L’chaim and L’Friendship Circle
Friendship CircleMarking a Milestone

L’chaim and L’Friendship Circle

Organization celebrates 18 years of inclusion by looking ahead

Building friendship and creating change in Squirrel Hill. (Photos courtesy of Friendship Circle of Pittsburgh)
Building friendship and creating change in Squirrel Hill. (Photos courtesy of Friendship Circle of Pittsburgh)

An organization predicated on creating inclusion is celebrating its impact in Pittsburgh. Friendship Circle is marking 18 years — but less with parties, toasts and boasts than recognition of the work remaining.

When Friendship Circle began in 2006, “it was like 1.0,” Executive Director Rabbi Mordy Rudolph said.

People questioned whether fostering a “more inclusive community” was achievable; even Rudolph wondered whether the undertaking was “just going to be a project or something short-lived,” he said.

Temporary locations in the East End allowed the organization and its members to dabble in related programming.

“When we started Friendship Circle, kids were volunteering to help kids with disabilities, but we quickly pivoted our mission to volunteering to help create a more inclusive community,” Director Rivkee Rudolph said.

Nearly a decade after its founding, the organization took a major step forward, or “2.0,” according to Mordy Rudolph.

“That was obviously a really critical decision for Friendship Circle,” former Board Chair Danny Rosen said.

Friends gather at Kennywood. (Photo courtesy of Friendship Circle of Pittsburgh)

Moving from a small storefront on Northumberland Street near the fire station allowed the organization to “really focus our efforts right in the heart of the  community,” he continued. “We could have made a choice to move to maybe a cheaper, bigger space further out. But part of the mission that the board, and Mordy and Rivkee, and the staff, were really committed to is that the work that we’re doing at Friendship Circle is part of community transformation. And if you want to transform a community, then you need to be in the heart of the community.”

In 2016, Friendship Circle celebrated its grand opening at 1922 Murray Ave. Since then, the organization has continued its mission by expanding into adjacent properties and developing new initiatives. Last year, the organization opened The Beacon, a space to support teenagers’ mental health and well-being. Months later, Friendship Circle opened Bunny Bakes, a bakery offering adults of all abilities an accessible workspace with “any and all necessary supports.”

“Now that we have all these pieces in place, it’s kind of, in a sense, like a 3.0,” Mordy Rudolph said.

The organization’s newest pivot will be creating a “sustainable model” while fulfilling a familiar quest, he continued. “We are really trying to look at what the future holds, what our next steps are from here, because we know our work is not done.”

“We often say that we have a very, very, modest goal at Friendship Circle: to change the world,” Rosen said.

Achieving that aim requires “taking this notion of radical inclusiveness and accessibility for everyone and making that the core and the heart of what you do when you’re planning programs, and you’re planning events, and when you’re thinking about what it means to have a community.”

Heather Mallet has volunteered with the organization since its start, she said.

“It is more than just a place. It is a sanctuary for people. They can feel like they’re a friend, that there’s a circle. The friendship never ends,” she said.

Mallet calls herself a “jack of all trades.” She volunteers with Friendship Circle’s young adult program and assists children of all ages.

“I help out just anywhere,” she said. “I feel it makes a difference.”

Rivkee Rudolph said she recognizes the impact of volunteers, friends, staff and supporters.

The other day at The Beacon a teen was about to comment, but before doing so, Rudolph said, the person “looked at their friend and said, ‘Are you OK with me talking about this topic?’”

That ability to stop and acknowledge others before proceeding is “something a lot of grown-ups don’t know how to do,” Rudolph said.

Being able to lean into that concept of “making space for other’s differences, and really teaching that value to kids, lets them experience it and know that as they get older this is how things can be,” she continued. Teens who see those lived values “can go out and keep pushing for that in their own spheres of influence.”

Reid and Rachel enjoy Friendship Circle’s monthly Sports League. (Photo courtesy of Friendship Circle of Pittsburgh)

Evidence of Friendship Circle’s influence isn’t only drawn from within, Rosen explained.

“I think one of the most rewarding things that we hear about at Friendship Circle is when we see the change outside of the building,” he said. “When we start hearing from middle schools and high schools in the region that our kids are acting nicer, how people have accessibility and inclusiveness, when we hear the same feedback from day camps and summer camps, that’s when we really know we’re having the kind of impact and the kind of change in the world.”

This progress is something “we should all be proud of together,” Rivkee Rudolph said.

“Pittsburgh is a unique community. And Friendship Circle’s success is because Pittsburgh is a type of community that’s set up to receive Friendship Circle,” she continued. “We are just kind of a conduit for what Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill and the greater community values already are, which are that we know we need each other, we know we need to stick together, we know we’re all different and we need to make space for each other.”

Celebrating 18 years is a celebration of life, but it’s also a step into adulthood, Mordy Rudolph said.

“It’s not like we can say, ‘OK, now our community is inclusive,’ because if you say that and you say that our work here is done then it’s very easy for that to just revert back,” he added.

The past 18 years have brought many milestones but even more understanding, Rivkee Rudolph said.

“I think everyone can be part of what we do. You don’t need to be a part of Friendship Circle to be a part of our mission. And that’s why we’ve expanded into so many different parts of the community — to say and do exactly that,” she said. “It’s about creating a model for other people and other places to embrace.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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