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For Emissaries in a Crowded Field, Friendship Circles Become Popular

December 1, 2006
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In the old days, a young Chabad couple “going out” on shlichus — becoming outreach emissaries — usually would be sent to a new city or college campus to set up a Chabad center. As Chabad outposts proliferated in the late 1980s and into the ’90s, however, the playing field became quite crowded.

Some young couples still can find virgin territory for their rebbe’s message, but more often these young Lubavitch rabbis and their wives are signing on now as second or third couples at established Chabad centers. They fill positions such as preschool teacher, for her, or adult education director, for him.

“The face of shlichus is changing,” says Rabbi Bentzi Groner, manager of Friendship Circle International, which set up operations a year and a half ago at Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. “Twenty years ago it was one rabbi doing everything in a city. Now you can have a youth rabbi, an education rabbi. There are so many specializations. It’s definitely the new thing.”

One popular choice for a young emissary couple is starting a Friendship Circle.

Until last year, says Levi Shemtov, founder of the flagship Friendship Circle in West Bloomfield, Mich., Friendship Circles popped up slowly, organically, “as we responded to people’s interest.”

A year ago there were 25. Then one of Shemtov’s big donors told him he “wanted to see 100 by 2010,” so Shemtov says he started promoting the idea actively to promising young emissary couples.

Today there are 59 registered Friendship Circles, Groner says. Some are not yet operational, some have just two or three volunteers, but they’re growing fast. And more young couples are interested in the circles, which serve special-needs children.

“I met with three couples yesterday who are going out, and I gave them all the brochures and information,” he says.

Just as often, though, Groner fields calls from emissaries already in the field who want to add to what they offer by opening a Friendship Circle.

The process is becoming more regulated. Instead of Shemtov and fellow veteran Zalman Grossbaum, director of the second-oldest Friendship Circle in Livingston, N.J., fielding all the calls from Lubavitchers interested in setting up a new program, they can refer these requests to Groner and his staff.

Anyone who wants to start a new circle must attend a national conference, “so we know they know what they’re doing,” Shemtov says.

There’s a trend toward setting up regional circles that can pool resources. That’s what’s happening in Chicago, Pittsburgh and the Washington suburbs.

In larger cities, a Friendship Circle can be a full-time job for husband and wife. Until recently, Shemtov says, very few of the husbands devoted themselves exclusively to Friendship Circle work.

“They did other things and ran Friendship Circle as a hobby,” he explains.

Nechama Schusterman started the Friendship Circle in Palo Alto, Calif., with a girlfriend three years ago when she was living at home before her marriage. Now she and her husband, Ezzy, run it from the Kehillah Jewish High School, which allows them to recruit volunteers from the student body.

“Some Friendship Circles run as a project of a larger Chabad House, and a young couple comes to run it,” Ezzy Schusterman says. “It’s really a full-time job. This is what I do. We need to be able to cover our budget and run it on our own.”

Sometimes there isn’t enough work for both spouses while a new Friendship Circle is growing. Miryum and Peretz Mochkin opened their Friendship Circle in early November in San Francisco, soon after they married and returned to the city where Miryum Mochkin grew up.

“All summer we laid the groundwork,” Miryum Mochkin says.

She now has nine families, some referred by her mother, Chabad emissary Hinda Langer, who runs the Shalom preschool, and others sent by the Bureau of Jewish Education. This will be her full-time work while Peretz teaches adult education through Chabad of San Francisco.

In December, her first group of teen volunteers will go for training with Nechama Schusterman, Miryum Mochkin’s childhood friend.

“She told me how incredible her program is,” Miryum Mochkin says, “and I knew I wanted to do it.”

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