendship Circle. The goal is to provide not only a center of activity, but a place to gain important life skills, such as time management and communication. LifeTown also aspires to teach job skills and consumer habits, like how to use money.
The bookstore, an outpost of [words] Bookstore in Maplewood, and the coffee shop are exceptions. They are being run as real businesses and staffed by store employees. Like the rest of the shops, they will be used to provide various skills to participants, whether as shoppers or as staff members.
The grand opening marked the completion of phase one of the building, but several of the rooms will be completed as part of phase two, including a water play room. Also not quite completed in time for the grand opening: a zero-entry pool.
“At LifeTown we are creating a reality where children and adults are not special because they have special needs or disabilities,” Grossbaum told the throng of supporters and participants. “Through our life-skills programs, we will see that they are special because they have special abilities. Through job training, we will see that they are special because they have a special work ethic and dedication. Our educational opportunities will show that they are special because they possess special strengths and understanding. We’ll highlight that they are special, because they have a special perspective of the world. At social events, they will interact with their buddies, and we will see that their unconditional love makes them very special friends.”
Michelle and Stuart Nachbar of West Orange have been part of Friendship Circle since their son William, now 16, was 4 years old. On this day William was in a celebratory mood. He kept pointing to the building, saying, “LifeTown!” when he was asked why he was there, and he talked about his favorite swing at the indoor playground.
Said Beth Giladi, a retired educator who volunteers with the Friendship Circle and LifeTown, “This opening is the embodiment of a million dreams, and a lifetime of hope. It’s such a source of naches for our community. And so incredible that our young people and young adults with special needs of all kinds have a place to go now.”
For information about programs and activities, visit fcnj.com.