Featured Articles, Power Philanthropists

Some people grow into their philanthropic nature. Employment with great pay leads people to wonder what they are to do with their money. They start donating here and there. As they get involved with these circles, many find a cause they are passionate about and devote their time to it.

Others, however, are born into it. They molded by the lessons of their youth and spend their entire lives dedicated to making the world a better place and giving back to those in need.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov and his wife, Bassie, are among the latter group. The two grew up under the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose philosophy was all about putting good into the world and reveling in the positives. The good, or the “special,” can be found within the soul of each person. This is the foundation of everything the Shemtovs do.

Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov. Credit: The Jewish News

“Our outreach began as the application of this philosophy of finding the good in the world,” Rabbi Shemtov says. “The idea is that we are not reaching out to someone who is far and different to bring them back in, but instead we are reaching within to help them find their value in the world.”

They weren’t sure how they wanted to reach the souls of others until they worked with another group. Sam and Carol Sobel developed the Friendship House in 1994 to honor the memory of their son who they lost to addiction. While working with the organization fulfilled Rabbi Shemtov’s need to help, he found himself wanting to fulfill a mission of his own, propelled by the question: “Who needs friends?”

As they spoke with leaders and members of their community, they finally realized what the answer was: those with special needs.

“We defined real friendship as when people see each other not for their labels or exterior but for the beauty that is within,” Rabbi Shemtov says. “One message that kept recurring was that people with special needs needed friends.”

Those with special needs are often isolated from their communities, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression. The Shemtovs set out to eradicate that loneliness The Friendship Circle. The nonprofit started small in 1994. Bassie Shemtov took it upon herself to gather a handful of local teens to volunteer to meet with youths with special needs in their area.

Some of The Friendship Circle Buddies. Credit: WDET.

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Over the past 27 years, The Friendship Circle has grown into a full-blown community of over 3,000 special needs youths and the teens they build bonds with. The organization boasts a total of 40 weekly and seasonal programs for people of all ages. Between recreational, social, educational, and other vocational programming events at their 29,000 square-foot building, there is something for everyone. There are even online events for those who want to stay safe during the pandemic.

As time went by, the Shemtovs realized their organization was a true circle. It wasn’t just the youths with special needs who benefited from this friendship. The teens who work with The Friendship Circle find true meaning in their lives. No one chooses to be kind to them based on how they dress or where they live. These friendships are pure.

When Rabbi Shemtov developed the Friendship Circle, he didn’t plan for a grand building with a movie theater and a “mini-city.” He never expected to work with generations of families over nearly 30 years. He never planned to franchise the non-profit across the United States. All he planned to do was dedicate himself to supporting the special needs individuals in his community.

“This organization is a family,” Rabbi Shemtov says. “A true circle of friends that extends to everyone who has been touched by someone within Friendship Circle.”


A walk for the nonprofit. Credit: Idealist Consulting.






About The Author

Cassandra Ledger

Cassandra Ledger, a graduate of Florida State University's School of English, is a writer based in Wellington, Florida. She enjoys baking, art, and music when she is not writing about people and places that inspire her.