Chicago native Rabbi Eli Solomon, 28, was eager to find a career path where he could grow and give back.
“After studying in yeshivas in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit, I married my beautiful wife Chana,” he said. They looked for opportunities to give back and found that opportunity in Baltimore. “There was a strong community with needs, with other programming which could use even more support. It checked all the boxes.”
The couple moved to Baltimore in 2015, where they now co-direct the Friendship Circle of Baltimore in Pikesville.
The organization has roughly 40 volunteers and 35 families in the Friends @ Home program, where children with special needs are matched with teenage volunteers to bond with in their own homes. Families can join at JoinTheCircle.com.
On Feb. 23, Friendship Circle will host a seminar to discuss inclusion and how it is achieved, “starting with each individual and rewiring our idea of disability,” said Solomon.
What makes the Friendship Circle special, and do you have any memories from your time with the organization that stand out?
When a parent tells you their child is waiting at the window for their buddy to come, that’s what it’s about for us.
When we first started programming, we were looking for a venue. We were approached by Atrium Village, an assisted living residence, and created an intergenerational program that would benefit the FC children and residents at the same time.
A parent recently shared with Chana that her son is much more affectionate and warm with his FC buddy than any other time. Unbridled love and respect — that is what these children and young adults teach us.
Have you seen people’s opinions of those with disabilities change?
In talking to people I see a lot of our volunteers become more comfortable. Overall, the families and peers that we get to know are engaging more with the children. They get to know that type of person, and what’s happening mostly is a comfort level change. You know, there is a far cry between accepting and looking at the community as [people] in need of our compassion, getting to know them, and realizing they have a lot to offer. The volunteers ultimately become more compassionate, and their world opens up — wow, there is this whole other world I can learn from and be comfortable in. It’s not usually an event, but over time. When you first meet the volunteers, sometimes they have prior history [working with this] but mostly they are like, “Yeah, it’s a good idea.”
Then, after visiting their buddy, you just see it. They come back after college or spring break and still want to visit. That relationship grows beyond once a week and becomes organic.
This month is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance & Inclusion Month. Why is it important JDAIM exists?
The first step in any change is to be aware that change is needed. With JDAIM it gives families and organizations like FC a platform to raise our voice and bring this conversation to the forefront.
One misconception is that a person with a disability has little to offer and is looked down on. This comes from a lack of real engagement with those disabilities.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe stressed in his teaching love of every single Jew and doing good to make the world a better place. That is our goal.
What challenges does Friendship Circle face?
Our mission is to reach out and lend support to all families in the special needs community. That is our challenge, to ensure no family who wants and needs a helping hand is left alone.
When did you know you wanted to be a rabbi?
My mother always said I would grow up to be “a rabbi, doctor, and lawyer.” I just got stuck at rabbi.
What are your Purim plans?
We are having volunteer groups get dressed in their costumes and deliver mishloach manot to FC participants and their families. We also offer Megillah readings for anyone who wants.