By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – Six years ago Keighan Kosimoff became a member of Friendship Circle.
A project of Chabad of Greater Hartford, Friendship Circle brings together young people with and without disabilities for a variety of Judaic and social programs. Its goal is make members aware of “the greatness in themselves and in others, empowering everyone to develop a more accommodating and welcoming Jewish community for all.”
Keighan, 14, who is autistic and has ADHD and learning disabilities, has always loved spending time with his Friendship Circle “buddies” on Sunday afternoons at the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford, just hanging out or playing with Legos. These “buddies” are some of the dedicated teenage volunteers from local high schools who have become close friends with their Friendship Circle pals.
When Covid-19 struck last spring, Keighan’s mother, Karen, was concerned not only about keeping her son safe from the coronavirus; she also wanted to protect him from the sense of isolation caused by quarantining.
But as things began to shut down as a result of the pandemic, Friendship Circle quickly switched gears and worked to keep the special connection between its participants alive through virtual weekly meet-ups, some outdoor in-person meet-ups, and outdoor art and music programs.
Now Keighan Kosimoff is looking forward to Sunday, June 6 when Friendship Circle presents a live concert by the Rogers Park Band outside the Hartford Town Hall.
The goal of the concert, said Rabbi Shaya Gopin of Chabad House of Greater Hartford, is to celebrate all of the participants of Friendship Circle – the young children, teens and young adults living with and without disabilities who joined together in friendship to fight isolation during the pandemic year.
“The challenges of the pandemic especially impacted the segment of the community living with disability, for whom social connections can be a huge and hurtful challenge even during normal times,” Rabbi Gopin said. “It will be extra refreshing to gather in a safe way outdoors, following a challenging year of isolation.”
Tammy Krulewitz, Friendship Circle’s special education consultant, said that when Covid-19 began, they knew they had to keep their Friendship Circle participants engaged because of the harm that could be caused by the period of isolation.
“They can regress; negative behaviors might come out because they feel isolated,” she explained. “A lot of the socialization is learned socialization, and if they don’t practice it and engage in it, they can regress and lose those skills.”
The solution? Much like the rest of the world, it was Zoom.
“We flipped to Zoom and were able to come up with some different activities…and it was tremendous,” Krulewitz said. “The teens were amazing. We tried really hard to engage the kids in weekly activities, just trying to make life fun. The fact that they got to see their friends was really terrific. It was something they had to look forward to.”
For some Friendship Circle participants interacting on Zoom was not a viable option.
“For some children they really do need to have in-person interaction, and some [volunteers] were willing to mteet in person,” said Krulewitz, who laughed recalling a Sunday during last winter when she accompanied some teens to a participant’s house to shoot some hoops outside for 30 minutes in 25 degree weather.
“It was really important to them that they were able to still see their friends, but it was really important for the teens too, because their lives were also shook up.”
Marking b’nai mitzvah
Besides Rogers Park’s music, the June 6 event will also allow Friendship Circle to honor the young people who were not able to properly mark their bar/bat mitzvah milestones over the past year due to Covid.
An anonymous donor has given Friendship Circle funding for special b’nai mitzvah gifts for teens from the community who were not able to adequately celebrate their b’nai mitzvah. This includes siddurim for the boys and candlesticks and mezuzot for the girls.
At the concert, a video highlighting Friendship Circle and its effort to fight isolation over the past year will be screened.
One of the subjects of the video is Keighan Kosminoff.
Last spring Keighan was supposed to celebrate his bar mitzvah, but due to Covid, that was cancelled.
“It was his first big social experience and first Jewish experience. He still struggles with reading and so I never really got him involved in religion until the Friendship Circle,” said his mother Karen. “He worked really hard with Rabbi Shaya Gopin to prepare for the bar mitzvah and so that was a very big disappointment for him.”
One of the most exciting things about preparing for his bar mitzvah, Karen said, was planning for his mitzvah project – a lemonade stand to raise money to buy toys for the Mandell JCC.
“That is where he used to have his buddy sessions,” Karen explained. “He was there every week playing with the toys and he decided he wanted to buy some more toys with via this lemonade stand. He and his friendship circle friends made a big sign and that was going to be part of him celebrating his bar mitzvah, and obviously that didn’t happen last year.”
When Keighan arrived at the Friendship Circle Music Circle event, held this May 2 outdoors on the grounds of the New England Jewish Academy in West Hartford, Keighan was surprised by a little birthday celebration with cupcakes and lots of birthday wishes from Friendship Circle participants. Rabbi Gopin added another surprise element to the outdoor, socially-distanced music program.
“The rabbi made it so Keighan could have his lemonade stand,” Karen exclaimed. “He was so excited he and his buddy could do the lemonade stand. Rabbi Shaya provided all the lemonade and different drinks. People were just asked to donate whatever they could. And so Keegan made $136 and we were able to buy seven or eight toys for the JCC.”
Karen Kosimoff said things like Music Circle and the weekly Zoom sessions with his buddies has helped make Keighan feel a bit less isolated and a lot more fun this year.
“They really adapted to the situation, and it has really been Keighan’s only social outlet during COVID,” Karen said. “It definitely made a difference in his life because we weren’t being social in person, so the sessions with his buddies have just been phenomenal for him.”
Karen said she and Keighan are looking forward to the Rogers Park concert. The musical group’s repertoire ranges from folksy originals to Hassidic melodies to some’ oldie but goodies.’ Known as the Jewish music version of Simon and Garfunkel. They focus on harmonic anomalies with a blend of folk and rock.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of fun,” Karen said. “It will be nice to get out of the house and be with a lot of people. I think Keighan is probably going to get up and dance.”
The Rogers Park concert will held Sunday, June 6, at 3 p.m. in the West Hartford Town Hall parking lot, 50 South Main St. Covid-safe seating and drive-in options available. Tickets: $36/adults; $18/children. For reservations, visit friendshipcirclect.com/celebrate, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (860) 833-4035.
Main Photo: Keighan Kosimoff, right, and his buddy Jacob Boyd, working at Keighan’s lemonade stand at Friendship Circle’s May 2 Music Circle event.