The Jewish community welcomes a new year this week, beginning the two-day celebration of Rosh Hashanah on Sunday at sunset. Chabad House of Greater Toledo is simultaneously celebrating a different kind of new year — its first in a newly dedicated facility.
“It’s a brand-new year and a brand-new energy,” Rabbi Yossi Shemtov said.
Chabad House opened the doors late last month at the nearly 2,000-square-foot space, which replaces and doubles the size of a more dated facility that the community had been using on the same property since 2014. Chabad House is at 2728 King Rd.
Its dedication came in time for the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah on Monday and Tuesday, and Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, on Sept. 19; Sukkot, of the Feast of Tabernacles, is next in line on Sept. 24-25. But religious observances are just a part of what they do there, said Rabbi Shemtov, director of Chabad House. More than a synagogue, Chabad House is a community center that engages children and adults in a wide variety of programs.
Their new space reflects a mission to respond to the specific needs of their community, as is seen, perhaps most clearly, in the specialized sensory rooms in the new facility that cater to children and young adults with special needs. They’re regulars at Chabad House, which co-sponsors Friendship Circle with the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo.
Mushka Matusof said she’s “unbelievably excited” about the new sensory rooms. She’s the director of Friendship Circle, which partners children and teens with special needs with teen volunteers for a variety of friendship-building activities.
“It’s just going to add so much,” she said.
A responsiveness to specific community needs is aligned with the model of the late Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, or the Rebbe, as the influential rabbi is known in the broader Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rabbi Shemtov said. The movement is a branch of Hasidism.
Within a tradition that maintains a strict adherence to the religious commandments, Rabbi Shemtov, drawing on the Rebbe, describes an approach that emphasizes adaptability.
“Don’t come with an agenda,” Rabbi Shemtov said. “Don’t come with plans. Go and see what your fellow needs. Because in every city, they need something different. Every person needs something different.”
Rabbi Shemtov and his family brought Chabad House to Toledo in 1987, and, since their earliest days operating out of their home on Secor Road, have been seeing “what their fellow needs.” That approach has birthed a slew of programs over the years, in which Jews of all traditions and affiliations partake.
There are children’s camps and clubs, including Camp Gan Israel in the summer and Gan Izzy Club that meets year-round. Rabbi Shemtov said Chabad House organized these when they identified a need for children’s programming in the area.
Another program, Light of Shabbat, developed out of a conversation with a widower, Rabbi Shemtov recalled; Light of Shabbat asks volunteers to prepare and deliver meals to their fellow community members, as a way to support them in both times of grief and of joy.
In planning the new facility, on which Chabad House broke ground in July, 2017, Rabbi Shemtov said they sought to accommodate these types of programs. There are playgrounds and play rooms for little ones, a kosher kitchen for volunteer cooks. A large hall that can be separated into an individual shul, social hall and children’s room allows plenty of space for gatherings.
Also notable is a mikvah, a spa-like bath that women use in a monthly spiritual ritual.
Accommodating Friendship Circle was a priority in laying out plans for construction, said Rabbi Shemtov and Ms. Matusof, who is his daughter. Friendship Circle aims to foster friendships between children and teen volunteers through after-school activities, such as bowling, cooking, and art, as well as monthly group gatherings.
Friendship Circle has been active in Toledo for about eight years, and, in the broader Chabad-Lubavitch movement since the late 1990s. It was actually started by Rabbi Shemtov’s sister, and, according to Friendship Circle International, has since expanded to more than 80 chapters.
The Rebbe is the inspiration for Friendship Circle. He corresponded in the 1970s and 1980s on the importance of including individuals with special needs in Jewish life, Rabbi Shemtov said. While the local program focuses on friendships, Ms. Matusof said it’s also uniquely Jewish: During monthly group gatherings, for example, participants will discuss and do activities pertaining to any upcoming holidays.
Friendship Circle activities are primarily set to take place in a portion of the main hall that can accommodate a crowd. Ms. Matusof estimated that 50 teenage volunteers and 25 or so children with special needs participate in the program.
When a participant needs to get away from these group gatherings, Ms. Matusof said the specialized rooms are expected to be ideally soothing.
One, a “snoozlyn” room, is designed for decompression and relaxation. An individual in need of a few minutes away might want to run their fingers through a fiber-optic curtain, which hangs over an oversize beanbag-like couch, or they might want to rock in a therapeutic couch set against the opposite wall. A bubbling hurricane tube casts a soothing light over the whole space.
“This is a room where, if what’s going on out there is overwhelming, [they can] come in here, decompress, relax, then come back out and be able to handle whatever else is going on,” Ms. Matusof said. The snoozlyn room is also set up with music and aromatherapy.
The other sensory room is a gross motor room. It’s equipped with a ball pit, balance rocks, and hanging swings. They’re fun elements for anyone, Ms. Matusof, but they’re especially beneficial to users with special needs.
“A lot of children with special needs, especially autism, love that circular motion,” Ms. Matusof said of the swings. “Every couple of months, we plan on switching out the swings, so the room stays fresh and exciting. There are so many therapeutic swings these day, that the kids just love and are so good for so many things. We’re really excited about this room.”
Chabad House marks one more new beginning this month: A Community Torah Celebration is slated for 4 p.m. Sept. 16. A scribe is set to finish the Torah, which Chabad House commissioned in 2017 in anticipation of its new facility.
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