Along with over 300 students from all over the country, local Friendship Circle members were also invited to partake in this year’s National Hillel Basketball Tournament.
The Friendship Circle is a national and global organization, affiliated with Chabad, that provides children with disabilities with activities of inclusion. It has a Maryland chapter that is affiliated with this university and participates in programming with students through the local Chabad once a month at different venues. While more typical events feature activities and trips for their members, this is the first year that The Friendship Circle has participated in the NHBT.
“This is different. They don’t often get to come to a gym and play ball with real players,” said Paula Marcus, assistant director of The Friendship Circle. “It’s amazing.”
Rabbi Eli Backman, who organized this event, as well as the monthly activities between students and Friendship Circle members, also attended. He commented on the important impact that this year’s NHBT has on members of The Friendship Circle.
“The kids are excited to get out on the court, have a good time … not just feel like they’re on the other end watching, but to really get out there,” Backman said.
When The Friendship Circle arrived, they began by warming up. Then, they had an informal shoot around and bonded with official NHBT players before playing an actual game together. They finished with lunch.
The NHBT players who participated in the event were University of Maryland students from both mens’ and women’s teams. Those who were able to volunteer were on a break from their full day of scheduled games. While many students are regularly active in The Friendship Circle program through Chabad, most of the volunteers were new to the organization.
“I had so much fun,” said Zach Wohlberg, a junior finance major, who was introduced to the organization just today. “I’m going to get more involved moving forward.”
The Friendship Circle members who attended the event were of the “Yad” branch of Maryland’s Friendship Circle chapter. The “Yad” branch is for young adults, who are around the same age as the college students who are participating in the larger NHBT tournament. Members who attended were ones whose parents were able to bring them in the middle of a Friday.
“Sunday would work because it is easier on the parents, but Sunday is a busier day on the tournament, so we’re trying to balance the two,” said Backman.
Five members out of the approximate 20 person program were able to make it to the event.
Playing in NHBT proved to have a tremendous impact on special needs participants. When asked how playing in NHBT made him feel, one member, Joshua, said, “Really glad. It’s good to play basketball on [a] team … so great.”
The special needs members really enjoy the basketball. “It’s amazing that some of them have really good shots; one of them told me ‘the fans call me Bryant,’” said Backman.
While this was the first year that Friendship Circle was featured at the tournament, its success makes it a likely repeat for next year. Joshua also expressed interest in participating in future similar events.
“I think it’s amazing that Hillel reached out and invited them,” Marcus said. “And I think they’re gonna want to do it again next year.”