Chabad emissary lends a hand “in big and small ways”
By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Shayna Gopin grew up in New Orleans, the daughter of Rabbi Zelig and Bluma Rivkin, directors of Chabad of Louisiana. She and her husband, Rabbi Shaya Gopin, joined the staff at Chabad House of Greater Hartford five years ago. Her professional life has been one of communal service, inspired by the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
“From a very young age I learned from the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, that we are all one family,” Gopin says. “The Rebbe trained us to have an awareness, to look around and see what needs you can fill, how can you help and make a difference.”
All shluchim, the Chabad emissaries throughout the world, are driven by the example and blessings of the Rebbe, Gopin says.
“The Rebbe taught by example that, by sharing what we know and lending a hand in big and small ways, we will make the world a better and brighter place, ushering in a time of universal peace with the coming of Moshiach [Messiah].”
The Gopins are parents to Mushka, age 5; Mordechai, age 3; and Mendel, age 17 months. “My primary work is nurturing my family,” Gopin says. “I extend this nurturing spirit to my extended family, the Jewish community, and am ready to help Jews be more Jewish!”
Gopin learned about the international Friendship Circle from several Chabad colleagues. The program, founded in Detroit in 1994 and now operating in some 83 Jewish communities, provides social, Judaic, and recreational activities for Jewish children, teens and young adults with special needs. Gopin trains and pairs teens in the Jewish community with the children for weekly “Friends at Home” visits, and brings all participants together for regular group programming.
“I loved the idea of brightening the lives of children with special needs by partnering with and empowering enthusiastic Jewish teens,” she says. “At Friendship Circle, our goal is to see the ability, not the disability, and to make any accommodations necessary to ensure that a warm and welcoming hand is in place for all kids in our community.”
Children with disabilities are often socially isolated, Gopin says, and for some, the give-and-take of playing, carrying on a conversation, or maintaining eye contact is a challenge.
“Our tradition teaches that, just like a Torah scroll is invalid if it is missing even one letter, the Jewish people are only complete if every child can access the treasure of our Jewish heritage,” Gopin says. “A holiday is not the same unless people of all abilities get a chance to light the menorah, shake the lulav and etrog, dance to a holiday song. Every child should know and feel that this is where they belong.”
“Friendship Circle turns to the ‘experts on friendships’ – teens – to fill this need,” she says. “Parents have shared with me over and over that the energy, unconditional love, and persistence of our teens have resulted in one of the most successful social situations they have ever seen for their children.”
Friendship Circle also offers support and respite to the families of children with special needs. “We want the participants to know that, in addition to family, teachers, and therapists, they have loving friends in the Jewish community backing them every step of the way, committed to providing every possible opportunity to live and love life.”
The Gopins work with the volunteer board of Friendship Circle, comprised of a handful of program participants invited each year to serve as board members. The group plans every aspect of Friendship Circle, including activities, training sessions, and special needs-awareness workshops for area youth groups.
“As the public is wringing their hands and talking about the plight of teens today, it is a breath of fresh air to work with our teen volunteers,” she says. “They are athletes, academic achievers, social butterflies, yet are also eager to make a difference and create lasting friendships. Long after the Friendship Circle year is over, it is beautiful to see how they maintain connections with their special friends. When a teen graduates from the program, they know that life is not just about what you need but what you are needed for. And, at the end of a year of working with our board, I can say with confidence that we have smart and caring leaders for our Jewish tomorrow.”
Gopin also facilitates women’s study groups at Chabad of Greater Hartford. “I do so because I love it!” she says. “As we study Torah together, we inspire each other to continuously move forward and grow. Women have such a wide circle of influence and when we are passionate about our tradition, it automatically spills over to our family and friends.”
The power of ongoing study-group meetings is significant, she says, and different from attending an annual Jewish-education retreat. “Studying together on a regular basis provides steady opportunity for spiritual growth and further understanding of Torah, mitzvot, and Jewish mysticism.”
The group also discovers how Judaism is an invaluable guide on day-to-day issues like balancing family and work, raising children and caring for aging parents, developing loving relationships and responding to tragedy.
“We cry, laugh, joke, and enjoy each other’s company each week,” she says. “We have become more aware than ever that so much lies on the shoulders of Jewish women to pass on an enjoyment and devotion to Jewish traditions to the next generation.”
The only thing Gopin would like more of is time: “More time with my family, friends, community; more time to develop more programs,” she says. “But these are the stresses we pray for and I am so grateful to God and the directors of Chabad House of Greater Hartford, Rabbi and Miriam Gopin, my dear in-laws, and all the financial supporters for the opportunity to contribute to this Jewish community.”
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