Instead of hundreds of community members gathering together at a starting line for Friendship Circle of Cleveland’s 11th annual My Walk 4 Friends, more than 500 people created their own 2-mile route to separately participate in the organization’s annual fundraiser Oct. 25.

The walk, normally held over Labor Day Weekend, was altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but despite numerous changes, the fundraiser raised more money on its walk day than in its history due to a first-ever dollar-for-dollar grant matched by Pam and Craig Kahn and the community’s dedication to the Friendship Circle, said Rabbi Yossi Marozov, executive co-director of Friendship Circle in Pepper Pike.

“The walkathon was over-the-top beautiful, uplifting and very hopeful for the future,” he told the CJN.

As of Oct. 28, the walk raised $409,808 of its $500,000 goal, and the Friendship Circle continues to raise funds. The funds go toward the current and future operations of Friendship Circle’s programs that assist children with special needs, including the daily virtual offerings the organization performs throughout the pandemic.

This year’s goal, Marozov said, was to be more modest compared to years prior due to the pandemic.

“I was concerned going into this campaign that because of all the uncertainty, people would be more apprehensive to support it,” Marozov said. “Boy, was I wrong, and I’m happy about that. People have been amazingly supportive during this period. It just warms my heart and blows me away.”

Five individuals found a special way to show their devotion to the Friendship Circle by combining the walk with their personal history.

Harley Cohen, board chair of the Friendship Circle, created a 13-mile path tracing the eastward migration of Cleveland’s Jewish community starting in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood and ending at the Friendship Circle. The walk took Cohen, Friendship Circle board member Michael Stovsky, and Friendship Circle supporters Larry Kupps, Jordan Kaminsky and Marc Terman to former synagogues and Jewish buildings along the way that followed the movements of their prior generations.

Cohen’s idea for the symbolic path stemmed from Friendship Circle recently completing its strategic plan after a year-and-a-half that addresses the organization’s mission, vision and future plans.

“It occurred to me that the best way to ever do a future for anything is to first look at where you came from because I think that’s critical,” said Cohen, a resident of Orange and member of Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike. “Looking in the past, to me, is the best way of determining where you want to go. If we’re going to look in the past, let’s go back to the neighborhoods and see what it was like where we came from.”

The nicknamed “Circle Team” had been filmed previously visiting three synagogues to be shown in the walk’s opening ceremony on Facebook Live. When 9:30 a.m. came on the official walking day, the five had their walking shoes and coats on, ready for what Cohen estimated to take three-and-a-half hours to complete.

Curious onlookers waved as they drove by or stopped and talked to the men, interested in their quest. Early on, the Circle Team befriended a pastor housed at one of the former synagogues, and minutes later they stood on the steps of an old Park Synagogue building sold years ago.

“This history is so deep and so rich – it’s just unbelievable,” Cohen said. “So many of these buildings are there. It just was amazing.”

Friendship Circle threw a tailgate party for the families of the children it serves Oct. 25, where people remained in their cars and enjoyed a live band, a juggling show and raffles.

While it was different than in years past, Marozov knew the opportunity for its children to dance and see friendly faces outweighed anything.

“Children with special needs have been hit especially hard with isolation, and there’s great need for social interaction for friendship,” Marozov said. “Hopefully, things will be back to normal soon, and not only will all our programs resume, but we’ll have to compensate and add more creative programs in the months and perhaps years ahead in order to address the regression of social stimulation.”

With the success of the walk and seeing the support from the community, Marozov remains strong in his fight to continue Friendship Circle’s mission.

“This year more than ever, we can all relate to the importance of social activity, connection and feeling part of a whole,” Marozov said. “That’s our job. Every child deserves a friend.”

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