The Chabad Rabbi Who Created A Magical Town For Special Needs Kids
Imagine a town that’s all welcoming, all engaging, and all fun while being an inclusive educational environment for special needs children. This was just a dream for Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, founder and CEO of LifeTown, nearly 10 years ago. Rabbi Grossbaum is a Chabad shaliach with his wife, Toba, in Livingston, NJ, where they have always been strong advocates for community activism by “looking to see what was needed within the communities.” In his wife’s home state of Michigan, he was inspired by Friendship Circle which facilitates friendship and sparks healthy relationships between teens and the special needs population through its wide-ranging programs. It was the impact that he witnessed at Friendship Circle that propelled him to write a blueprint for a unique facility that would take similar services but to another level.
LifeTown is, as Rabbi Grossbaum puts simply, “an indoor city” [53,000 square feet] and one that is “an immersive and inclusive environment” whose goal is to provide kids and adults with special abilities the opportunities to practice life skills and job skills in a safe and controlled environment. The moment you step in, “right away you are engaged and welcomed,” literally because of the interactive musical staircase that greets you by the entrance. While journeying through the hallway, you’re immediately transported to another world. It’s a sensational experience that leads you into different rooms or universes like an art studio, gymnasium, sensory room, bowling alley, Jersey Shore kitchen, aquatic activities/pool and more. Even the architecture and design of the entire building embraces and celebrates the idea of differences.
The town’s shops are replicas of real-life stores meant to encourage meaningful exploration. All of the shops are staffed by various community personalities like retirees, college students, and even real law enforcement. They bring many kinds of people together within the everyday operations in an effort to create a feeling of familiarity with people on both sides of the cash register in the LifeTown market. When those with special needs or those who have worked at LifeTown go back to the bank or shop at local stores outside of its walls. it will be a more comfortable and rewarding experience for all involved. “That’s really the power of what’s going on at LifeTown,” Rabbi Grossbaum explains, it’s a complete community effort that has been built and is maintained by so many different companies, organizations, schools, and community members. The impact it’s had on the families, teens and everyone involved is tremendous since it’s been a project everyone “has really rallied around and become a part of everything that we do.”
LifeTown teaches and employs people with special needs for all sorts of jobs. One of the new initiatives is partnering up with Susie Fishbein, acclaimed author of the cookbook series Kosher By Design, in creating a ready challah mix, which these adults will package and sell commercially. It’s an all-inclusive production that will be equipping the participants with the appropriate skills to succeed. They also have a room that’s dedicated to making Shabbat kits that are then distributed to hospitals and nursing homes in the neighborhood. Everyone is touched by LifeTown’s active growth and work in what that they do both inside and outside of LifeTown. The Torah has always abided by this idea and this project maximizes it to the fullest by giving these individuals the tools to thrive. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was known to be a great advocate for special needs and so it is truly, as Rabbi Grossbaum remarks, “fulfilling the Rebbe’s dream of that level of inclusion, that level of opportunities” and hopefully “becomes an incubator for what will happen in the real world.”
Once, a mother was overheard by a staff member in the hall while walking with her special child saying aloud, “You know this place makes you proud to have a child with special needs.” It’s a huge kiddush Hashem for LifeTown to have finally been launched this past September; “all these energies coming together made this possible,” recognizes Rabbi Grossbaum. Even the NFL and NBA were involved by sponsoring a field and other sports-related material. They have been blessed to have incredible partners and visionaries who saw this dream through with real dedication. Part of LifeTown’s success is that “when you come with a focus of love your fellow as you love yourself, then the rest is [just] details – that makes anything possible.” Alongside this, Rabbi Grossbaum feels that the secret of a great Chabad leader is an even greater partner. It’s his wife who has been that greater partner in the success of this special project.
To learn more about opportunities for getting involved on any level, please visit LifeTown.com.
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